Bishop Luong: A people’s priest

By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald

Bishop Dominic Mai Luong, the first bishop of Vietnamese descent in the United States and the founding father of the Vietnamese Catholic community in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, died Dec. 6 in Orange, California, where he had served as auxiliary bishop since 2003.

Bishop Luong, 76, died in St. Joseph Hospital of Orange of heart and kidney failure, said long-time friend Tony Tran of Mary Queen of Vietnam Parish in New Orleans East, which then-Father Luong established for the thousands of Vietnamese refugees who had fled their country.

Archbishop Gregory Aymond, who was ordained to the priesthood in 1975, one year before Archbishop Philip Hannan invited Father Luong to move to New Orleans from Buffalo to care for the huge influx of Vietnamese Catholics, flew to Orange for Bishop Luong’s Dec. 14 Funeral Mass.

“When the Vietnamese community came to New Orleans in the mid-1970s, he was in many ways their priest,” Archbishop Aymond said. “He also, in many ways, was the father of the Vietnamese Catholics who came to New Orleans. He has been greatly revered by the Vietnamese community, not only those at Mary Queen of Vietnam Parish but throughout our archdiocese.”

Bishop Luong would have turned 77 on Dec. 20, but his health began failing recently, Tran said, and he began dialysis for kidney failure.

Tran said about 50 people, most of them from Mary Queen of Vietnam, including Father Nghiem Van Nguyen, pastor, were planning to fly to California to attend the funeral.

“To us, he is our father,” Tran said. “He took care of almost everything with the first arrival of the Vietnamese refugees. The English language was a problem for most of the families in the community, and they relied heavily on him for his translations.”

It got to the point where Father Luong was on 24-hour call, even for women going into labor to deliver their babies.

“Every woman who was giving birth would call Father Dominic, and he was running back and forth,” Tran said. “People would call him for big things and little things, the whole nine yards – they would call their pastor.

“It was a blessing that God sent him to our community to be that person to help the community and the people from scratch.”

History was made on June 11, 2003, when in the white marble sanctuary of St. Columban Church, 33 bishops lined up to give an episcopal kiss to Bishop Luong, the first Vietnamese bishop to be ordained in America.

Embraced by his countrymen

Two native Vietnamese bishops were able to come to the ordination Mass, and the three men embraced each other at the end of the welcoming line.

“We have together recorded a historic moment in the history of the universal church, a new page in the history of the church of America and a new chapter for the church of the Orange Diocese,” Bishop Luong told the 1,200 gathered for the three-hour liturgy. “We are all united in one mission – to love God, to make God known and to be his collaborators in the evangelization not only of the church but of all cultures.”

Unity was the major theme of his episcopal service. He chose as his bishop’s motto: “Strangers and aliens no longer.” That scriptural verse from the second chapter of Ephesians had both personal and cultural significance.

Bishop Luong arrived in the U.S. as a 15-year-old and entered the minor seminary, but because of the outbreak of the Vietnam War, he could not return to his country and he constantly feared for his family’s safety.

After his ordination to the priesthood in Buffalo in 1966, Bishop Luong served for 10 years in the Buffalo Diocese but became actively involved on the national level in the pastoral care of the thousands of Vietnamese refugees who had escaped their country by boat before the fall of Saigon.

He arrived in 1976 at the invitation of Archbishop Hannan, who asked him to care for the 12,000 refugees who had arrived in south Louisiana. Most of those refugees came from seven fishing villages in Vietnam and were primarily Catholic, but they faced hostility upon their arrival because their fishing customs clashed  with those of Americans, and they were perceived as taking away jobs from local residents.

 

Over the next 25 years, Bishop Luong united and transformed that community into a spiritual and economic powerhouse in New Orleans. In 2003, when he left for Orange, there were 34 Vietnamese priests in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. In his first altar server class of 1976, seven became doctors and three became lawyers.

Always calm, prayerful

Tran said Bishop Luong had a calm personality that could defuse any tense situation.

“His personality went well with everyone,” Tran said. “He had a good heart for all the people. There was no politician in his heart. He lived with the people and was a good father.”

Archbishop Aymond was rector of Notre Dame Seminary when then-Father Luong would visit the seminary, especially for celebrations of the Vietnamese New Year.

“I admired his faith and his priestly ministry,” Archbishop Aymond said. “I also know how dedicated he was to the Diocese of Orange. We can be assured that Bishop Luong will be praying with us and for us. His memory will live on in the hearts of many for generations.”

When Bishop Luong was asked before his episcopal ordination if he had a favorite saint, he talked about St. Valentino Ochoa Vinh, a Basque priest who came to Bishop Luong’s home diocese in Vietnam in 1858 but was captured and martyred before he had a chance to serve.

“My family happened to hide him in our silos,” Bishop Luong said. “When my nomination was announced, the first person I thought of was him. He died a very young man. All my childhood, my great grandmothers  reminded me of this – that Christianity came to our country at a high cost.

“I see that reflected in the Vietnamese people. We have sacrificed so much for the price of faith and the price of freedom. But when they came (to the U.S.), they seem to have overcome all this and have prospered.”

Asked how he would sum up his Christian journey, Bishop Luong said: “Every moment is a moment of grace. By accepting the grace, I can overcome difficulty. But also by accepting the grace, it will make our joy more complete.”

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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