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Priest who fled Vietnam now sponsoring refugees

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Don’t take freedom for granted, says priest who fled Vietnam
By Agnieszka Krawczynski

Photo Caption: Fr. Matthew To, pastor of St. Patrick's in Maple Ridge, fled Vietnam as a child. He now has a passion to serve others and his parish currently sponsors a refugee family. (The B.C. Catholic / Agnieszka Krawczynski)

He was only six years old when he fled Vietnam, but Father Matthew To had already felt the effects of repression of freedom and Communist rule.

When he learned that his family and fellow refugees suffered imprisonment, labour camps, and danger at sea on their perilous journey to safety, he was inspired to do something to help. Father To, now the pastor of St. Patrick’s in Maple Ridge, recently sat down with The B.C. Catholic to share how his past inspired his priestly vocation and ministry to refugees in the Middle East.

BCC: You were six years old when you left Vietnam. What memories do you have of your life there?

FMT: What I (learned) was the suffering people go through when governments strive to get rid of all sense of God and all sense of dignity of the human person. It is impressed upon me.

My dad was never imprisoned but he was always in hiding. They were trying to find him. We were living a life of fear. My mom was pregnant, working and cleaning. We were always hungry because the system was a mess. Dad was hiding, mom was suffering, everyone was hungry. Trying to escape from Vietnam, many hundreds of thousands perished.

Mom and dad were really concerned that we stay home. Dad couldn’t leave the house. If he left the house, someone would see him and report him. He had been in the navy for the Republic of Vietnam. Afterwards, everybody was re-educated, but he escaped from that. He was also involved in a lot of political activities they didn’t like. Those things happened, and it still is happening in Vietnam right now. It’s not a free place to be.

BCC: How did the flight from Vietnam effect you, as a child?

FMT: I remember those days more than any other days. We escaped and mom didn’t come along. There were two sisters who were born in Vietnam and couldn’t escape because they were young. It was eight years before we would be reunited.

By that time, we were really two families. We had to figure out how to be one family again. The youngest boy asked my dad: “What do I call these girls?” My dad said: “Your sisters!”

BCC: When did you first think about becoming a priest?

FMT: My uncle was a seminarian and he studied in Vietnam. His education was interrupted and we escaped from Vietnam in 1980 with him, my dad, and two of my brothers.

He went to the seminary (in Vancouver) for several years, in theology. He didn’t finish, but when he was there, he would bring seminarians to our family home and they would have a feast. There would be chickens, ducks, and pigs. We lived on a farm and some of the seminarians from Vietnam knew how to butcher pigs.

Eventually, he would leave (the seminary), but seminarians would continue to come visit my mom and dad. They missed rice and the traditional Vietnamese food. My mom was very good in cooking and they were happy to be there: Bishop Fung, Father Tien Tran, priests now all over Canada. They would meet at my parents place for a meal, some music, and some stories. As a young child that impressed something upon my mind to the priesthood.

BCC: What kinds of stories did you hear?

FMT: They were talking about their vocation stories and the difficulties to become priests there. A lot of suffering. Imprisonment. Trying to escape, trying to be faithful, trying to continue, and the struggle coming here and knowing nothing, having nothing, and wanting to pursue the call one was given.

BCC: What kind of impression did they make on you?

FMT: I could see that they were willing to give all away for the Lord. That impressed something upon me. Why would they do such a thing?

I’m a person who wants to help out. Whenever there is a need, I want to help. Maybe I wanted to join because there was a need within the church for vocations, for a service to others. There was (also) nothing foreign; my uncle was in the seminary and these now-priests and bishops came and made it seem to be something natural. It was not odd to think about becoming a priest and serving the Lord.

BCC: You studied at the Seminary of Christ the King in Mission for seven years and were ordained in 2000. How does your past influence your priestly ministry?
FMT: It does influence me incredibly. First of all, I want to encourage people to love their faith, love the Lord, love Jesus, and recognize how precious the gift of faith is and the freedom to worship. You don’t have it everywhere. It’s an incredible gift.

Whoever I meet, I want to encourage them to love the Lord and value the gift and the worship of the Lord and the Eucharist. They are able to come and worship and have a school. None of that can happen in Vietnam. You can worship, yes, but controlled by the government. You can’t have schools because they took over the schools and they still have it.

Life is precious. I know aunts and grandmas who were blown up and killed, and people who went to prison and never returned. Of course, escaping from Vietnam by boat, many died and perished: I had relatives and cousins who would never see freedom.

In the parish of St. Patrick’s, we have committed to four refugee families, to take care of them. One family we’ve been taking care of for a year already. They are Christians and I want to support them. They suffered much, and as a Christian community, they are our first priority and we need to take care of them and support them.

How much it costs doesn’t really matter. There’s an obligation to do so. God has blessed us in every way and we should not forget that.


Last Updated on Friday, 07 July 2017 13:38  

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