By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published September 15, 2005
At St. Peter Chanel Church on Sept. 7, Father Michael Joseph Vinh Nguyen of Resurrection of Our Lord Church in New Orleans spoke to the congregation of his determination to repair his damaged parish, which had just undergone a major restoration last year, and to strengthen hope for his scattered flock in Christ.
The Vietnamese priest, whose brother is a priest of the Atlanta Archdiocese, believes deeply in the resurrection of Jesus and said he will lead his congregation out from under the debris and despair of Hurricane Katrina and help them rebuild.
“It’s a time that as a Christian our faith is being tested, and we need to live our discipleship, to follow Jesus,” he said. “Even though this is tragic and very unfortunate, even in these circumstances, I believe God still loves us, and His providence continues to be present among us … The resurrection is about our faith and our hope in the resurrection of Christ because He’s the savior of the human family.”
Father Michael Joseph, who also spoke at Masses at the Roswell parish on Sept. 11, told the pastor, Father Frank McNamee, that his main purpose in seeking help is “to have a church for my people. Our people will need this church to get through this.”
After hearing about their plight, Father McNamee and St. Peter Chanel have decided to twin with the Church of the Resurrection and its parochial school as they rebuild. Father McNamee acknowledged the effort won’t end in weeks or months, but he feels it’s a meaningful way to support this suffering community.
“We don’t know what we’re getting into; it’s a leap of faith,” Father McNamee admitted. “But these people, their whole lives have been taken from them.”
“This is going to take time. We understand that we’re entering this for the long term,” he said. “But we’re willing to do this, and our parishioners are very excited about it. We’re going to combine both efforts to help with the school and church.”
St. Peter Chanel is also assisting since Hurricane Katrina by visiting and offering transportation to about 40 evacuees staying at the Roswell Nursing Home and collecting food and clothing.
Father Michael Joseph evacuated from New Orleans to Atlanta and is staying with his family here, including his brother, Father Dung Nguyen, who is judicial vicar of the Atlanta Archdiocese.
In an interview at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home in Atlanta, where Father Dung is chaplain, Father Michael Joseph said that he celebrated morning Masses Sunday, Aug. 28, for small crowds of fewer than 25 people at the church on the east side of New Orleans before he evacuated. The multicultural parish has about 1,700 families—white, black and Vietnamese—and its parochial school has 387 students.
“Thursday and Friday they were telling people to evacuate. I have to give credit to the mayor and police chief, they prepared people,” he said.
This is not the first time he’s had to abandon his home. The soft-spoken priest fled communist North Vietnam in 1975 at the age of 17 in a small fishing boat packed with 150 people, and he saw people around him die. Escaping with nothing, his faith sustained him as he crossed the choppy sea, transferred to a commercial boat, and moved from refugee camp to camp for six months before arriving in America. His faith now grounds him again as he waits anxiously to return to his parish and offer the sacraments again to his parishioners.
Wearing a parish T-shirt, Father Michael Joseph expressed sadness over images he’s seen on the Internet of his parish neighborhood totally flooded—with water appearing to cover cars—and when he contemplates all the renovations that parishioners helped to complete on the church and school last year. Among various projects, they repaved the driveway, expanded classroom space, renovated the library and cafeteria, purchased 40 computers, built an outdoor shelter and in the church laid new carpeting and installed new pews, an organ, and Stations of the Cross and made other renovations.
“I have a very good parish and wonderful parishioners. We worked together renovating the school. We did a lot for the school during the last 18 months,” he said. “The whole church was renovated. We were ready for phase two.”
“We put a lot into our dream, but I believe my people and I will continue to trust in God because with our hope and with our faith-filled community we can together (rebuild) for God and the people in the parish,” he said. “We can rebuild and we can hope for a brighter future with God and the help of people everywhere . . . People everywhere have shown their compassion and concern and contributed money. The great thing is you see the goodness of people.”
He doesn’t know the extent of damage to parish buildings. Another New Orleans priest, who is dean of his region, has advised him by phone, “Stay where you are . . . We have to wait until the authorities advise us.”
He had received about 35 e-mails from parishioners as of Sept. 8 and was glad to receive a call from his sacristan, 76-year-old Patricia Farrell, who was safe after harrowing days up in her attic and later on her roof, where a young neighbor rescued her. Another parishioner, Gary Cross, who had stayed behind to guard his property while his wife and family fled, had broken though his roof to escape.
But he is concerned about many other parishioners, especially the elderly and shut-ins who may not have been able to escape and those in despair, as people face such uncertainty and lack of security after losing their houses and jobs.
He’s particularly grateful for the support and prayers of St. Peter Chanel parishioners, through whom he’s seen God’s goodness.
“They manifest their love for God and for God’s people,” he said. “For me that’s important in this situation. We still can say God is important in our lives, and no matter what, his presence never ceases.”
He is available to speak at other parishes as plans to restore the church unfold. For now he’s spending a lot of time reading, including Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s book “The Gift of Peace.”
Father Dung, sitting at his side, is standing close by his brother and his parishioners in this catastrophic transition.
“You want to give them all the basic needs so they know people love and care for them and give them hope, and after that they will be fine,” Father Dung said. “Like my brother said, you can ask the question—why does God allow this to happen—but it’s not the question. The question is how can we find God’s goodness in all this, and how can we feel all the goodness of God with all the people willing to come forward to help. You kind of get the true reality of the church.”