Vietnamese priests reach out to poor Hmong Catholics in isolated villages

SA PA, Vietnam (CNS) — Father Peter Nguyen Truong Giang rises early to prepare for the journey to Den Thang mission. It’s a cool morning as he loads rice, instant noodles, cooking oil, fish sauce and salt onto a pickup truck he borrows from a local.

Father Giang and two lay leaders leave Lao Chai Parish at 6 a.m. for the mission, which, while just 13 miles away, takes about three hours to reach via a narrow, steep, winding, rough, muddy and forested path full of potholes.

They visit and offer food to some 10 Hmong ethnic families who have converted to Catholicism in recent years.

“Because of the difficult roads, I have visited this mission station three times since I moved to Lao Chai Parish in late 2019,” the priest told, adding that he is looking for land to buy and build a chapel.

Father Giang, 41, and two women religious serve Lao Chai Parish’s 1,400 Catholics. Most of them are Hmong villagers residing in six sub-parishes and missions. The farthest is 25 miles from the parish house in the Sa Pa district of Lao Cai province.

Parishioners are poor, so the parish and its sub-parishes lack the most basic facilities for worship and ministry. The parish has four small wooden chapels built on local people’s land.

Ordained in 2017, Father Giang said the chapels are owned by local people only on paper. The parish has not been recognized yet by Vietnam’s government after its separation in 2019 from Sa Pa Parish by the Diocese of Hung Hoa.

“I try to celebrate weekly Masses at the chapels so as to maintain religious activities among local people and promote their faith life,” he said. Many who attend are catechumens preparing for entry into the church.

Father Giang said he celebrates Mass in both Hmong and Vietnamese, the national language. Doing so allows local people to preserve their heritage while improving their Vietnamese. Fluency in the national language is essential so the Hmong can work with others, seek jobs and avoid rapacious traders and human traffickers, he said.

He serves as deputy of the diocesan Ministry Committee for Ethnic Minorities, which provides pastoral services and evangelizes among more than 20,000 Hmong Catholics and other ethnic groups in the country’s largest diocese, which covers part of Hanoi and nine mountainous provinces.

Local people were introduced to Catholicism by foreign missionaries in the late 19th century.

Father Giang said he has been interested in evangelization among Hmong people since he was a seminarian. He spent summer vacations providing pastoral services to Hmong communities. He also taught them the Hmong written language and learned the spoken language from them.

The committee in the past two years produced a Vietnamese-Hmong dictionary and held summer courses in the Hmong language for members of parish councils, lay missionaries and catechists.

Lovers of the Holy Cross Sister Mary Nguyen Thi Thu Huyen, one of the two sisters who work at the parish, said they train lay missionaries for work in the villages.

She said many couples have not celebrated their weddings in church. Some women and their children, but not their husbands, embrace the Catholic faith and many men have more than one wife.

Hmong villagers harvest one rice crop on terraces annually and suffer a lack of food for four months of the year. They must borrow money to survive.

Their breathtaking rice terraces in Muong Hoa Valley are a popular tourist destination but the Hmong gain no benefits from the visitors.

The national power grid and inter-village roads are not built in the area where 10 hydroelectric plants operate. Local people must install water generators to supply power for their needs.

“I love them because they are treated unfairly here,” Father Giang said, explaining that local authorities charge tourists the equivalent of $3.20 each for entrance fees to the destination, but that the fees are not shared with the villagers who have owned the spectacular terraces for generations.

“We daily work from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., especially on the weekend when we visit and provide pastoral services for people at local chapels,” he said. They also cook, wash their clothes, clean the chapels and repair water pipes and electric systems by themselves. Locals use plastic pipes to get water from small brooks.

Michael Lo A Lu, a Hmong parishioner, expressed gratitude for Father Giang’s efforts to bring people together, look after people in need and find benefactors to provide food for the community. The priest also helps people to earn an income by inviting Catholic tourists to stay at their homes.

Joseph Sung A Lung, 39, said Father Giang celebrates Mass at his home and encourages people to be true to their faith under any circumstances.

“The priest’s emotional and material support affords us great consolation to overcome daily challenges,” Lung, the father of five, said. “We are proud of our priest, who treats us like his family.”

Father Peter Pham Thanh Binh, Sa Pa Parish priest, said the number of Catholics has increased from 1,000 in 2007 to more than 3,000 today in three parishes and 15 sub-parishes and missions.

Father Binh, 49, baptized 130 Hmong adults and children — a record number — at Hau Thao Parish in August. The Hung Hoa Diocese records some 700 Hmong converts per year.

The priest repaired Sa Pa’s stone church and built Hau Thao church and 10 chapels. A new pastoral center is under construction next to the church.

He said the parish also builds houses for homeless people, covers health care costs for poor patients, pays for funerals and offers free accommodation to hundreds of high school students.

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