The only time that I’ve seen anyone related by blood to Ngô Đình Diệm – Ngo Dinh Diem for readers that are used to the English spelling – occurred exactly thirty-three years ago this month. The town was Carthage, Missouri, best known as the American headquarters of a large Catholic order of Vietnamese American priests and brothers. The person was Ngô Đình Thục, Diệm’s older brother and the former archbishop of Huế. Along with tens of thousands of Vietnamese Catholics, I was attending the annual Marian Days weekend with my family and people from southern Minnesota. Unfortunately I don’t remember much about the Archbishop except that he presided over one of the masses with a visiting bishop from Vietnam.
This episode came back to my mind because I’ve been looking into a couple of things about Catholic refugees in the U.S. after the Fall of Saigon. The Marian Days were started in 1978 by the religious order widely known among Vietnamese American Catholics as Dòng Đồng Công: the Co-Redemptrix Congregation or Co-Redemptrix Society. It is shorthand for Dòng Đức Mẹ Đồng Công Cứu Chuộc: the Congregation of the Blessed Mother Co-Redemptrix (CMC, abbreviation of the formal name in Latin Congregatio Matris Coredemptricis). At the urging of the Vatican, however, the name was changed this past April to Dòng Mẹ Chúa Cứu Chuộc: the Congregation of the Mother of the Redeemer (CRM for Congregatio Redemptoris Matris). Co-Redemptrix is a “theologically ambiguous” concept, according to the Congregation’s announcement. Historically, “Mary as co-redemptrix” had been quite ambiguous and controversial, and naturally I am curious on the reasons for the Vatican’s approval of the original name in the first place. More relevant to our time, Vietnamese and Vietnamese American Catholics are so much used to the name Dòng Đồng Công that I predict that it will take a pretty long time before they refer to it by another name.
In any event, the appearance of Archbishop Thục was something of a moral victory for the Catholic refugees in general and the CMC in particular. (In the interest of history, I am using the old abbreviation of the Congregation.) As the first major men’s religious order founded by a Vietnamese, it was born during the First Indochina War in the fiercely anticommunist northern region Bùi Chu. Its members moved south during 1954-1955, and they settled in a suburb of Saigon. In South Vietnam, the CMC was smaller than the Redemptorists, the Dominicans, probably even the Lasallians. But some 150 members left the country shortly before the Fall of Saigon: a number, I believe, that was considerably higher than any other religious order in South Vietnam. (The members that stayed behind were to face many political and economic difficulties, and the founder of the Congregation was imprisoned for many years.) This departure was fateful for the history of the Congregation as well as the history of Vietnamese Catholics in the U.S. Initially sent to Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, they were sponsored by Bishop Bernard Law in Missouri – it was before his years in Boston – who offered them a large facility from a dying religious order for a symbolic rent of one dollar a year. From that point, the CMC grew to become one of the largest, if not the largest, Vietnamese religious order, men or women, in the U.S. Arguably, it has been the most influential as well.
As for Archbishop Thục, he was attending the second of four sessions of the Vatican II Council in the fall of 1963 and, therefore, was stranded in Europe when his younger brothers were overthrown and assassinated. Not only he never returned to Vietnam, but his life also took a fascinating turn in the next two decades. Supposedly on the more “liberal” side of the bishop attendants of the Council, by the 1970s he drifted towards some of the most reactionary and anti-Vatican II groups. Between 1975 and 1982, and without permission from the Vatican, he ordained several priests to be bishops, including a Spaniard by the name of Clemente Domínguez y Gómez. The latter was leader of a schismatic Catholic group in Spain and later claimed to be the true successor of St. Peter, not Paul IV or either of the John Pauls.
Because of the illicit ordinations, the Vatican excommunicated the Archbishop in 1976. He later received a pardon, only to be excommunicated again in 1983, this time for another illicit ordination in 1981. In between these events, Thục was invited by a schismatic group of Franciscans in Rochester, NY to come to America. The group was led by Louis Vezelis, another illicitly ordained bishop, who was ordained by one of the bishops that Thục had ordained without permission. Thục came to the U.S. in 1982 and stayed with this group in Rochester, and here comes the story that I’d like to tell you about.
From what I’ve gathered, it doesn’t appear that Archbishop Thục mingled among Vietnamese much at all up to this point. Of course, there weren’t many Vietnamese in Western Europe and the U.S. until the Fall of Saigon. Outside of Asia, the largest community before 1975 was in France. There were a number of Catholics, and they actively created and organized ethnic associations as early as the mid-1940s. At the same time, it’s possible that some Catholics were ambivalent while non-Catholics were antipathetic towards the Ngô family after the events in 1963.
After Thục’s move to the U.S., however, a Vietnamese priest in New York got a hold that the excommunicated cleric was living in the state. He passed this news to Trần Đình Trường, a former South Vietnamese military officer that made his fortune as a hotel owner in New York City after 1975. (Years later, one of his hotels was declared the worst in NYC, but it is a different story altogether.) The news traveled to Missouri, specifically to a refugee priest by the name of Trần Văn Điển. Fr. Điển wasn’t a member of the CMC, but a diocesan priest from Huế then living in retirement among the CMC. Fr. Điển wrote to a former employee of Thục then living in California, and asked him to call the Archbishop. The latter did, and during the conversation Thục expressed the desire to visit California but said he had no money at all.
Knowing about this situation, Fr. Điển and the CMC superior, Fr. Nguyễn Đức Thiệp, came up with a plan to take Thục out of upstate New York and to Southwestern Missouri. Here’s my translation of a key paragraph from one of the more detailed narratives that I’ve found online so far. (For the sake of history, let’s hope that more details are kept in an archival file somewhere.)
Around the lunar New Year of the Rat, 1984, the retired priest Fr. Điển flew to New York and asked to visit Archbishop Thục then staying with the [breakaway] Franciscans… Fr. Điển invited Archbishop Thục to attend the new year’s ceremony organized by Vietnamese in Washington, DC. The automobile took Fr. Điển, Fr. Thiệp, Mr. Trần Đình Trường, and Archbishop Thục. It stopped in New York City to pick up some items, then sped up to Washington [not to the Vietnamese event but] to the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See. The illicit Bishop Vezelis had sent a bodyguard to go with Archbishop Thục. Both sides fought and argued over Thục, and they called the police to intervene. The police declared that the Archbishop had the full right to choose his residence, and he loudly stated that he chose the Vietnamese community and the Roman Church.
The Archbishop stayed at one of Trường’s hotels in NYC and flew to Louisiana on February 2, 1984 to be with the CMC before heading to Missouri. It was only a matter of time and formality before the strayed cleric returned to the fold of the Roman Catholic Church. Seven months later, he said mass in front of thousands of his co-ethnics. Four months after that mass, he died in the care the CMC. Again, I can’t remember the reaction to his appearance in Carthage. (Please, someone that recorded the event, post your video on YouTube!) But it won’t surprise me a bit if they cheered loudly for him.
There is a lot more that I’d like to find out about these events, and a lot more to ponder about the larger context of this story of “rescue and return.” (On the other hand, the schismatic Franciscans referred to it as an abduction and called the Vietnamese priests “turncoats.”) Why, for example, did Thục agree to leave Europe for America in 1982? Who was the Vietnamese priest in New York, and how did he find out about the Archbishop’s whereabouts? Did the Vietnamese priests in Missouri coordinate the meeting with the Apostolic Nunciature before picking up Thục in January 1984? Anyway, I think that a case could be made that Thục’s return carried double or even triple meaning to the Vietnamese. It was a return to the Vatican and the Church, yes, but also return to Vietnamese Catholicism and, in some respects, return to history. Catholicism, nationalism, and historical memory interacted considerably in this case.
I also think that many of the Catholic refugees, especially members of the CMC, felt at least some closure and resolution about the last year of the Archbishop’s life. During the Vietnam conflict, northern Catholics that moved south provided a consistent anticommunist stand and support for Diệm when he was in power. They grieved gravely for Diệm after his death in 1963, and grieved a lot more after Saigon fell to the communists. The “rescue and return” of his older brother was nowhere dramatic as the assassination and aftermath. But, I think, it provided a small if not insignificant measure of solace to those refugees. In 1984, after all, they had no clear idea if they would ever see again their old churches, neighborhoods, the tombs of deceased family members, and of course loved ones still living. The “return” of the Archbishop, I think, offered some of them a psychological boost to the long-standing belief in the righteousness of their Catholic practices and anticommunist ideology.