Veteran reconnects with Vietnamese priest he thought was dead

Bishop Paul Nguyn Thanh Hoan blesses the faithful at Our Lady of Tapao Shrine July 13 2009 Credit Community of Charity and Social Services CNA Catholic News 12 11 12 Bishop Paul Nguyên Thanh Hoan blesses the faithful at Our Lady of Tapao Shrine on July 13, 2009. | Community of Charity and Social Services.

In 1968 Joe Mahoney was serving with the Marines in South Vietnam, where he met Father Paul Nguyen Thanh Hoan, whom he always thought was killed when the North overran the region in 1975.

Many priests were imprisoned and killed when the South was overtaken, and so Mahoney was "quite confident he was dead" and never looked up Fr. Paul.

But earlier this year, he finally discovered that God had preserved Fr. Nguyen, made him Bishop Nguyen, and helped him found a religious community.

"He's an amazing guy spiritually, very prayerful. I think he just has so much trust in God that nothing surprises him at all," Mahoney said of Bishop Paul Hoan in a Dec. 11 interview with CNA.

Fr. Nguyen was ordained a priest in 1965, and when he met Mahoney in 1968 they were both serving in Dong Ha, which was 10 miles from the border between North and South Vietnam.

The pastor of the parish was soon killed by the communists, and so Fr. Nguyen became the pastor. His new role meant that he had to travel to surrounding villages to bring the sacraments.

"Fr. Paul really had the peace of the Lord," said Mahoney. "He just did his job, and didn't seem phased by it when they shelled the church … he just did his job, period."

"He would just say, 'Well then you fix it, keep using it. We need a church, we have Mass there, we're going to continue to have Mass there, let's fix it up and keep going.'"

Mahoney was a civil affairs officer in Dong Ha, coordinating between the Marines and the local community. One day the priest asked Mahoney to build an orphanage, because so many children had lost both their parents in the fighting.

Mahoney acquired some unused buildings from the military base and that year Fr. Nguyen opened White Dove Orphanage.

"He always worked a lot with the poor, in addition to the regular priestly duties he had," remembered Mahoney.

In 1972 Fr. Nguyen moved with thousands of families and orphans to the vicinity of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) as the communists invaded.

In 1994 while visiting northern Vietnam, he encountered numerous men and women who wanted to pursue religious life but had no venue for it. So Fr. Nguyen brought them back to the south, founding the Community of Charity and Social Services.

The community now has 180 sisters, 50 brothers, and in January will gain three transitional deacons, who will be ordained priests in the summer.

"Bishop Paul has a passion for the poor. You can see that every time we talk about helping the poor, his eyes twinkle," Sister Cecilia Nguyen told CNA Dec. 11.

She said the community takes the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but "our first vow is to serve the poor in charity … Bishop Paul's vision has the poor at its heart."

In 2001, Fr. Nguyen was ordained coadjutor bishop of Phan Thiet, which is 120 miles east of Ho Chi Minh City. He took over as head of the diocese in 2005 and resigned due to age in 2009. He now lives with his community and directs it.

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Most of the community is in the Phan Thiet diocese, but it also has houses in Paris, Ho Chi Minh City, and in Biloxi, Miss. They operate medical centers, raise hogs, and purify water for the poorest of Vietnam.

Earlier this year, Mahoney traveled to Vietnam to visit Bishop Nguyen and the Community of Charity and Social Services, and the experience was "at once exhilarating and tremendously humbling."

In all these years, Bishop Nguyen has been spared prison or martyrdom. "It's amazing, how he survived the communists," Mahoney said.

The bishop's thought is simple, related Mahoney: "God didn't want me in prison."

"The communists are a delay," says the bishop, "but it doesn't change the outcome … God's love is just an unstoppable force."

Mahoney said that relations with the government even improve at times.

One official who had blocked Bishop Nguyen's efforts to start a particular medical center later called him and asked him to come to a mining village to say Mass.

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"He said, 'This is a mining area out here and there have been a lot of deaths, but none among the Catholics. So come say a Mass and the Catholics can participate and everyone else can watch.'"

"So now," Mahoney related, "the bishop and this communist are kind of getting along."

Mahoney is now assisting the Community of Charity and Social Services and his friend Bishop Nguyen by helping them to raise funds to build housing for the brothers of the order and other needs.

In last year alone, the community treated 142,000 people with medical care, and provided potable water to 56,000 impoverished Vietnamese.

"God was using someone who didn't know he was being used, and who certainly was totally lacking in trust. When you ask an infantry officer to get you a building … I wish I could tell you my reaction was 'God will provide,' but it wasn't.

"But God did provide. If God can use me as an infantry officer with nothing in 1968, he can probably use me now," Mahoney concluded.

Those interested in helping the community can contact Our Lady of Tapao Convent in Biloxi via

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