Tue and Ro Pham prayed the rosary every night with their children in a village near Saigon in Vietnam.
Praying the rosary as a family was one of the traditions the Pham’s brought to the United States after the Viet Cong invaded their village in 1975. That journey with five children ages one to nine took them through several refugee camps right into the welcoming embrace of St. James Parish in Rockford, Ill. Once here, their shared faith and parishioners’ kindness helped them feel at home beyond the limitations of language.
Ro, five of her children, two of their spouses and four of their children returned over Labor Day weekend to thank St. James Parish and visit with some parishioners who have kept in touch with them for more than 30 years.
Loss prompts visit
Tue’s death three months ago prompted them to “look at our lives again, at our history, and we wanted to come and say ‘thank you,’” says the oldest son, Tuan.
“It is our chance to see our original (American) home again and see people who gave us a second life,” he adds.
With the help of her daughter-in-law Ngoc, Ro expresses her gratitude for all the kindness shown them by St. James parishioners during and beyond their four years in Rockford. Ngoc wipes her eyes as she speaks of how Ro said she felt when she first walked into the family’s home, lovingly refurbished by parishioners.
“It felt like she was home,” Ngoc says, communicating with tears her mother-in-law’s heart on that long-ago day.
“St. James Parish has always been good at welcoming people,” says Father David Beauvais, who headed Catholic Charities in 1976 when the Rockford Diocese was asked to sponsor 108 mostly-Catholic Vietnamese refugees. He and Bishop Arthur J. O’Neill decided to turn to the parishes of the diocese for help.
“Parish involvement was quite critical,” Fr. Beauvais says, remembering that eight parishes stepped up to help. “The parishes did a super job,” he says.
St. James parishioner Mary Parry remembers that “the list went on and on” when the parish asked its members to sign up and say how they could help. Parry recalls one man in particular who planted flowers outside the parish-refurbished house — just so the Pham’s would feel at home.
Phams feel fortunate
“So many were not as fortunate as us,” says Trang Pham-Bui, the oldest daughter who is a television journalist and 2009 Emmy winner for a documentary she made about her travels back to Vietnam. She describes other refugee families they know who experienced harsh conditions in the U.S.
“We came over, and we had people who loved us,” Trang says, “(and) they still care about us after all these years.”
Grinning, she shows off a photo of herself on the St. James girls’ basketball team. St. James School educated them, parishioners provided medical and dental care, clothing and household goods and gave their photographer father a job. Parishioners also invited them for holidays, taught them how to cook an American Thanksgiving dinner, gave them Christmas presents and always remembered their birthdays even after the family moved south after four Illinois winters to help their father’s health, Trang says.
“If not for (St. James), we wouldn’t be where we are today,” she says.
Tu Pham, a circuit court judge, was chosen by his siblings to publicly speak their thanks to the parish. They teased him before Mass about the “bangs all around his head” in the family photos taken back in the 70s.
“Dad was still perfecting his hair cutting skills,” Tu says with a smile, cringing just a little as he points to himself in a picture.
The boys’ girlish hair and clothing on their arrival is “one of our funny stories,” laughs Trang. “It confused the people who came to meet us.”
In his formal thanks to the parish, Tu shared that “what we experienced here always stayed with us,” adding that all his brothers and sisters had attended college and were successful in their careers.
The Pham family includes the five oldest children plus one who was born during their four years in Rockford and one later in Louisiana.
Tu concluded his remarks by saying that he sees the kindness shown to them by St. James parishioners as “an example of the human spirit — the goodness in people, the American spirit — embodying all that is good about America, and the Holy Spirit — carrying out the message of God.”
As St. James continues their tradition of welcome by assisting families who recently fled the country of Myanmar (formerly Burma), the Pham family shines out as an example of the good that can come from that spirit-filled, parish-based kindness.
Printed with permission from the Observer, newspaper for the Diocese of Rockford, Ill.