By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published February 11, 2024
ATLANTA—Deacon Thang Vu baptized a grandchild, assisted at Mass and preached a sermon at Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Church all within 48 hours of his ordination to the diaconate.
“My dream is I will be a humble servant and bring more people to God with joy, hope, love and peace,” said Deacon Vu.
After five years of studies, Deacon Vu said he feels “joyous” to begin this new vocation and fulfill his dream of being a humble servant in service of the faith.
He was among eight men to be ordained the newest permanent deacons in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, with the years of formal learning about the ministry completed as they made promises of obedience.
In return, Bishop John N. Tran prayed over them and handed them a Book of the Gospels, and urged them “to believe what you read, teach what you believe and practice what you teach.”
In a solemn Mass at the Cathedral of Christ the King on Feb. 3, the men were ordained to offer blessings and live a life in service to charity.
The new deacons are Robert Fraundorf, to serve at the Cathedral of Christ the King; Michael Heubel, to serve at St. Ann Church; Gerard LaHatte, to serve at Our Lady of the Mountains; Michael Martell, to serve at All Saints Church; Alonso Rigg assigned to St. Ann Church; William Schubring to serve at St. Catherine Laboure, Phillip Tran and Thang Vu, both assigned to Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Church.
They join 244 permanent deacons active in the archdiocese. The ordained clergyman may celebrate the sacrament of baptism, witness marriages and preside at funerals and burial services.
They range in age from 56 to 66, with varied backgrounds from chief investment officer and chiropractor to a certified pedorthist.
Their faith journey has been inspired by St. John Paul II, the Holy Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and St. Paul the Apostle. Deacon Vu said he admires Cardinal Francis Thuân, who was imprisoned in Vietnam for 13 years, nine of them in solitary confinement for his faith.
Bishop Tran’s call to service
The ceremony at the crowded Peachtree Road church began with the eight wives of the men walking down the long aisle, each carrying the robes and stoles for their husbands, followed by the eight men. Scores of permanent deacons started the procession of clergy members, followed by dozens of priests and Atlanta bishops. Bishop Tran served as the ordaining bishop as the Mass celebrant, along with Bishop Joel M. Konzen, SM, and Bishop Bernard E. Shlesinger III. Archbishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM Conv., attended.
In his homily, Bishop Tran said the men responded to God’s invitation to live this vocation in the same way the Virgin Mary said yes to the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation.
“Your formation has been a life-changing experience,” said Bishop Tran. “My brothers, you have come to this point not only by God’s grace, the guidance and prayers of those responsible for your formations and others, but also by your willingness to say yes to God’s invitation to know your faith through studies, to grow in holiness, to be open in being formed and today as a deacon of the church.”
God’s grace and the Holy Spirit continue to call the new deacons, said the bishop, “to lead you and guide you to serve his church.” He encouraged them to live and serve their communities as a “servant of all.”
Bishop Tran reminded them, “Serve others with great joy and humility because you are serving the Lord.”
He said that their lives of service would take on a new meaning, beginning that day.
“Our prayers are with you that you may be effective, gentle in ministry and constant in prayer,” he told them.
Deacon Thang Vu’s voyage from Vietnam to the altar
At 24, Thang Vu fled his homeland due to communist persecution, witnessing the closure of schools and churches that deeply impacted his devout Catholic family.
Like millions of others, he and his family members risked their lives on the dangerous sea in rickety boats, eventually finding safety in Malaysia, the Philippines, and finally, the United States after a year of uncertainty.
Deacon Vu, 66, was one of two men ordained from Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Church, Norcross.
“I received many, many blessings and graces from God,” he said.
He and his wife Anna Vu have been married for 40 years with two children.
Deacon Vu and Deacon Phillip Tran are the first deacons to be ordained from the Norcross parish in a decade. The community is excited as people and ministries increasingly sought him out for spiritual counseling and help, he said.
Deacon Vu served as a layman in the small Vietnamese community in the 1990s when they held Masses at Holy Cross Church, and then as its numbers grew, it moved to a former car dealership. Today, the community worships in one of the largest churches in the archdiocese.
He recalled the encouragement from pastors to consider becoming a permanent deacon. At 59, after prayer and with the support of his wife, he began the permanent diaconate program. He was accepted despite concerns about his age and English skills.
The years of study were transformative, said Vu, calling the lessons a touch of heaven as he learned about the faith and his prayer deepened.
“I never miss a day. And my wife too. We miss nothing,” he said.
The opportunity to serve the community fills him with joy. It was during a quiet moment he reflected on how God calls imperfect people to ministry, not those who are perfect, he said.
“I’m imperfect. And if you call me, I will respond,” he said in his prayer.
From corporate to community: Deacon LaHatte’s journey
Deacon Gerard LaHatte’s journey to the diaconate was deeply influenced by his work with the St. Vincent de Paul ministry, as it shaped his heart for service.
“I think the most meaningful thing I learned in that process was you can’t judge a person by anything other than the quality of their character,” he said.
Inspired by the humble Deacon Edmund LaHouse of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Alpharetta, LaHatte felt a strong call to serve.
“He always just grabbed me as a very humble, family-oriented man, servant to everybody, and very passionate about his calling. And never, ever, no pride, no ego, no nothing. Just, ‘Hey, I’m here to serve.’ And that really grabbed me,” recalls LaHatte.
Originally from Columbus, LaHatte, 62, transitioned from the corporate finance world to the nonprofit sector with the North Fulton Communities Charities. His career change was supported by wife of 36 years Carolyn. They have three adult children. Their dedication to the ministry became apparent when the couple would leave their Jasper home by 6 a.m. twice a month to make it to St. Paul of the Cross Church in time for morning prayer.
Although a self-described “debit and credit kind of guy,” the deacon increasingly found himself immersed in reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church, church teachings, and relishing working with couples on marriage preparation and bringing the Eucharist to people at home.
Ordination is a crucial moment, but LaHatte believes learning to live as a deacon is ongoing.
“This is just one of the stops that have to occur. And then you keep on rolling. The race is almost over. But you’re going to start a new race here on Monday,” he said.
Deacon Rigg’s ministry of hope behind bars
Deacon Alonso Rigg is dedicated to ministering to prisoners at the United States Penitentiary, Atlanta, a mission he began before ordination.
“It is essential to me to do that kind of ministry, or maybe visit the sick, because that puts you in touch with the poor people. It gives you that experience with those that have very little in many ways, and they need it, and I also need it,” said Rigg, who joins several other deacons and men studying to be deacons making the prison trips.
During the two-hour visits, he finds fulfillment in connecting with the men at a communion service and teaching the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The eight prisoners who attend are appreciative of the visit and teaching, said the 56-year-old.
“They are paying attention. They are so glad and happy. You see it in their eyes, in their expression, the way they participate,” he said.
Rigg grew up in Panama as a cradle Catholic. Looking back, he said faith and church have been a constant in his life, guided by his mother’s influence. As a young person, he joined the parish council because they wanted the view of a teenager.
Later, in the United States, he attended a ministry fair at his church, St. Anne Church, and the diaconate was intriguing. But his two children were entering their teen years, so he paused exploring the option. He and his wife Edilma have been married for 30 years.
Some 10 years after the ministry fair, he is being ordained.
“This is another testimony to the reality of God and his existence and his grace that that’s happening,” he said.