June 5, 2018 // Parish
Father Thu Pham: A young man’s journey from darkness into spiritual fatherhood
“Boat people” is, with no regrets, a term rarely heard these days. But when it was current, it referred to individuals so desperate for freedom that they openly embraced personal endangerment to the point of death and the possibility of seasickness, starvation, physical abuse, rape, theft and other indignities left only to the imagination. Thrown into the bargain was another very real possibility that last goodbyes to family or friends might be just that: a last goodbye.
The departing pastor of St. Patrick Parish, Fort Wayne, Father Andrew Thu Pham, a missionary of the Society of Divine Word, felt that hunger for freedom deeply. By age 13 he was a jailbird, who had served three two-week sentences before his parents, who knew the underground connections for escapers, surrendered all their gold and borrowed more to pay his passage on a derelict fishing boat most likely christened on the mythical River Styx — but that would slip out of Saigon under cover of darkness on a trip that would nearly kill its 40 passengers.
The boat people did not know their destination. They were simply told to keep quiet and out of sight during the day to avoid a sighting by air or patrol boats. This meant they were all jammed below deck: 40 fugitives, seasick and scared. The only things in abundance were darkness, doubt and fear.
The boat ran out of food and water. Finally, a distress signal was hoisted and other boats resupplied provisions.
After seven days, the weary pilgrims were unloaded at Pilau Bidong, a Malaysian island.
They were treated kindly there and remained three months. They were then transferred to a refugee camp in Malaysia called Simgambisi, where they would live for eight months before flying to freedom in a place called San Francisco.
The next stop for young Thu was a happy one; he was reunited with two older brothers in New Orleans. They were former refugees as well, now speaking English and working. After getting settled, Thu, now 14, enrolled as a freshman at Abramson Public High School. A stranger, he was different looking and extremely limited in English, so he was bullied racially, physically and mentally. With experience borne on a far rougher voyage, Thu endured.
Then a good thing happened. At the end of Thu’s sophomore year in the public school, a vocation recruiter from Divine Word Seminary High School in East Troy, Wisconsin, visited Thu’s Vietnamese parish and described a life that was altogether different than what he knew at Abramson in New Orleans. So, Thu talked it over with his brothers and enrolled in Divine Word Seminary High in East Troy.
Thu found the students and faculty to be kind, considerate and tolerant. He flourished there and after two years, graduated in 1988 and immediately enrolled in Divine Word College Seminary in Epworth, Iowa. At Epworth, it was like being in the same family at a different location. Peace and tranquility prevailed and among the staff and faculty Thu found men he wanted to emulate. It was here with peace of mind that Thu understood that God’s love, protection and deliverance had been a gift; one that would keep on giving if Thu’s journey now became that of a Divine Word missionary. Once again it was destination unknown, but following his Father’s lead.
Thu, now an American citizen with a Christian given name, Andrew, was ordained as a Divine Word Missionary priest on June 7, 2003, and became associate director of development for Divine Word College and a member of the formation team. Later, he spent 10 months in Bolivia learning Spanish and on Aug. 2, 2010, was named pastor at St. Patrick Parish in Fort Wayne.
It has been 28 years since I left the shadows of Saigon and stood on the steps of St. Patrick with Bishop Rhoades to be installed as pastor,” said Father Andrew Thu Pham. “Parts of the journey were often in harm’s way or clouded with uncertainty, so first, I want to thank Almighty God for His protecting arm which made it possible for me, and eventually my entire family to find freedom in the United States.
“Thanks to Bishop Rhoades for his wise administration … and to the diocesan priests who I have come to know. My gratitude is also extended to the loyal parish staff that so efficiently meets the requirements placed on them daily. Words fail when I attempt to express my love for the living stones, the parishioners who by their example, patience and understanding have proven that God’s love filtered through human fiber can make a multicultural parish successful. The image of St. Patrick is a reminder of that; the shamrock in his hand besides symbolizing the Trinity, ratifies that Spanish, Vietnamese and Anglos are united spiritually and in love. — Father Andrew Thu Pham
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