Nurtured by church, Vietnamese Catholic immigrants in Philadelphia await pope with fervor

Ly Nguyen and his family knew little about Philadelphia when they moved here from Vietnam more than 20 years ago, but they knew where to turn for help — the Roman Catholic Church.

Their parish priest helped teach Nguyen's six children English. He provided food, clothing, even cash. When the plumbing in their home went bad, the priest found a repairman. When the summer heat became too much, he bought them an air conditioner.

"He opened his arms to welcome our family," said Nguyen, 72, who was born Catholic, through a translator. "Life here has been good. We have work to do, we have friends and we go to church."

When Pope Francis visits Philadelphia in September, after stops in Washington and New York, the crowd that gathers to hear the papal Mass will look different from the one that greeted Pope John Paul II in 1979. The Catholic population has been buoyed by new immigrants, including from Mexico, the Philippines and Vietnam.

From a single Vietnamese community in a single parish when John Paul visited, the archdiocese is now home to a Vietnamese Catholic community numbering 10,000 scattered across eight parishes, with eight scheduled Masses in Vietnamese.

They intend to welcome the pope with the same warmth they received from his church when they came here first as refugees following the fall of Saigon 40 years ago this month, and later for family reunification.

The excitement is palpable. They're raising funds to help those still in Southeast Asia get to Philadelphia. They're offering up their homes to house both friends and strangers. They're planning to repair and clean a convent — once home to 30 nuns, now home to three — so nuns from Vietnam can stay there.

They're also preparing to buy lunch for the thousands expected to attend one of their own Masses.

"We have to buy hoagies for 3,000!" said Monsignor Joseph Trinh, a Vietnamese-born pastor at St. Helena Church and a community leader.

Those comfortable speaking English are also preparing for endless hours of translations and assistance. And yet they could not be happier.

"The church in Philadelphia has been very good to us," Trinh said. "There's something unique about Vietnamese Catholics. The church is the center of their lives. ... They would pay more to buy a house near a church. They send their children to Catholic schools. They are willing to sacrifice for their children and their church."

When the Vietnamese came to Philadelphia, that they would live near churches was inevitable in a city thick with holy places. That the clergy there of all nationalities would provide financial and spiritual support was a welcome bonus.

Some new arrivals were among those who already followed the faith. Roman Catholics today constitute about 7 percent of Vietnam's population, with their numbers growing, though the Vatican does not have diplomatic relations with the communist country.

Others joined the faith later.

Nghia Hang, 63, arrived as a Buddhist but was drawn to Catholicism after a priest joined him in praying for his ailing teenage daughter — and she recovered. He was baptized and is now a church leader.

Then there are the converts who have found a community within the church.

On April 4, Trinh baptized Thuong Dinh, her husband and her two daughters. For years, her husband had encouraged her to convert. Speaking through a translator, Dinh said she agreed to be baptized because she wanted the whole family to be together on something so big.

"We have been received ... with open arms from not only the people, the priests and the bishops," Trinh said. "So it's our turn to pass on the faith to our next generations."

Today, there are about 1.3 million Vietnamese immigrants in the U.S. Most have settled in warmer climates, making Los Angeles, San Jose, Houston and New Orleans popular options. Philadelphia's Vietnamese community of about 30,000 ranks 10th among U.S. cities, said Jeanne Batalova, a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit Migration Policy Institute.

Early immigrants came as refugees seeking humanitarian shelter. Today, 95 percent are here because of family reunification, Batalova said.

Ly Nguyen, the Catholic father of six who came to the U.S. in the 1990s, was an Army major working with the Americans during the Vietnam War. After the war, he was sent to a re-education camp for seven years. When he was released, he became a farmer.

He came to America, he said, as a result of an agreement between the U.S. and Vietnamese governments that opened the door for former Army officers to emigrate.

Nguyen worked in a nail salon when he arrived. His two adult sons are now machinists. Two daughters work in nail salons, and a third at a hospital.

But all of the children live nearby. Five are married. Nguyen and his wife, Nu Le, have nine grandchildren. The family gathers most Sundays at church. They celebrated Easter together, sharing a feast that included roast pork and vermicelli, chicken curry, and a dish made with goat.

For special occasions, "there is more food, more happy," Nguyen laughed. "They all stay late."


Associated Press writer Kathy Matheson contributed to this report.