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Vietnamese priest ordained in refugee camp after 17-year wait reaches silver jubilee milestone in Brisbane

Fr Paul Chanh

Fr Paul Chanh: “I came to the seminary in Vietnam and wanted to be a priest in Vietnam, but God wanted me to go another way. Everything, you need to leave everything in God’s hands.” Photo: Emilie Ng

VIETNAMESE refugee Fr Paul Chanh knows better than most priests that the call to the priesthood doesn’t happen overnight.

While studying for the priesthood in Vietnam, Fr Chanh received an unexpected blow to his dreams of becoming a priest.

“I entered the seminary a long time ago, when I was 11; I entered the minor seminary in 1961, and then finished the theology and philosophy in Vietnam,” he said.

“When the Communists took over my country they didn’t allow me to be a priest.”

Fr Chanh remained a transitional deacon for 17 years, a stage that normally only lasts six months and is the final step before ordination.

Seeing no way of becoming a priest in Communist Vietnam, Fr Chanh fled the country by boat and ended up in a refugee camp in Malaysia in 1989.

“I escaped from Vietnam, came to Malaysia and stayed in the refugee camp as a deacon,” he said.

He spent five years in the camp, which housed a large number of Catholics.

Their lack of spiritual direction opened the doors for Fr Chanh’s imminent ordination.

On March 29, 1992, former Kuala Lumpur Archbishop Anthony Soter Fernandez, who went on to be the first cardinal of Malaysia, ordained Fr Chanh at 41 years of age in a rare ceremony inside the Malaysian refugee camp.

The ordination was also witnessed by the apostolic delegate to Malaysia at the time, Archbishop Alberto Tricarico.

Soon after his ordination, Fr Chanh asked to come to Brisbane and was sponsored into the archdiocese by then-Archbishop John Bathersby.

He was among five priests from the Brisbane archdiocese, including Townsville Bishop Tim Harris, who marked 25 years in the priesthood at St Stephen’s Cathedral on June 29, the feast of Sts Peter and Paul.

Fr Chanh said he wanted to be a priest “to help the people”.

He is now semi-retired and working as a chaplain for Southern Cross Aged Care in Stretton.

“I’m happy to be here – good weather, good people and good priests around here,” he said.

“I’m happy.”

His message to other refugees who have fled their countries for a better life was to trust in God’s timing.

“I believe that if I leave everything in God’s hands, God will provide for me,” Fr Chanh said.

“Even waiting to be a priest for so long, 16, 17 years, God planned another way for me.

“That’s the reason I am here in Brisbane.

“I came to the seminary in Vietnam and wanted to be a priest in Vietnam, but God wanted me to go another way.

“Everything, you need to leave everything in God’s hands.”

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