Vietnamese Community recalls first and last visits

Friday, Feb. 03, 2006
Vietnamese Community recalls first and last visits + Enlarge
Bishop Niederauer confirms one of 13 young Vietnamese Jan. 28, 2006. IC photo by Barbara S. Lee

KEARNS – On Jan. 28, 1995, Bishop George Niederauer made his first pastoral visit to a parish three days after his ordination as eighth bishop of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. He pulled up in front of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Vietnamese Church to help the growing population there celebrate the Vietnamese New Year. It was the year of the rat, and the new bishop had brought the pastor, Father Dominic Thuy Dang Ha a gift – a wooden box that, when the top was slid open, a rubber rat jumped out.

Eleven years later to the day, Jan. 28, 2006, the bishop, and the rat came back. Archbishop-designate George Niederauer arrived at a much larger Our Lady of Perpetual Help Vietnamese Church ready to confirm 13 young people and help the Vietnamese community ring in the Year of the Dog. After the processional of the Mass, a member of the parish community brought the wooden box with the rubber rat forward and placed it ceremoniously at the foot of the altar. There it stayed throughout the Mass.

"Bishop Niederauer has been welcomed here 14 times," Fr. Thuy said at the beginning of the confirmation Mass. "He came 13 times for confirmation and New Year celebrations, and a 14th time to dedicate our new church."

Fr. Thuy called Bishop Niederauer "a man who nurtured my spiritual life, who gives priests books for Christmas that help us to become better people; better priests."

Christmas 2005, brought diocesan priests the gift of Father Michael Hehir’s "Joy of the Priesthood," and Christmas 2004 brought them Father Stephen Rosetti’s "The Lost Art of Walking on Water."

In an interview with the Intermountain Catholic, Fr. Thuy said he liked Bishop Niederauer immediately when he arrived 11 years ago.

"He is a very easy man to meet and to share things with," said Fr. Thuy. "When we went to his office to present the new church idea, he was a source of great support for us. Even when we had differences with the liturgical commission (over the placement of the tabernacle in the new church) he made those things easy. He understands our culture and the needs of the people."

Fr. Thuy said he doesn’t know who will be named to take Bishop Niederauer’s place in the Diocese of Salt Lake City, "but I hope it will be another bishop who brings harmony and unity to the diocese, who will treat us like family, and who will gather together priests and people of different ethnic groups; a man who will be a signal of the need for unity."

For Fr. Thuy, who escaped Vietnam as a seminarian in the late 1970s, it’s important that members of all ethnic groups feel comfortable together, respect one another’s diversity and goodness.

"We are all one church," he said. "We are learning to work in collaboration with the laity, and Bishop Niederauer has been able to relate to that. In our own parishes, we have our joys, but there are also things that are scary. Bishop Niederauer understands that, too. He has always encouraged us to be welcoming to everyone who comes to Mass here."

Fr. Thuy proudly shares a letter written to him by a women from Palantine, Ill., whose daughter, who is not Vietnamese, came to Utah on a ski vacation. Looking for a Catholic Church on a Sunday, the young skier came into Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, and received a warm Vietnamese welcome. Her mother wrote to thank the parish for making her daughter feel at home.

Parish hospitality also led to Fr. Thuy being an honored guest at 2005 reunion in Salt Lake City of the crew of U.S. Naval vessel the U.S.S. Menard, a ship that, in 1954, took part in Passage to Freedom, a combined French/American effort to transport Vietnamese, Hmong, and Laotian people from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. Fr. Thuy, just 8 years old, at the time, recalled traveling with his family on a ship like the Menard as they fled communism. He shared his memories at the reunion, as well as a black-and-white video of the relocation project. In return, the Menard’s crew and their wives gave Fr. Thuy a ship’s bell mounted on a wooden plaque and a crew’s cap.

Fr. Thuy had been invited to the reunion by a member of the Menard’s crew during the relocation, Keith Dickinson, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who attended the open house for the newly built Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church.

"The bishop has told all of the priests that he wanted us to be more welcoming in our parishes," Fr. Thuy said. Naturally quite shy, Fr. Thuy said meeting new people isn’t always easy.

"I have learned a lot from Bishop Niederauer," he said. "He has such a sunny disposition, he makes everyone around him feel comfortable."

Fr. Thuy said members of his congregation have always been thrilled when Bishop Niederauer visited.

"His friendship and his spiritual support have been a great blessing for me," he said. "We greet the news that he is leaving with mixed emotions, we are happy that he is receiving this great honor – being made archbishop of San Francisco – but we will miss him. We will pray for him and ask him to pray for us."

Speaking to the 13 young people being confirmed, Bishop Niederauer told them the Sacrament of Confirmation is a special gift of the Holy Spirit that people can’ see, but will strengthen the virtues of faith, hope, and love, that played such important roles in the lives of their parents and grandparents as they fled war and communism and went into exile far from home to rebuild their lives and make homes for their families.

With Fr. Thuy translating his homily into Vietnamese, Bishop Niederauer encouraged the youth to "turn to God and each other to keep the gifts of the Holy Spirit strong in you."

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