FOR the past five years Divine Word Missionaries priest Fr Manh Le has travelled between remote villages along the Amazon River, with little more than a hammock and a mosquito net.
The priest, who was ordained in Brisbane 15 years ago and sent to Brazil, recently returned to Australia and is still adjusting to life.
“Every night I stayed with a family in a different village,” Fr Manh, said of his mission moving up and down the Amazon, visiting far-flung settlements only once or twice a year.
“Most of them never have Christmas Mass or Easter with a missionary priest, they celebrate it by themselves.
“Almost every family has a Bible. They read very little, but they go to their catechist class with a Bible in their hand.”
Vietnamese-born 47-year-old Fr Manh returned to Brisbane before Christmas to spend a few weeks with his family before starting a new mission as a Vietnamese community chaplain in Sydney.
He jokes there has been a lot to get used to coming home.
“Some of my nieces and nephews weren’t even born when I left for Brazil. Now they pick me up from the airport,” he said.
Fr Manh belongs to a large extended family.
After the Vietnam War, his parents and six siblings fled repression and suffering under the Communist regime.
It took 15 years for his whole family to reach Australia – from the time his older brothers and sisters escaped Vietnam and spent years as refugees, until Manh and his younger brother arrived with his parents in Brisbane in 1991 under the family reunion immigration program.
They settled in Acacia Hills, in the Sunnybank parish on Brisbane’s southside.
Manh was 20 years old and set about learning English, and enjoying new-found freedom, including chasing girls.
He worked from 2am until 8am as a restaurant cleaner close to St Stephen’s Cathedral, and at the end of every shift would visit the sanctuary to pray.
“It was a turning point. I was smelly and dirty at the end of my shift, but my vocation was born out of that,” he said.
Fr Manh looked at joining several religious congregations and even the diocesan priesthood, but finally joined the Divine Word Missionaries novitiate.
After completing his formation in Melbourne, in 2004 he took his final vows and was ordained by retired Auxiliary Bishop John Gerry at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Sunnybank.
His first assignment was to Brazil, where he had previously spent a year as part of the Divine Word Missionaries overseas training program.
“It was always my desire to go and be a missionary up the Amazon. It took me ten years to get there, but eventually I did,” he said.
Fr Manh spent the first five years of life in Brazil working in formation at the novitiate, which was located in the countryside outside Sao Paulo city.
“I didn’t expect to be placed into formation as my first assignment, but I was, so I did my best,” he said.
“After that, I was parish priest for three years in that same area of the countryside, which is a very poor area.
“But then, eventually, my dream came true and they sent me up the Amazon, where for four or five years I lived on the river.
“That was a big change, a beautiful shock. You basically leave the modern world behind. There’s no water, no electricity, no phones.”
Fr Manh said some villages had not encountered a priest coming for five or six years.
He would move up and down the river, visiting different communities along the way.
“It’s an awesome paradise with a lot of suffering too. Beautiful because of the nature – you see the greatness God has created and you can feel it,” he said.
“The river is the font of life for the Amazon people. It is their road, and it gives them food.
“There is no accommodation, so I lived with the people, in their homes. And there was no bedding, so I travelled with my hammock and my mosquito net.
“I would say Mass, spend time with them in their homes, and then move on the next day.
“It was also very seasonal. Access was easier during the rainy season, even though it was very wet and hot.”
Fr Manh said the people of the Amazon were so grateful for the missionaries who came to them.
Now he is facing a new mission as chaplain to the large Vietnamese community living in Sydney.
“I hope I can help both older people, especially migrants, as well as young people. The young people need younger priests who can understand them,” he said.
Looking back on his time in the Amazon, Fr Manh said three words remain with him – hope, humility and humour.
“Hope kept me and my family going during the bad times in Vietnam and it kept me going in the Amazon,” he said.
“And without being humble, you can’t do anything. I really love to be with the poor, with the people outside the mainstream.
“Finally, you have to laugh at everything. Laughing makes everything better.”