Vietnamese continue Milwaukee’s immigrant tradition

Milwaukee’s Vietnamese community a part of the St. Martin of Tours parish family

The concept of ethnic Catholic communities is a familiar one in the United States.  The early years of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee were guided primarily by people of German descent, including German-speaking bishops, and German religious orders who taught at parish schools.

Fr. Francis Vu Tran preaches during a Vietnamese Mass at St. Martin of Tours parish in Franklin, Wis.

As Milwaukee became a hub for industry at the end of the 1800s a large number of Italian and Polish immigrants settled in the area.  Just as the Germans before them, the new immigrants developed ethnic parishes where they could worship in their native tongue and follow the traditions of their homeland.

Through the years, immigrants from a variety of countries have continued to flow into the city.

When the Vietnam conflict ended in 1975, a small but quickly growing Vietnamese community took root in Milwaukee. Fr. John Thanh Hùng, a Vietnamese priest who had been studying in the area during the conflict, remained to minister to fellow exiles from his homeland. The group gathered for liturgies and for special celebrations, such as Lunar New Year.

Just as the Germans, Poles, Italians and other ethnic groups before them, the Vietnamese felt comfort in worshipping in the language of their homeland and gathering with others who shared similar struggles of starting over in a new country.

By the mid-1980s the Vietnamese Catholic community was well-established in Milwaukee and recognized by the archdiocese.   It found worship space at St. Anthony’s parish on Milwaukee’s south side, a parish that already had two distinct communities in place:  one English-speaking and the other Spanish.

Unlike those early German immigrants who had ready access to German-speaking clergy and religious, the Vietnamese have struggled to have a Vietnamese-speaking priest available to them.  At one point the community went for four years without a Vietnamese-speaking priest.

During that four-year period Archbishop Timothy Dolan, now archbishop of New York, invited Fr. Peter Tân Đức Đỗ, a Norwegian priest of Vietnamese descent, to minister to the community. He agreed, but at the end of his three-year commitment it looked like the community would again be without a Vietnamese-speaking priest.

Fr. Francis Vu Tran, SCJ, associate pastor of St. Martin of Tours parish in Franklin, Wis., and a Vietnamese immigrant, had been assisting the group, doing youth ministry and retreats with the Vietnamese.  Before returning to Norway Fr. Peter asked Fr. Francis if he might be open to taking his place as pastor of the community.

The SCJ was named to the position, but province administration made it clear that Fr. Francis wasn’t simply filling an empty slot. The Priests of the Sacred Heart, not just an individual, would be filling the position.

Fr. Thi Pham (who will soon assume ministry for the Vietnamese community in Milwaukee), Fr. Yvon Sheehy (pastor of St. Martin of Tours) and Fr. Francis Vu Tran

In 2007 the SCJs assumed ministry for the Vietnamese community. With that commitment came a move for the Vietnamese community from St. Anthony’s to St. Martin of Tours.

“It is a way for the Priests of the Sacred Heart, which is small in number, to have a significant impact, to really meet a need in the local Church,” said Fr. Francis.  “That is what Fr. Dehon called us to do, to go where there are needs that we are uniquely able to meet.”

The U.S. Province is blessed with several priests and brothers of Vietnamese descent.  Often, the only Catholic priests of Vietnamese descent in Wisconsin are members of the Priests of the Sacred Heart.

“This is a resource, a blessing that our community has,” continued Fr. Francis, speaking of the Vietnamese SCJs.  “Our Constitutions say that we are ‘called to serve the Church.’  Sharing this resource is a way for us to do that.”

The community moves

After 30 years at St. Anthony’s, the move to St. Martin of Tours was difficult for some in the Vietnamese community.  “Many in the community had been married at St. Anthony’s, their children had been baptized there,” said Fr. Francis.  “It is difficult to leave a place where there are so many memories.”

But in leaving the place of their memories, the Vietnamese community was being invited to become full members of a parish, not simply a sub-group that worshipped in the same building as others.

“When the community moved I encouraged them to think of St. Martin’s as OUR parish,” said Fr. Francis.  “We might have different traditions and speak with an accent but we are still part of the one community of St. Martin of Tours.”

Just as when any family moves to a new house, the first part is relatively easy.  The truck is loaded and the family takes its possessions from one house to another.

The tough part is the unpacking and really making the new house a home.

The Vietnamese Catholics moved their Mass from 8 a.m. at St Anthony’s to 12:30 p.m. at St. Martin of Tours, but the unpacking continues.

The Vietnamese weren’t the only ones changing their home.  Members of the St. Martin of Tours family who already were a part of the parish also had to adapt.  New people were joining the family.  Even newlyweds go through a few challenges as they learn to set up house.  Any change in the household takes a bit of adjustment and the integration of the new parishioners was no different.

“Most parishioners at St. Martin’s have been very welcoming and appreciate the cultural diversity that the Vietnamese bring,” said Fr. Francis.  “But still, it was a change.  And it was a change for the Vietnamese as well who were being asked to be more a part of American cultural traditions.”

“I try to be a bridge between the two cultures,” he added.  “I invite the Vietnamese to become a part of the larger community and I encourage other members of the parish to appreciate the Vietnamese culture and traditions.”

Embracing a new home

If the hope is that the Vietnamese become full members of St. Martin of Tours, why have Vietnamese language liturgies?  Why have a separate choir for the Vietnamese?  Why have any activities that cater to a particular ethnic background within a parish?

“It is easier – more comfortable – to worship in a language you grew up with,” said Fr. Thi Pham, SCJ.  Fr. Thi has worked with the community while serving as province vocation director.  In April, he will take over the role that Fr. Francis has held as pastor to the Vietnamese.

Fr. Francis is leaving for Rome, where he will study Biblical theology.

Both Fr. Thi and Fr. Francis noted that there are still many first-generation Vietnamese immigrants, such as themselves.  “The Vietnamese have not been here for generations like the Germans, Poles and other groups,” said Fr. Francis.  “They are still making the transition, learning to live in their new home, their adopted country.”

“I don’t see having a Mass in Vietnamese as being something that is meant to be divisive,” said Fr. Francis.  “It is an option within the parish of St. Martin of Tours.  Each of the Masses has its own identity.  The character of the 4 p.m. Mass is different than the character of the 10:30 a.m. Mass.  We have special Masses for youth.  This is just a different option and anyone is welcome to take part in it.”

“Often they [non-Vietnamese who attend the Vietnamese Mass] tell me that they come because they love the music,” said Fr. Thi.  “It is a different expression of liturgy but still part of the same parish, the same Catholic church.”

However, both SCJs agree that the parish as a whole benefits when there is an integration of the parish cultures.

“During Holy Week we will have bilingual Masses,” said Fr. Thi. Readings will be done in both Vietnamese and English.  The Vietnamese choir will join the larger parish choir.  And for the first time, the Vietnamese youth choir, which Fr. Thi initiated two years, will sing during Holy Week liturgies.

Fr. Thi Pham and Fr. Francis Vu Tran at a Vietnamese youth gathering held at St. Martin of Tours parish. Both SCJs have served as chaplains to national Vietnamese youth organizations.

Preserving traditions

As Frs. Francis and Thi both stated, many first-generation Vietnamese immigrants are still alive.  These include elderly immigrants who often have the greatest struggles in adapting to a new language and culture, as well as young adults like Frs. Thi and Francis who were born in Vietnam but came of age in the United States.  For them, the United States is now home, but they still feel a strong connection to their Vietnamese roots.

But then there are those of Vietnamese descent who were born in the United States.  Many do not speak the language of their parents or grandparents.

“It’s important to be American,” said Fr. Thi, “But I tell the kids that it is also important to remember their roots.”

Many first-generation Vietnamese immigrants took ESL (English as a Second Language).  Now, their children and grandchildren take Vietnamese courses offered at St. Martin of Tours.

Even Fr. Thi, whose accent easily gives away his Vietnamese roots, admits that he thinks in English now. “For the Vietnamese Mass I write my homilies in English and then translate them to Vietnamese,” he said.  He also takes a few minutes at the end of the Vietnamese homily to summarize his words in English for the younger people who are still struggling with the language of their parents.

The Vietnamese community works together to help immigrants feel at home in their adopted country.  However, it now also helps its younger members learn and continue the languages and traditions of their families.

Looking toward the future

When the Vietnamese community first moved to St. Martin of Tours there were about 100 to 150 who regularly attended Mass.  Since the move, the number has grown to 400, with up to 600 coming for special events.

The Vietnamese are registering with the parish and starting to serve on parish committees, as well as parish council.  They are taking part in parish fund raising efforts.

And some will even remain with the parish eternally. Several have purchased plots in the parish cemetery “and one member of the community is already buried there,” said Fr. Francis.  “The community is putting down its roots – literally.”

Both Frs. Francis and Thi credit parish leadership for helping to make the parish a welcoming place for people of all backgrounds.

“Fr. Yvon [Sheehy, SCJ, pastor of St. Martin of Tours] talks about OUR parish, not the Vietnamese parishioners or the Anglo parishioners,” said Fr. Thi.  “People notice this.”

“Fr. Francis planted the seeds of the Vietnamese community here at St. Martin of Tours,” continued Fr. Thi.  “He helped the community take root in the parish.  Now, I look forward to helping the community grow.  I look forward to bridging the different cultures of the parish.”

Fr. Thi will initially wear two hats (or two collars) while serving the Vietnamese community.  Until July 1 he will continue to serve as vocation director before moving full-time into his role as associate pastor at St. Martin of Tours.