2016 VOCATIONS WEEK: From a refugee boat to Bayswater: Fr Minh Thuy reflects on 25 years of service
Bayswater parish priest Fr Minh-Thuy Nguyen, who recently celebrated 25 years since his ordination, says the suffering he went through as Vietnamese refugee enables him to relate easily to others. Photo: Rachel Curry
By Rachel Curry
On the 25th anniversary of his ordination, Father Minh-Thuy Nguyen has finally found the answer to being a successful priest – don’t try to do everything.
The popular pastor, who came to Australia as a refugee in 1981, said he had learned over the years not to put too much pressure on himself.
“Celebrating my 25th anniversary has confirmed for me to continue to serve God and His people wherever I go and to do the best I can,” he said.
“But I’m aware of my human limitations. I can do the best I can and if there’s something I can’t do, that’s OK. I’m still a human being.”
Fr Minh-Thuy celebrated the occasion with 30 of his fellow clergymen and women religious on 6 July, a quarter of a century after his ordination at St Mary’s Cathedral.
It was a quiet precursor to the parish celebration that was held the following weekend, when 400 people packed into St Columba’s Church in Bayswater to attend a Thanksgiving Mass led by Perth Auxiliary Bishop Don Sproxton.
Fr Minh-Thuy said he was grateful to everyone who had supported him over his journey, which began when he was a boy growing up in war-torn Vietnam.
Born in what is now Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in 1958, it was a time when the country was split along the north-south border and the southern republic was subject to a communist insurgency.
“Because I was born during war times, I saw a lot of suffering,” he said.
“Therefore, I really wanted to become a priest to serve and help the people, especially with their spirituality, to bring peace for them.”
Fr Minh-Thuy responded to God’s call by joining the Philipphe Minh Minor Seminary, located in the Vinh-Long Diocese in south-west Saigon, in 1970.
However, the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 and the country’s unification under communism spelled trouble for his family.
His father, who worked for the former government, was imprisoned and Fr Minh-Thuy was drafted to join the army to fight in Laos and Cambodia.
“It was a very hard time for me and for my family,” he recalled.
In 1981, he fled the country with one of his brothers, boarding a fishing boat packed with 79 people, which was eventually picked up by a German ship.
He was taken to a Malaysian refugee camp and granted asylum by Australia. It was a country he knew little about, but was grateful for the freedom it offered.
Fr Minh-Thuy spent his first two years in Perth discerning his vocation and, after deciding to continue his studies at St Francis’ Seminary in Adelaide, he was ordained on 6 July 1991.
“It was a happy day because, luckily, one year before my ordination, I was reunited with my whole family,” he said.
“I think that was a big gift from God for me. I was able to concentrate on my vocation to serve people as a priest.”
Fr Minh-Thuy served in various parishes over the next decade, including Spearwood, Kalgoorlie, Mirrabooka and Southern Cross, the latter for which he was parish priest.
He recalled that the locals used to tease him about the town’s tiny size compared to Saigon, a city of five million people, but it didn’t bother him.
“I really enjoyed every parish I went through. I was lucky to have great mentors,” he said.
“I’m a social person. Therefore, I liked to venture out to the people and hear their story. Through my suffering, I found it was easy to understand and help people in difficult situations.”
In 2001, Archbishop Barry Hickey asked Fr Minh-Thuy to become Chaplain to the Vietnamese Catholic Community. Although it seemed a natural fit, Fr Minh-Thuy was hesitant.
“My first thought was I was scared to go back to work for my own people. I thought to myself, How will I serve them?” he said.
“Then I thought, as a priest, I served in Australian parishes for 10 years and the people love me. It will be good for me to come back to my own roots.’”
Fr Minh-Thuy was Chaplain to the Vietnamese Catholic Community for eight years, serving about 2,500 people, and said he was extremely proud of his achievements.
“I’m very happy because I built a bridge between two cultures, helping them to integrate into a new society,” he said.
“I could especially understand the young people who were born in Australia and the older people who kept their own culture. It was a blessing for me to work with my own people.”
These days, Fr Minh-Thuy is content as the parish priest at Bayswater, but says he is ready to serve wherever he is needed.
As for his home country, he has returned five times since his escape.
“I grew up in my country for 22 years, but I feel more Aussie now,” he said.