Cathedral rector connects with Vietnamese culture
By JOANNE FOX, Globe editor
Father William Vit Jr. does not settle for letting his Cathedral of the Epiphany congregation come to him. He reaches out to them.
Even if they are some 8,000 miles away.
Father Vit journeyed to Vietnam recently to connect with people associated with the Vietnamese population served at the Cathedral.
This is not the first time Father Vit has traveled to another country to do what God does – connect with people.
Last year, Father Vit and diocesan seminarian Brian Feller took a July trip to Mexico. As rector of the Cathedral, Father Vit noticed that many of his parishioners would leave Sioux City in the summer – sometimes for a week, sometimes for three months – and journey back to where they resided in Mexico.
“While they may make Siouxland their home, a part of their heart remains in their homeland in Mexico,” he said. “By visiting those areas where they grew up and often return to visit, a connection could be made between the two and through the lens of the church, Sioux City could be seen as an extension of their homeland.”
However, Father Vit characterized this trip to Vietnam as a bit different than the Mexico trek.
“When I traveled to Mexico, I knew the language and was familiar with the culture, so I would say it was more of a ‘culmination,’ than an initiation,” he said. “This time, I had no knowledge of the language, limited understanding of the culture, so it was more of the ‘beginning’ of a journey.”
Father Vit traveled alone for this Feb. 19-28 trip, but connected quickly with a strong support system.
“I started by meeting with Dominican priests in Saigon who assigned me a tutor at a local university so I could begin the process of learning some of the language and more about the culture,” he said.
Father Vit also connected with Father Hieu Nguyen, senior priest at Cathedral of the Epiphany, who ministers to the Vietnamese population, which numbers around 150 families.
Father Nguyen was born in Vinh Thanh, Caimon, Bentre in Vietnam. He spent a number of years living and ministering in a Vietnamese Refugee Camp in Malaysia and in 1990 relocated to the United States. He served five years in San Diego and came to the Cathedral in 1995.
Since then he has worked with the Vietnamese community in Sioux City and also ministers to the Vietnamese community at St. Joseph Cathedral in the Diocese of Sioux Falls, S.D.
“I wanted to visit Father Hieu because I knew he grew up in a rural area,” Father Vit said. “I wanted to experience the contrast between the urban feel of Saigon and the ‘country’ aspect of Vietnam.”
Father Vit had the pleasure of celebrating Father Nguyen’s 45th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood – a bit early. After completing his studies at St. Joseph Seminary in Saigon, Father Nguyen was ordained April 29, 1969.
“It was a joy,” Father Vit said. “Father Hieu had his siblings there to help him celebrate.”
Pride of people
For Father Vit, the best part of the journey was seeing the pride the people had in their Catholic faith and how they wanted to show off a church building project.
“As in Mexico, the people wanted to show me around their country, but especially wanted to show me the progress they were making on their church building,” he said. “When you look at the scaffolding erected in front of the church and realize the time and effort they are taking to make it the best possible worship site, it is unbelievable.”
At the moment, Father Vit hopes for a return trip next year.
“I would really like to spend time immersing myself in the language,” he said. “It’s a challenging language because it is a tonal language, which is very different than English. So, the different ways of inflecting the letter ‘a,’ for example, can lead to very different words that are actually spelled the same.”
There is also a practical matter to consider, Father Vit added.
“Father Hieu is not able to meet the needs of our Vietnamese community forever,” he said. “It is imperative I learn more about their culture and the language so I can minister to this congregation as well.”
As with the Hispanic population, Father Vit has come to see that ministry is about providing a cultural and language connection for the Vietnamese who reside in Siouxland.
“That is important so while they are here, their Catholic identity can be strengthened and maintained,” he said.
Vit chronicled the trip, taking several hundred pictures and posting them every evening on Photo Stream so others could enjoy the trip. Like the Mexico journey, many of the photos will be printed and put on display in the church.
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