Priest's Move Puzzles Se Asian Congregation

By Shelby Oppel and Angie Chuang
The Oregonian
July 7, 2001

Summary: The Catholic order says the reassignment of the Rev. Vincent Minh is not unusual

A priest who helped thousands of Southeast Asian refugees make Portland home and the pastor of the largest Vietnamese Catholic congregation in Oregon has been withdrawn from the state by his superiors.

The Rev. Vincent Minh, 62, a leader and counselor to Portland's southeast Asian community for 26 years, was called out of Oregon about six weeks ago. Minh was serving as pastor of Our Lady of Lavang Catholic Church in Northeast Portland and as the Episcopal vicar for the Southeast Asian Vicariate, which serves Vietnamese Catholics throughout Western Oregon.

Minh was the last member of the religious order serving in Oregon, which officials with the order cited as the main reason for his removal. But in his own parish, Minh's departure has caused confusion.

Minh had considered leaving Portland because he had stayed longer than his order typically allows, said Phan Nguyen, vice president of the vicariate. Though Minh was much beloved by "99.9 percent" of the parish, Nguyen said, a few dissenters clashed with the pastor and caused tension. The atmosphere prompted Minh to leave unannounced several months ago, Nguyen said, and parish members did not learn the reasons for his departure until recently.

"I think it was very difficult for him. If he had left under different circumstances, I think it would have been better for him," Nguyen said.

Minh could not be reached for comment Friday.

A spokesman for the order, the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, also known as the Redemptorists, said Minh was withdrawn from Oregon in part because he was the last Redemptorist serving in the state. The nature of the all-male Catholic order calls for members to live in community with one another, said Rev. Richard Thibodeau, provincial superior for the order's Denver-based western province.

"We wanted him back with the community, and we have some other projects we want him to be involved in," Thibodeau said.

Minh, who led the Southeast Asian Vicariate since 1981, served an uncommonly long term in Oregon, Thibodeau said. Redemptorists usually serve three-year terms and are frequently moved to new parishes. Last year, the order removed two Redemptorist priests from Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Portland and reassigned them, citing a decline in the number of priests in their ranks.

Minh on sabbatical

Minh currently is on sabbatical, and no decision has been made about his next assignment, Thibodeau said.

The Redemptorists, founded in 1732 by Saint Alphonsus Liguori, is comprised of 6,000 men, including 200 in the Western United States. The order assigns priests to parishes around the world.

At the invitation of the Catholic Archdiocese of Portland, Minh was assigned to the Southeast Asian Vicariate in 1981, Thibodeau said.

In 1999, Archbishop John G. Vlazny appointed Minh as pastor at Our Lady of Lavang, a congregation of about 2,500 Vietnamese Catholics, said Bud Bunce, a spokesman for the archdiocese. He was an archdiocesan employee and received his salary from Our Lady of Lavang parish, Bunce said.

Effective last Monday, Vlazny appointed the Rev. James Pham Van Ninh, associate pastor to Minh since 1981, as parish administrator at Our Lady of Lavang. A new vicar of the vicariate has not been named, Bunce said.

Nguyen said the 5,000-plus members of the vicariate, which includes the parish, have begun the difficult task of rebuilding their community under new leadership.

"People miss (Minh) dearly," Nguyen said. "It will be very difficult to go on without him now, but what can we do? I think in some ways, people are even more tight-knit than before. They know they have to work together and try to organize without him."

For thousands of Southeast Asian refugees in Portland, Minh was the first and last face they saw in the United States.

Minh often met incoming refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos at the airport, then helped them with everything from finding housing to obtaining winter clothing for Portland's unfamiliar climate, Nguyen said.

He also ministered to some in their last moments of life and performed countless funerals -- as well as baptisms, confirmations and weddings.

Minh was sent from Vietnam to the United States in 1972 to receive a master's degree in education at the University of Portland.

In part by chance and in part by design, Minh became the first pastor for Portland's first Southeast Asian refugees. Nguyen recalls when the parish was about 100 people and they met in the old Halsey Square Apartments, now Rose City Village Apartments.

Minh obtained a former private school building in 1981 and made it the home of the Southeast Asian Vicariate where it still stands today. Today's burgeoning parish of thousands, the wide array of children's programs, including a 900-student Vietnamese school, is testament to Minh's work, Nguyen said.

Most recently, Minh led the effort to build a new church, Our Lady of Lavang, within the vicariate.

Parishioner An Than Vu, who has been attending the church for 10 years, said he thinks of Our Lady of Lavang as Minh's lasting gesture of goodwill.

"I myself love him. He is very organized and very welcoming," Vu said. "Thanks to him, this very beautiful church has been built."


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