November 14, 2019

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'This is God's plan for me'

Priest from Vietnam serving Archdiocese of St. Boniface

JOHN LONGHURST / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>"Father Peter" as he is called, who hails from Vietnam, decided to minister to worshippers in Winnipeg.</p>

JOHN LONGHURST / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

"Father Peter" as he is called, who hails from Vietnam, decided to minister to worshippers in Winnipeg.

Before Peter Le Van Ngu arrived in Winnipeg from Vietnam in 2012, he knew nothing about the city, or Canada, for that matter.

"I had never heard of Winnipeg before," said the 36-year-old, who was ordained as a priest in the Archdiocese of St. Boniface on June 1.

Vacancy in the pulpits

Like a general manager of a sports team on the lookout for new players, Archbishop Albert LeGatt of the Archdiocese of St. Boniface is always seeking new priests to fill vacant pulpits.

“There’s a shortage of priests in the archdiocese,” he said, noting it is hard to find Canadians who want to enter the priesthood.

Like a general manager of a sports team on the lookout for new players, Archbishop Albert LeGatt of the Archdiocese of St. Boniface is always seeking new priests to fill vacant pulpits.

“There’s a shortage of priests in the archdiocese,” he said, noting it is hard to find Canadians who want to enter the priesthood.

But countries in the global south have many seminarians studying to become priests, he said. That’s why he employs scouts in Vietnam and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The local priests look for young men willing to relocate to Manitoba to serve churches here.

“They need to be adventurous, able to learn a second language, willing to leave their home and country and try new things and have a missionary orientation,” LeGatt said of the qualities his scouts look for.

So far, they have found six candidates for him: four from Vietnam and two from the Congo. In June, the first was ordained as a priest: Father Peter Le Van Ngu of Vietnam.

LeGatt is quick to point out he’s “not stealing their priests.”

Everything is done in consultation with local church leaders, and with their blessing, he shared.

“They have an abundance (of seminarians), Canada has a lack,” he added. “We need assistance. They are giving us their seminarians out of their generosity.”

LeGatt has seen the decrease in seminarians first-hand. When he was in seminary in Quebec in the late 1970s, there were about 65-70 students. Today there are only three or four at the school.

“We aren’t able to keep up with the demand from the parishes,” he said, noting about half of the 60 active clergy in the Archdiocese of St. Boniface are “loaners” from other countries: clergy who serve here for six to nine years, then go back home.

At the Archdiocese of Winnipeg, things are similar, with 37 out of 82 clergy coming from outside of Canada. Eleven of the foreign-born clergy are from The Philippines.

“It’s very much a challenge to find Canadians who want to be priests,” LeGatt said.

"I had heard about Toronto and Vancouver, but that’s all," said Father Peter, as he is known.

Now serving the parishes of St. Claude and St. Denis in southern Manitoba, he knew from a young age he wanted to be a priest. But his journey to the priesthood in Manitoba was an unexpected one.

It started when he was a child, growing up in a devout Roman Catholic family in communist Vietnam.

Not only did his parents take the children to church regularly, and pray together, they always promoted the idea that the priesthood was a good and important vocation.

Through them, Le Van Ngu developed an interest in ministry, which his parish priest noticed and nurtured.

“He set an example of how a priest should be a shepherd to his people. I wanted to be like him. I wanted to serve people.” — Peter Le Van Ngu speaking about the influence his parish priest had in his interest in the ministry.

"He was a spiritual father to me, a very influential person in my life," he said over a cup of strong coffee at Café Postal in St. Boniface.

"He set an example of how a priest should be a shepherd to his people. I wanted to be like him. I wanted to serve people."

After high school, he went to university and then to seminary. It was there, in early 2012, he had an unusual visit from a "scout" — a Vietnamese priest working on behalf of Archbishop Albert LeGatt of the Archdiocese of St. Boniface.

The scout’s job was to find seminarians who might want to come to Manitoba to help fill vacant pulpits in this province. He would then share their names with the archbishop.

Since he spoke French and English, Le Van Ngu was a choice candidate. But he was still surprised by the encounter.

"I had never thought of that (leaving Vietnam) before," he said.

A couple of months later, he met LeGatt in Vietnam and was invited to come to Manitoba that summer to check things out.

After the visit, "I felt at peace," he said. "I saw Manitoba as a good place to serve."

After a quick visit back home to say his goodbyes, Le Van Ngu returned to Canada to begin studies at St. Peter’s Seminary in London, Ont. After graduating this spring, he was ordained. He is the first of four seminarians from Vietnam coming to serve in the Archdiocese of St. Boniface.

Of his new ministry in St. Claude and St. Denis, he said, "I am super happy to be there," comparing his adventure to how God called the patriarch Abraham to leave his home and journey to a new land.

"It’s no accident I’m in Manitoba," he said. "This is God’s plan for me."

Le Van Ngu also sees it as a way to repay the missionaries who went to Vietnam 500 years ago.

“They dedicated their whole lives to my people,” he said. “Now the countries that sent missionaries need priests. This is my tribute for them bringing the gospel to Vietnam.” — Le Van Ngu viewing his placement in Manitoba as God's plan for him.

"They dedicated their whole lives to my people," he said. "Now the countries that sent missionaries need priests. This is my tribute for them bringing the gospel to Vietnam."

As for life in Canada, there are differences. It’s cold in winter, of course, but not as hot as Vietnam in summer.

There are also spiritual differences. "There is much more religious freedom in Canada than in Vietnam," he said of life for Christians under that country’s communist government.

He can’t understand why Canadians, who can worship as freely as they want, don’t take advantage of it, or why so many churches are losing parishioners, despite rising secularism.

In his home country, it’s the opposite. "In Vietnam we want to defend the faith by practising it," he stated, adding that attendance at mass there is high.

And yet, he doesn’t lose hope. "Many people here (in Canada) are still keeping the faith. It is deep in their hearts. God is working in them."

His goal is "to rekindle" that faith. "The flame has not gone out (in Manitoba). I want to make it brighter."

Looking ahead, he’s excited to start the process of becoming a Canadian citizen. "The grace of God has helped me through all the difficulties," he said of his journey so far. "I am thankful to everyone in Canada who has made me feel welcome."

faith@freepress.mb.ca

John Longhurst

John Longhurst
Faith reporter

John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.

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