Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Atlanta

Ordination Came After Dire Escape As Refugee

By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published July 22, 2010

It’s been two weeks since Father Thang Pham was ordained and one of the changes he still is getting used to is people addressing him as “Father.”

“I think it is very humbling,” he said. “It’s not something I did on my own. If I didn’t have the support of the people and my family, I may have given up. Priesthood is not something I did on my own.”

Indeed, his ordination really has roots in a refugee camp in Thailand.

Father Pham was among the many people who fled Vietnam in the late 1980s. He spent three days as ocean waves tossed the small boat he was escaping on. Then 19 years old, he spent the days without food and in the boat’s hull praying the rosary. Pirates killed his uncle on an earlier escape attempt, putting everyone on alert.

“I thought I was dead. We are lucky because we didn’t meet pirates. Somehow we landed on the coast of Thailand,” he said. It was May 1, the feast of St. Joseph.

“I have a feeling that he guided me,” he said.

In the refugee camps, where he lived for two years, Father Pham came across priests serving the people in their dire situation. “That impressed me. I didn’t have any idea (about priestly) life,” he said. But the seed was planted.

Father Pham, who is 41, has on glasses. Gray hair is starting to lighten his dark hair. He laughs often. He is one of four boys. After the Vietnam War, his family worked on a farm as part of a government relocation program. His father spent several years in a re-education camp run by the communists, he said.

Canada accepted him as a refugee, and Father Pham moved from the refugee camp in 1989. His desire to serve as a priest was revived, but without a college degree, the doors to seminary were closed to him. Working full time and going to college was not possible, he said.

Dedicating his time to his work, Father Pham stopped in at Montreal’s Oratory of St. Joseph after work almost daily. He says he entrusted his desire to be a priest to God’s hands. He worked assembling electronics.

Meanwhile, his family had left Vietnam and eventually settled in Georgia. After a dozen years since he fled Vietnam, Father Pham joined them.

He met Father Joseph Nguyen, chaplain to the small Vietnamese community at St. Michael Church, Gainesville. Father Nguyen made the introductions to Msgr. David P. Talley, then vocations director. The journey through St. Vincent Seminary, Latrobe, Pa., culminated in his ordination on June 26.

His first assignment as a parochial vicar is at St. Peter Chanel Church, Roswell, where Father Peter Rau is the pastor.

Father Pham said a skill he hopes to improve is giving homilies. He said he took all the lessons he learned in seminary to heart. Father Pham said he is growing more confident in this part of his ministry.

“It takes a lot of time to prepare a homily, especially on the weekends,” he said. He looks to understand Scripture and then find connections with life. “It’s always with prayer,” he said.

“No, not easy. But I feel more confident,” he said.

That’s how the ministry of a new priest unfolds.

“I am always being who I am, on a human level,” he said. “On a spiritual level, I can feel different. It’s like the Holy Spirit is watching over me.”