For Catholic Church, Vietnamese Are the New Irish



New America Media, News Report, Andrew Lam, Posted: Dec 06, 2006

EDITOR’S NOTE: A tiny Catholic seminary in Iowa is filled with young Vietnamese taking the path toward priesthood — a trend in the U.S. as a whole, where 12 percent of all Catholic seminary students are Asian, and most of those Vietnamese. Andrew Lam is an editor at New America and author of “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora” (Heyday Books, 2005), which recently won a PEN/Beyond Margins award.

DUBUQUE, Iowa–If you visit the Divine Word College, a tiny Catholic missionary school outside of Dubuque, Iowa, the conversations you will hear in its hallways will most likely not be carried out in English. Usually, they are in Vietnamese. So is the music played late at night in the school’s cafeteria, when students are hungry for a bite.

Vietnamese dominate this seminary. Forty-three out of its 67 students, about 2 out of 3, are Vietnamese.

Vietnamese Priest“They are replacing the traditional Irish and Italian immigrants, who once provided a steady supply of priests in the States,” says Len Uhal, National Vocation director, and vice president for recruitment. In his office, a map of the United States is covered with colorful thumbtacks representing potential students approached for recruitment. Many of those tacks mark Vietnamese communities. “We look to Asians, particularly Vietnamese immigrants to fill the quotas.”

In the last four decades, the number of priests in the United States has dropped 27 percent, to around 43,000, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. And though Asian Americans comprise of just over 1 percent of the Catholic Church in the United States, they account for 12 percent of all Catholic seminary students nationwide. And the majority of those tend to be Vietnamese.

In Orange County, home to the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam, almost 15 percent of the Catholic priests are Vietnamese, a number that is rising. Last year, out of seven priests ordained in the county, three were Vietnamese. And four years ago, Vietnamese overseas celebrated when the Most Rev. Dominic Luong in Orange County became the first Vietnamese Bishop in the United States.

Father Binh Nguyen, 39, who attended Divine Word College, is now one of its four recruiters, perhaps its best. He travels regularly to various Vietnamese communities, talking to potential students. “I rarely fly, because you don’t know how long it will take to recruit,” he says. “And I rarely stay at hotels. I take my time. I stay at the potential recruit’s home, talking to the family, to everybody, making sure they know what the student can expect at Divine Word.” Father Binh says he invites them to Dubuque for a visit. When they are hesitant, he’s not beyond cajoling and coaxing.

Lam Tran, 25, a junior, was one of his recruits. How he ended up in Dubuque now seems to Lam to be preordained. A third-generation Catholic, when he was younger and living in Vietnam, Lam dreamed of becoming a priest. But “that was nearly impossible in communist Vietnam,” he says. “The church remains under heavy regulation and surveillance.”But “that was nearly impossible in communist Vietnam,” Tran says. “The church remains under heavy regulation and surveillance.” His family came to the United States five years ago, when his father was granted political refugee status. At first, Lam didn’t pursue his dream of becoming a priest. But soon his uncle told someone who knew Father Binh and Lam found himself visiting Divine Word. That he was living in bustling New York City at the time didn’t sway his decision. Nor did his parents’disappointment when their only son decided to become a priest.

“I feel like it was fate,” Tran says. “I like the quiet and the busy school schedule. There’s no distraction here. Besides, I have many more years before I take the final vow.” Seminary school sstudents will have 12 years before taking their vow.

Tran also likes the 1-to-4 teacher-to-student ratio, almost unheard of in any other college. The school opens its doors to a wide variety of students. There are plenty of grants and scholarships are available, even to those who didn’t fare well in high school.

One is Khoa Mai, 31, who spent much of his formative years in the refugee camp in the Philippines. Mai says he suffered much during his escape in a crowded boat in the late 1980s. At lunch, he spontaneously tells in Vietnamese the story of his ordeal. “I starved on that boat. I was muscular in Vietnam but by the time we landed, I was near dead, just skin and bones.” Sixteen people died on his boat, he says. They ran out of food and water after two weeks. If the Belgian ship that rescued them hadn’t come when it did, “the next day we would have started eating the dead.”

Mai, who spent some years working in a nail salon and then on an assembly line for a high-tech company, will take at least three years of ESL classes before enrolling in serious college-level courses. He worries that he won’t be able to master English. Failing English would mean he won’t graduate, which means the end of the dream of priesthood. Still, Mai says, “I was lucky. I met Father Binh while I went camping. He offered a real education with some scholarship. I have a chance now.” Students ar routinely kicked out each year due to failing grades.

Those who graduate and decide not to follow the path to priesthood will have to pay back a certain amount of their loans, but nowhere as high as that of a regular university. That’s an attraction for the education-loving Vietnamese who came to America past school age. “If you miss out on your education,” says one student who preferred to remain anonymous, “going to seminary school is your second chance to become somebody.” To Vietnamese Catholic families, he says, having a son who is a priest “is a kind of honor that elevates the family’s standing in the community, especially for poor families.”

“We consider ourselves lucky,” Uhal says. “Divine Word had seminary priests volunteering in refugee camps in the United States in 1975 when Vietnamese refugees first came. We built a bridge with them over the years, and our relationship with the community continues to this day.”

Though only10 percent of Vietnamese in Vietnam are Christians, in America the figure is 30 percent, and much of that population are Roman Catholics. That’s not surprising. Vietnamese Catholics were prosecuted by the communists and many fled from North Vietnam to the South in 1954 when the country split in half, with Ho Chi Minh running the North. When South Vietnam fell in 1975, those who were most ready to flee were Vietnamese who experienced communism first hand in the North.

Richard Vu, 24, says he came to Divine Word because he felt it was his calling. His father, he says, was quite surprised. “I was living in Atlanta. I had a girlfriend.” It hasn’t been easy to leave his old life behind. “I cried for many weeks when I first came here. I never felt so lonely. But I knew what I wanted and I told my girlfriend not to wait.” His face has a sad, forlorn look. “We’re now good friends.”

Uhal and Father Binh acknowledge that far fewer U.S. -born Vietnamese would consider going to seminary school. “We rely more and more on immigrants,” says Uhal. “For example, the second largest group here are 10 Sudanese students, followed by Indonesians.”

It is no wonder that on immigration debate, the church knows where it stands. Without these “new Irish,” their supply would further dwindle.