Father Tri Luong
Hometown: 25 miles south of Saigon
Education: Catholic grade school, seminary and government schools in Vietnam; St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md.
Current Assignment:Pastor of St. Anne Parish in Lancaster, and Pastoral Care of the Vietnamese Community in Lancaster
Tell us a little bit about your childhood.
I grew up in Vietnam about 25 miles from Saigon. My family moved from the north to the south in 1954. I grew up in a rather large parish. Even now, they have 15,000 Catholics in that one parish. The Catholic population there is not that high; it’s about seven or eight percent.
I went to Catholic grade school with the Dominican nuns. When I finished fifth grade, I started to think about a vocation. In the seminary in Vietnam, you have to find a priest who will sponsor you. Then we had to take a test to qualify. I started in the seminary in sixth grade. Seminary life back then, we were allowed to go home twice a year.
I was in seminary in fifth grade and sixth grade, and then in 1975 came the fall of Saigon. I went home to live with my family. I went into the government school system. After 1975, the government took control of all the schools. I stayed in until three months before graduating high school, when I escaped from Vietnam in February 1980.
My mom and my younger sister are there now. My father was in the military, and he died.
In the summer months in the seminary, I lived in a parish. In those summer months, there was a battle and I was in the middle of a battlefield twice. Both sides kept shooting, and the best we could do was just lay flat.
How were you able to escape Vietnam?
I escaped from southwest Vietnam from a place called Rach Gia. I was on a boat with 150 people on it. The boat was about 55 feet long. It took three days and we landed in Thailand. We were robbed by pirates three times. They searched everything we had.
I lived in Thailand for six months and then I was accepted by the embassy to resettle in America. The camps in Thailand were very packed. There were about 1.5 kilometers wide, with a population of more than 7,000 people. We left there and went to a refugee camp in Indonesia, and then in 1980 I came to San Francisco. I lived with a sponsoring family who were Vietnamese. I lived with them a little more than half a year, and then I moved to Harrisburg.
I moved to Harrisburg because one of my classmates in Vietnam had a brother who came to America in 1975 and he lived in Harrisburg. My friend contacted me to join them so I decided to move here.
You escaped but your family stayed behind.
It was a difficult choice. I have one younger sister and it was customary that only one boy in the family was supposed to marry to keep the family name going. My father had passed away in the war, so only my mom and my younger sister were there. When I was home, I was helping my mom with farming the field. When I left, it was just her and my younger sister.
What did you do after you arrived in Harrisburg, and how did you become a priest in our Diocese?
I got a job at Benihana on Paxton Street, and I worked there for four years. At the same time, I worked at Jednota Press. The reason that I escaped from Vietnam was to continue to study in the seminary. I applied to study for the Divine Word Missionaries at their seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. I studied there for one year, and realized it wasn’t a fit for me. To be honest, at that time my English was very, very poor. So I returned to Harrisburg.
I see it very clearly now. At that time when you applied to seminary – and they probably still do it now – you had to come before a board. It’s like sitting before judges, and was scary! (laughing). I came to see Bishop Keeler and I don’t think I made myself understandable to him, but I was accepted. I was sent to St. Charles in Philly to study for four years. When I graduated, Bishop Keeler went to Baltimore, Bishop Dattilo came, and then I went to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary. Bishop Dattilo ordained me in 1994.
Where have you served as a priest?
My first assignment was to St. Patrick in York with Msgr. Thomas Brenner. Then they sent me to St. Catherine Labouré in Harrisburg for three months. The reason it was three months was because Father Curtis Delarm needed room at St. Catherine’s because of his ALS. They asked me to switch with him, so I went to St. Patrick’s in Carlisle. Then I went to Maria Joseph Manor in Danville. From there, I went to St. Theresa in New Cumberland with Msgr. William Richardson. Then I went to Our Lady, Help of Christians in Lykens, and that was the first time as pastor. I also served at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament in Harrisburg and Sacred Heart in Williamstown. In Harrisburg, I also worked with the Vietnamese community. From there, I went to be parochial vicar at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Mechanicsburg, and to St. Joseph in Danville. Now I am at St. Anne’s, and I am going into my sixth year as pastor here.
What aspect of your ministry do you enjoy most?
For most of my years as a priest, I didn’t do anything with Vietnamese ministry at all. That was until Bishop Rhoades assigned me to Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament. But I’ve always loved being a parish priest.
My English accent is very challenging. English and Vietnamese are very different languages with sounds, and there are still some sounds I just cannot make. I grew up loving math and science, and here I am as a priest speaking both languages!
Have you been able to return to Vietnam to visit your family?
I go every five years. I went for the first time in 1994, almost 15 years since I had left. Back then it was a little stricter to go, but now it is easier. The last time I was there was two years ago.
What do you enjoy in your spare time?
I love to read, but I don’t have a particular subject. I read everything. I read a lot in Vietnamese. My first language is Vietnamese, even though it’s been 40 years that I’ve lived here.
When I was in the Divine Word Seminary in 1984, I truly made a decision for myself. I was determined to see if I could learn English straight from English. In seminary, nobody told us to take ESL classes. Some of my classmates in the ESL class were more advanced in English than me because they learned straight from English.
What do you enjoy in your free time?
I like to travel. I don’t have any particular favorite place, but I like to travel. Just getting behind the wheel on the highway is something I enjoy, because I enjoy the scenery. I’ve been to many places, almost all the states. One day, I would like to try to drive to California and back.
There is a group of seven us who are friends from the seminary and we’re priests in different dioceses. Every summer, we travel for two weeks. We rent a van, jump in and travel.
I like to travel, but at the same time I like to be by myself and be alone.
Who is your favorite saint?
St. Joseph. That is my baptismal name and my Confirmation name. In our culture, we pick a saint, and he is a model for me.
Tell me about St. Anne Parish.
This is a great parish. The people are great. It’s a very small parish, but they are very happy. This is my 26th year being ordained. Priests are pastors, and we need to be responsible for the parish we are assigned, but there is a lot of ways to encourage people to be active in the life of the parish. I love it here.
Here, we have two groups: Anglos and Vietnamese. You can see it now; every day from Monday through Friday, the parish feeds more than 200 people at lunch. We have volunteers, not only from St. Anne’s but from local parishes too. We’re a small parish, and we’re able to do it. The Vietnamese are active in it too, and the groups work very well together to do it.
(Interview conducted by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)