Strangers help Father Tran find refuge

GREENVILLE — Father Dac Tran, a Franciscan friar, vicar for Vietnamese Ministry in the Diocese of Charleston and administrator of Our Lady of the Rosary Church, is an ardent advocate for a welcoming church. He knows firsthand how strangers can help a person in need.

On the day that Communist tanks rolled into his home city of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War nearly 30 years ago, when fellow Viets tried desperately to find room aboard the last U.S. choppers evacuating the American Embassy there, Father Tran effected a dramatic escape of his own and eventually landed as a refugee in a strange land. He began a new lifethanks in large part to the help and welcome he received from people he’d never known before.

“I was 22, a university student, when on April 29, 1975, my friend and I saw flares going up in the city. We went to the fence around our church and saw a CH-47 (a large helicopter known as the Chinook) landing on the church grounds,” Father Tran said.

Standing next to the young men was a man dressed in the clothes of a Veterans’ Administration hospital patient. Neither knew him. The man began to urge the young Father Tran to climb the fence and get on board the helicopter. By this date, everyone in Saigon and almost everyone in the world knew that the Republic of South Vietnam was doomed. The American military presence there had been pulled out and the North Vietnamese Army was overpowering dispirited South Vietnamese forces. Father Tran also knew about the 800,000 Vietnamese Catholics from the north who had fled to the south when the Geneva Accords divided the country in 1954. The government of North Vietnam was aggressively Marxist and boasted about being a godless entity. Young Tran did not expect that Christians would be treated well when the Communists took over.

Yet he was hesitant to leave his home and family as suddenly as this. The older stranger urged him again. He vacillated, trying desperately to think, to decide. He knew if he left that he would not get back home again. Then the chance suddenly evaporated with a roar. The Chinook lifted off.

“For some reason it came back down,” he said. “I jumped the fence and was the last one taken on board. I thought: ‘This must be God’s plan.’ Then the helicopter crashed in the Saigon River.”

Fortunately, he remembered, the aircraft did not hit the banks of the river. He was rescued and taken to the Vn Navy base at Nha Be. He was treated and booked to ride an ambulance back to a civilian hospital in Saigon. He di not know it then but that trip would have ended his hopes for getting out of the country. The enemy was already securing the city. Inexplicably, although machinery maintenance was a regular problem once the Americans and their supplies had gone, the ambulance broke down before his stretcher was loaded on. As the engine was being repaired, he was rescued again.

This time help did not come from a total stranger. In Vietnamese culture family is important, so when a cousin in the Navy learned that Father Tran was in Nha Be, he arranged to have him taken to a landing ship that left immediately for the South China Sea. The ocean voyage was uncomfortable and scary in a flat-bottomed, overcrowded vessel piloted by sailors who were unused to blue water sailing, but the craft and its miserable crew of refugees eventually landed in Subic Bay in the Philippine Islands.

Months of living in tents in refugee camps followed, in the Philippines and in Guam. Seeing Guam from sea, a lone island in the middle of water as far as one can see, left the homesick young man with feelings of ambivalence.

“It was sad, going further from home, but you could see the power of God’s creativity in the beautiful vastness of the Pacific Ocean,” he said.

Then Father Tran was finally accepted as an immigrant to the United States – in Detroit. In the winter. The climate was so dissimilar to the sub-tropical heat of the southern Vietnam lowlands where he was raised that Father Tran was again assailed by doubts. Had he done the right thing by escaping? Would he ever learn this strange English language and fit in with these large, diverse people, some of whom had hair on their arms and legs?

He was sponsored by a parish in Michigan. Eventually, he migrated to Jacksonville, Fla., where he met Mary Bowles, another stranger who would welcome him. The one consistency in his chaotic life was the Catholic Mass. He went often, both for the spiritual strength he could draw from it and for the safe haven it represented for him. Bowles took him under her wing at her parish. One day she invited him to a meeting of the Third Order of the Franciscans. He was impressed and moved by the faith of these lay followers of Francis of Assisi. When Bowles encouraged him to be open to a religious vocation, he thought back to the Franciscans.

“I felt like God’s intercession was set in my life through Mary Bowles,” Father Tran said.

Dac Tran became a Franciscan affiliate in 1981, six years after his escape for Vietnam. He finished his baccalaureate at Siena College and took an advanced theology degree from the Washington Theological Union in Silver Springs, Md. He was ordained to the holy priesthood in 1989.

Father Tran was now an American and a Catholic priest, but his peripatetic days were hardly over. He was sent as a chaplain to Jamaica in the West Indies for three years, then assigned as parochial vicar at a parish in East Rutherford, N.J., then to hospital ministry in Boston. Finally, he arrived in the sun-drenched heaven of South Carolina in 2001.

“Part of our Franciscan charism is that we are always on the move,” he said. “We learn to do our best in every kind of situation.”

Father Tran is happy at Our Lady of the Rosary, providing, as he says, for the spiritual and sacramental needs of a warm and loving parish. He urges them to be welcoming, remembering how important is was to him as a newcomer when Mary Bowles — who died a few years ago — learned his name and reached out to him.

His mother still lives in Saigon, happy now that she can again attend daily Mass. The priest never learned the name of the man who helped him escape by encouraging him to go for the helicopter, but since that fateful day was a Tuesday, the day Franciscan tradition calls for a special novena to St. Anthony, he thinks of him as Tony.