website & blog of Tuan Hoang, Pepperdine University


Vietnamese diaspora

My two articles on Vietnamese Catholic refugees

Click here to read the first article and here for the second. 

I am up for tenure this year, and preparation naturally made me think back to the pre-tenure review two and a half years ago. It was largely a positive experience leading to a largely positive outcome, but I remember it most for what followed: a shift in the direction of my research agenda prompted by the dean’s letter and a rejection email. 

My pre-tenure application described an ambitious agenda of writing seven articles: three based on my dissertation and four brand new ones. They belong to three different categories: the history of South Vietnam, the history of Vietnamese Catholic refugees in the U.S., and pedagogy on core texts, mostly from papers presented at the Association for Core Texts and Courses (ACTC). One article would be about the Catholic refugees. I also ranked the categories in priority and timing, and the paper on Catholicism was last. Four months after submitting the application, I followed up on my plans as described in the application and sent the first submission, a piece of intellectual history, to a journal based in Europe. 

Two months later, when I was working on another article–this one was cultural history–the journal informed me that they rejected it on the basis of evaluation by two (anonymous) peer reviewers. I read the evaluations and very much agreed with them that my submission needed a lot more work. I’d rushed writing that draft so I could get to the next one. It was a case of quantity over quality. In addition, about six weeks before I heard from the journal, I received a review letter from the dean of my college (which was standard practice). The letter was quite positive of my review but also encouraged me to “prioritize” my agenda for the next two, three years. 

Not surprisingly, these back-to-back developments gave me pause. I was clearly over-optimistic when writing the pre-tenure review and, now, I needed to rethink my agenda. I could have spent time to revise the submission, or continued to work on the other paper. Though different, they both deal with Vietnamese nationalism. Alternatively, I could focus on one category alone. 

After spending some time on a preliminary survey about primary sources, historiography, and opportunities regarding each category, I decided to spend the remainder of my pre-tenure on the early history of Vietnamese Catholics in the U.S. It gave another meaning to the Biblical saying that the last shall be first. 

It began a new journey that led to these articles. (A third submission is on Catholicism in South Vietnam. It received a decision of “revise-and-resubmit,” which is what I am currently doing.) It involved two short trips to Washington, DC for archival research and reading many primary publications from Cornell and Yale as well as a lot of secondary sources. During this time, I edited two collections of ACTC conference papers and wrote a short essay for a collection about the Republic of Vietnam that will be published in a few months. The bulk of the time, however, went into research, writing, and revision of these two articles. 

2 ACS photo
One of the photos accompanying the ACS article, showing refugee flower girls during the first annual Vietnamese pilgrimage to the Grotto near Portland, Oregon in 1977. Thanks to Fr. Ansgar Tinh Pham, pastor of the Our Lady of Lavang Parish in Portland for the permission to reprint the photos in this article.

Here’s a breakdown of each article. The article in American Catholic Studies advances the concept “exilic Catholicism” to interpret the first waves of Catholic refugees. The term itself actually appears only once (on p. 33), but the point should be pretty clear after you read the article. I came to this concept mostly after a close reading of primary sources. But the secondary literature also helped, especially Gerald Poyo’s excellent book on the history of Cuban Catholic refugees.

In my view, the exilic identity characterized the refugee experience from 1975 to, approximately, the late 1980s or even early 1990s. It then shifted to a transnational identity, but some features of the exilic identity have continued to define the Vietnamese American Catholic experience to this day. 

Here’s the structure of the article. Academics and researchers may want to look at the survey of scholarship. Otherwise, read the introduction then go straight to the goodies on pp. 13-35. 

  • Pp. 1-4. Introduction
  • 4-6. Scholarly significance
  • 7-12. Survey of scholarship, mostly the social sciences and religious studies
  • 13-22. Vietnamese Catholic history prior to 1975, plus the Fall of Saigon
  • 23-35. The exilic experience
  • 35-36. Brief conclusion

Similar to my article on diasporic anticommunism in the Journal of Vietnamese Studies, this article is a good deal longer than a typical history essay. It employs mostly published primary sources It addresses the scholarship from other disciplines. It argues for the historicization of the subject at hand, and also historicizes a good deal. Nonetheless, it leans towards the conceptual and, like  the JVS article, may possibly serve as a lynchpin for a longer project or a book manuscript.

In comparison, the second article is a little more than 10,000 words. It uses mostly correspondences found in the archives. It provides new information in a chronological fashion. It tries to find an answer to a particular question. It is, in short, like most history articles. It appears in U.S. Catholic Historian, which organizes each issue thematically.

This article includes a lot of new information about the leadership and coordination of the United States Catholic Conference (USCC) to resettle refugee religious, priests, and seminarians. But it also seeks to answer, somewhat indirectly, the question, “Why has there been an outsized number of Vietnamese American priests and nuns?” There are several reasons, including those rooted in the history of Catholicism in Vietnam, but at least one reason is rooted in the experience of loss and separation. The fall of Saigon led to a profound fear among the Catholic refugees that they might lose their culture, that they wouldn’t have enough priests and men and women religious members to lead them in the future. Out of this fear came a greater communal promotion of and investment in new vocations from the younger members of their communities. The article concludes with a brief comparison of the Vietnamese situation to the Korean and Filipino Catholic immigrant communities that have followed different trajectories.

USCH cover 2019

I’ve already thanked numerous people for their assistance during the research, writing, editing, and revision of these articles. But I must repeat an appreciation to the Interlibrary Loan staff at Pepperdine Library and the staff at the archives of the Catholic University of America. Remarkably, the USCC documents were deposited, processed, and made available to researchers only two months before my first visit to the American Catholic History Research Center at Catholic University of America. Talk about good timing. The website didn’t yet list the boxes but the terrific staff sent me a list even without me asking. 

The completion of my dissertation closed the first phase of my life as an academic researcher. The publication of these articles concludes another phase, one that carried some anxiety but, for the most part, joy and delight. The outcome is of course important, but the journey is more important for me. I loved the dissertation journey (except for the fact that I took too long to complete).  I’ve loved the tenure-track journey (which, as if I made amends for the dissertation journey, I chose the five- instead of six-year track). Anyway, onward to the third phase! 

The new phase should include further research about the Catholic refugees and Catholicism in South Vietnam, which figures on the pages of these articles. Indeed, my research over this past summer was evenly divided between pre-1975 Vietnamese Catholicism and post-1975 Catholic refugees. For it isn’t possible to grasp the experience among the refugees without being versed enough about the history of Catholicism in South Vietnam. All the same, I’d like to revisit a couple of other proposed topics named in the pre-tenure review during the third phase. We shall see.

For tenure-track faculty, it’s clear from my experience that one ought to follow the recommendation of your dean and the RTP committee. There is something to be said about their collective wisdom. The window between pre-tenure and tenure reviews isn’t large and one must be very strategic on using it. The recommendations following the pre-tenure review only help one determine the strategy. 

Moreover, be grateful for editors and referees who are prompt in reviewing your works, even when the outcome is negative. This point, of course, applies to other academics as well, not merely tenure-track faculty. Promptness and professionalism help everyone. In my case, the prompt reviews and decision from the Europe-based journal sure helped me re-chart the road map well and fruitfully. It led me to a new and apt direction that utilizes my scholarly skills in the best way possible, and even sharpens my calling as a historian.  

Sister Lê Thị Lý, Catholic refugees in Seattle, and refugee ads

A few days ago, I saw two or three friends from Seattle years posted on Facebook a tribute on Raymond Hunthausen, former archbishop of Seattle, on his death at 96 years old. (The writer is Fr. Michael Ryan, rector of the Cathedral parish and one of the spiritual chaplains of the L’Arche community that I belonged.) By a coincidence, the next morning  I came across two items while looking at some old issues of a magazine by Vietnamese Catholic refugees, and one of them shows a photo of the late archbishop presiding over a mass among Vietnamese refugees in 1978.

Continue reading “Sister Lê Thị Lý, Catholic refugees in Seattle, and refugee ads”

Food, cooking, and gardening among Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s

Refugee kitchen worker at Fort Chaffee in 1975 ~ pc Southeast Asia Archive, UC Irvine

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Our Lady of Lavang chapel at the BNSIC


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Fortieth anniversary of two Catholic monthlies by Vietnamese refugees


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How many Vietnamese Catholic priests are there in the U.S.?

The short answer: There were about 900 Catholic priests of Vietnamese origin in the U.S. by 2012. There are approximately 950 at this time (2017), and probably more.

Some participants in the fifth of a series called Emmaus, which are national gatherings among Vietnamese American priests. The 2013 gathering was held in Little Saigon, Orange County. ~ pc

Continue reading “How many Vietnamese Catholic priests are there in the U.S.?”

Catholic refugees, the age of priests, and money

“Do anything three times if possible,” goes my motto as a forty-something. Publish three books or articles on different topics but a common theme. Or, dance to three different songs but the same genre from the same period. Or, write three blog posts about the same subject matter in a row. Three books and articles I haven’t achieved.  But I’ve done the dancing bit and now I am doing the third thing.  My last two blog posts are about Vietnamese Catholic refugees in the U.S. during the 1970s and the 1980s, and this post rounds up the miniseries.

Continue reading “Catholic refugees, the age of priests, and money”

Fr. Trần Văn Khoát and Catholic refugees in Beaumont and Port Arthur

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.
Continue reading “Fr. Trần Văn Khoát and Catholic refugees in Beaumont and Port Arthur”

The last years of Ngô Đình Thục

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.

Continue reading “The last years of Ngô Đình Thục”

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