From near death to health, from Vietnam to Philadelphia, Father Vincent Tung The Pham’s journey has been buoyed by God
By Lou Baldwin
Special to the CS&T
PHILADELPHIA – According to the records Father Vincent Tung The Pham, parochial vicar at Holy Innocents Parish, was born in North Vietnam Dec. 25, 1949. It’s quite an honor sharing a birthday with Jesus.
But of course, there is a downside. You don’t tend to get birthday presents; Christmas presents serve double duty.
“I cry every Christmas,” he quipped.
Now there is another odd fact. His birth and baptismal name isn’t Vincent, it’s Dominic. When he was 5 years old he was gravely sick and couldn’t walk, with death a real possibility. His father, a devout man, visited the church of St. Vincent Ferrer in Hanoi and prayed for his little son, who promptly experienced a complete recovery. From then on, as far as his father and others were concerned, his name was Vincent, something he would regularize years later as a refugee to the United States when he gave his name as Vincent on immigration documents.
The name Dominic wasn’t wasted; it was passed on to a younger brother, who is now a priest of the Allentown Diocese.
It was shortly after his renaming that the family fled communist North Vietnam for religious freedom in South Vietnam.
As a boy Father Pham was an altar server, and admired the priests and what they did and wanted to do the same. He entered a minor seminary at age 11, continued there through high school and then entered Saigon’s St. Joseph Seminary, where he virtually completed his priestly training.
But in the meantime, the communists had taken over South Vietnam too. Not yet ordained, he fled the country by boat. After drifting four days he ended up in Thailand, where he spent a year in a displaced persons camp before obtaining refugee status to come to the U.S. and Philadelphia.
He loved this country right away.
“America is freedom and freedom is a most important gift God gives us,” he said.
In 1982 he applied to St. Charles Seminary but ordination had to wait three years, while he learned more fluent English and brushed up on his theology.
Finally, on May 18, 1985, his great wish was fulfilled with ordination at the hands of Cardinal John Krol.
As an ordination gift local Vietnamese sisters purchased a bike for him, which he still has. In their innocence, they didn’t realize it was a girl’s bike, but that didn’t bother him a bit. “You can ride it wearing a cassock,” said Father Pham, who gave it to a family a few years ago who recently gave it back to him.
As a priest, Father Pham’s assignments included parochial vicar at Annunciation B.V.M., St. John the Baptist and Holy Innocents parishes, all in Philadelphia; St. Maria Goretti Parish, Hatfield; and since 2005, back to Holy Innocents. Secondarily, he served as associate to the coordinator of the Vietnamese apostolate.
In recent years he’s branched out into the Hispanic apostolate, taking summer sessions in the Dominican Republic and Mexico to master the Spanish language. Now he can celebrate Mass, preach and give instructions in Vietnamese, English and Spanish. Holy Innocents offers Mass in all three.
Spanish was much easier to learn than English, he discovered, but language is only a part of the challenge.one must get used to different cultures and customs and the cuisine of all three. One food he’s come to relish is apples.
“We didn’t have them in Vietnam. I eat them every day,” Father Pham said. He loves the multi-cultural atmosphere of Holy Innocents and also takes joy in the growing number of Vietnamese worshippers, including many young people and, interestingly, the number of young children who are of mixed Vietnamese and European American heritage.
His own faith life is sustained by a devotion to the Blessed Mother and his special patron saint, Vincent Ferrer. His philosophy as a priest is one that St. John Vianney would appreciate.
“The most important thing a priest does is to love,” Father Pham said. “To love God, the people, everything. It is hard, but don’t give up. God is with you if you try. Love.”
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.