My last post is about Ngô Đình Diệm’s older brother Archbishop Thục, who got mixed up with several reactionary groups during the 1970s and 1980s before reconciling with the Vatican and living out his last year among a religious order of Vietnamese men in Missouri. Since then, I’ve read some more materials and learned about something I didn’t know before: a group of Catholic refugees led by a traditionalist and anti-Vatican II priest by the name of Trần Văn Khoát.
Fr. Trần Văn Khoát was ordained a priest in 1967 and arrived to the U.S. shortly after the Fall of Saigon. From several sources in English, including a long piece from the New York Times, I learned that he became a leader of many Catholic refugees, especially fishermen, during their stay at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas. (The author of the piece is Frances FitzGerald, whose shabby and very questionable perspective on Vietnamese history didn’t prevent her book on the Vietnam War from winning the Pulitzer among other awards. The NYT article was published at the end of 1975. It is informative and interesting in some respects, but it also reeks of FitzGerald’s familiar contempt for South Vietnam and cynicism towards the South Vietnamese.)
Fr. Khoát’s leadership among the Catholic refugees was initially successful in spite of his background. As noted by another source, he came from Đà Lạt, which is in the Central Highlands and isn’t close at all to the Pacific where the fishermen had lived. At Fort Chaffee, however, he led some demonstrations and made demands for better treatment of the refugees, and the activism drew a number of Catholics to his leadership. There are many gaps about the story that I hope to learn eventually. But basically by October 1975, the Diocese of Beaumont, located in Southeastern Texas and bordering Louisiana, agreed to help the resettlement of the Vietnamese priest and fifty-two families of refugees.
L: Fr. Khoát celebrates his first mass in South Vietnam. R: In Port Arthur 1979.
~ pc todayscatholicworld.com
At thirty-six years old, Fr. Khoát was still young enough to conjure up dreams for his group of refugees. To quote his own words from the NYT article,
[The region is] so beautiful. This land is very good for my people. They can grow vegetables and rice; they can fish—they say that fishing is much easier in America because you don’t have to go out so deep—and they will grow rich. In five years they will be the richest of all the refugees. They’ll buy boats. And I’ll build a village called Vung Tau because that was the first place the missionaries came to in Vietnam.
I thought about all of this in Fort Chaffee because I had read many books about the kibbutz. The big fight in this world is between Communists and capitalists, but I want to find a third way to help the people of the world. I call it pacificatisme in French. My village will be a practical test if this third way can work, if people can learn to live together, to love each other and to share so that money does not belong to the businessman but to everyone.
It sounds like a story of self-empowerment; and to an extent it was because there have been many Vietnamese Americans living in Beaumont and Port Arthur to this day. There was, however, a twist to this story. Fr. Khoát was a reactionary traditionalist who more or less rejected the teachings of the Vatican II Council. He still does, as far as I can tell. Although working under the auspices of the Diocese of Beaumont, he established a church of his own some time after settlement. It was called Cộng Đồng Phục Sinh: the Resurrection Community. (The symbolism in the name was especially apt.) His community was able to raise enough money to purchase a former Baptist church building in Port Arthur and converted it for their worship, which followed the Tridentine Latin mass. Moreover, they didn’t give the title of the building to the Diocese of Beaumont as required by Canon Law. Although this point isn’t mentioned in the English and Vietnamese sources that I’ve seen, I don’t think Fr. Khoát received permission to say the Latin mass either.
In 1978, the bishop of Beaumont was quite exasperated by the action of Fr. Khoát and the Resurrection Community, which was said to have grown to about 1000 Vietnamese. Letters were issued to Fr. Khoát, then excommunication after he joined the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). For readers not familiar with the SSPX, it has been the best-known dissident traditionalist group of former Roman Catholics. [Edit 9/17: As Jeff Culbreath and I note in the comment section, “former RCs” needs qualification because only six bishops incurred excommunication, not SSPX priests and lay followers.] Founded by the French prelate Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1970, its clergy was suspended of their public duties by the Vatican in 1976. Seventy-something Archbishop Lefebvre, however, continued to travel and meet his followers and supporters in Europe and the Americas. (He would be excommunicated in the 1980s.) On August 12, 1979, he came to Fr. Khoát’s community and blessed their church in Port Arthur.
There is a lot to this local history that I still don’t know, but it appears that the visit by Archbishop Lefebvre was the zenith of the history of the Resurrection Community. The community seems to have diminished not too long afterwards as economic factors and local developments didn’t advance the dream of Fr. Khoát. I’d also guess that many of his followers returned to the fold of the Diocese of Beaumont. In March 1977, the bishop gave permission for the establishment of a Vietnamese parish in Port Arthur, the Queen of Vietnamese Catholic Martyrs, which has existed to this day. It led to the purchase and conversion of a Protestant church to Vietnamese Catholic form, and the church was consecrated on Christmas Day 1979. The official chronology of this parish makes no mention whatsoever of either Fr. Khoát or the Resurrection Community. But it is not unreasonable to assume that many members (most?) of the Resurrection Community were persuaded by their co-religious members to switch allegiance. The threat of excommunication from the Pope, if not the local bishop, would have been a pretty powerful weapon of persuasion among the refugees.
As for Fr. Khoát, he didn’t have much of an impact on Vietnamese Catholics in the U.S. since the demise of the Resurrection Community. He has, however, resurfaced at least twice. In 1993, he sued the bishops of the Diocese of Beaumont and the nearby Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston for “defamation and intentional infliction of emotional harm.” He didn’t win, but the case provides some background to the story that I am telling.
The other notable thing about Fr. Khoát actually occurred five years before the lawsuit. In the summer of 1988, he went to Italy in an attempt to meet with Giuseppe Siri (1906-1989), an Italian cardinal believed by some reactionary traditionalists as the real Pope elected in 1958, not John XXIII. The background is somewhat arcane and complicated, especially if you’re not familiar with traditionalist Catholicism since the 1960s. (Google “Siri thesis” for a start.) In any event, it took the Vietnamese priest three months in Italy to have the first meeting. Accounts of this encounter, some of which was produced by Fr. Khoát in 2006, have appeared in several traditionalist websites that I checked, usually with photos and commentaries that have to do with conspiracy theories.
The focus of my research isn’t local history. Yet this story of Fr. Trần Văn Khoát and the Resurrection Community is fascinating for several reasons. For one, it’s a rare counterpoint or counter-example to the strongly ultramontane character of Vietnamese Catholicism. For another, it offers a most interesting example of powerful intersections between global events on the one hand, and the Vietnamese Catholic tradition on the other hand.
First of all, there were Vietnamese refugees that were suddenly dislocated in 1975 and anxiously looking for community and stability. Second, there were internal developments, controversies, and problems within the Roman Catholic Church after Vatican II. These two factors intersected not only with each other but also with the prominent roles that Vietnamese Catholics assigned to the priesthood and their priests during the twentieth century and beyond. Like other refugees at the time, the fishermen and their families were devastated and confused by the sudden and complete loss of the Republic of Vietnam. In that atmosphere, was not difficult for them to follow the lead of someone they didn’t know before. Finally, there were factors peculiar to Beaumont and Port Arthur, most of which I don’t yet know.
Hopefully, this story will be told and interpreted thoroughly one day. In the meantime, we can entertain, conceptually speaking, various angles to this intersectionality of the Cold War, the Vietnam Conflict, the aftermath of Vatican II, the Catholic Church as embodied by the Diocese of Beaumont, the southeastern region of Texas, and one atypical Vietnamese priest who seized upon this intersectionality to make a name for himself in Vietnamese American history, if only for a few years.
September 12, 2017 at 4:08 pm
Interesting story here, thank you. Just a couple of corrections. It’s not accurate to speak of the SSPX as “former Roman Catholics”. Rome itself acknowledges that they are Catholic. The priests have never been excommunicated; the view of Rome is that they are suspended “a divinis”, which is a discipline for Catholics and doesn’t impact their status as Catholics. Also, it might be helpful to consider the sincere religious motives of the SSPX and traditionalist priests like Fr. Trần Văn Khoát. I think it’s quite unfair to assume that his motive in all of this was “to make a name for himself”, unless there is more evidence than his traditionalist views suggest. Otherwise, thanks again for this piece and for all of your research. – Jeff Culbreath
September 14, 2017 at 1:21 am
“First of all, there were Vietnamese refugees that were suddenly dislocated in 1975 and anxiously looking for community and stability. Second, there were internal developments, controversies, and problems within the Roman Catholic Church after Vatican II.”
I would also like to comment on this. Given the revolutionary upheaval in their homeland, some Vietnamese Catholics undoubtedly felt that the revolutionary upheaval in the Catholic Church – real or perceived – was a bridge too far and more than they should be expected to take. So they took refuge in their religious traditions as they had always known them.
September 17, 2017 at 2:26 pm
Sorry, it took me until now to see your comments. On SSPX, true, I’ve simplified the complicated history by saying “former Catholics.” May I then clarify that the leading figures were excommunicated at one point: 1988, to be precise, when Archbishop Lefebvre (and another bishop) ordained four bishops and all of them incurred the automatic “latae sententiae.” So the six bishops were excommunicated, though not the priests, as you pointed out. Meetings in the mid-2000s yielded a statement that “the priests and faithful of the Society have not been excommunicated. They are not heretics.” There was a caution in the statement about “heresy leading to schism,” but basically, yes, you’re right in this regard. I was thinking mostly of the SSPX leadership when writing this post, and certainly welcomed your point.
As for Fr. Khoát, let’s just say that this history is still murky in some respects, and I’m making my judgment on the basis of the little I’ve known. I hope to find out more evidence, and of course will revise or confirm this judgment according to what I can find. Cheers!
January 22, 2020 at 8:20 pm
This was a fascinating read. I have a personal interest on this topic because Fr. Khoat is actually a distant relative of mine. I lived next door to him in Port Arthur, Texas as a child. I’m a first generation Vietnamese American whose parents settled in Port Arthur, Texas because of the fishing industry and because Father Khoat was our relative. As a child, I did not fully understand what was going on, but now that I am an adult, I am trying to piece together my family’s history. I stumbled upon a book on Roman Catholic history in South Texas. This work shocked me when I read the chapter on Vietnamese immigrants in Port Arthur because a large portion of that article centered on my distant uncle Father Khoat. Here is the text:
https://www.amazon.com/Diocese-Beaumont-Catholic-story-southeast/dp/B0006DHKM2and hearing stories
I’ve been gleaning as much information as I can from stories from my parents who were eyewitnesses to many of Father Khoat’s endeavors. What’s struck me is how Father Khoat played a key role in the development of the Vietnamese community where I grew up. He was an enigma for many and also a polarizing figure for the older Vietnamese generation. None of this history was ever shared to us, mostly because our parents either didn’t understand what was going on at the time regarding Roman Catholic ecclesiology and also because they were protecting us due to Father Khoat’s poor reputation amongst our community.
I am glad I’ve stumbled upon your work. I look forward to reading more about Vietnamese history.
January 23, 2020 at 12:26 pm
Jimmy, thank you for your response! I’m going to check out the book. If you don’t mind, please email me at email@example.com. I’d love to ask you a few questions: not only what you know, but also the older people that you may know who were present at that time. I hope for a chance to interview them either over the phone or during my next visit to Texas. Thanks!