By Celine Klosterman
Thu Nance has no words to express her thanks to Father Joseph Nguyen.
“I don’t know what to say to him because he’s done so much for me,” the Missouri resident said, through tears, of the parochial vicar of Prince of Peace Parish in Clinton. “He just helped me and helped me. He didn’t take anything in return.”
Last month, the priest and Nance traveled to their home country of Vietnam with hopes of helping her find the family she lost touch with in 1975, four years after she moved to the United States. In Vietnam he and a few friends there helped her reunite with her two sisters — whom she’d last seen shortly after marrying Tom Nance, who served in the U.S. Army in her homeland from 1970-71.
During her first few years in the United States, she and her family wrote to each other often. But after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, her letters stopped being delivered. And out of fear, her mother and sisters hid any connection to Thu — a traitor in the eyes of the Vietnamese. “Back then, if they knew my mom had anything to do with me, they’d kill her,” she said.
Thu, also fearing for her and her family’s safety, didn’t try to visit Vietnam for decades. Eventually she asked acquaintances making business trips there for help finding her relatives, but the travelers claimed they had no time. And after being away so long, she felt too unfamiliar with the country to travel there alone.
But the Nances’ niece Donna Hines, director of religious education at Church of the Visitation in Camanche, told Thu not to give up. When Hines saw that Fr. Nguyen was assigned in July 2010 to Prince of Peace in Clinton, just north of Camanche, she found reason for hope. The priest’s surname matched Thu’s maiden name; perhaps he had connections to her Vietnamese family, Hines thought.
She contacted Thu, who told her Nguyen is a common surname in Vietnam. But Thu agreed to call the priest for help.
Feeling sympathetic, “I said I’d do my best,” Fr. Nguyen recalled. So he invited Thu to join him this winter when he visited his mother in Vietnam.
While there, he and Thu joined a few friends Jan. 5 to travel from his mother’s home to Thu’s hometown of Vinh Long in southern Vietnam — about 10-12 hours away. He prayed they’d find her family in time for him to return to his home parish for a Mass on Jan. 9, but he vowed to stay as long as needed.
The first day of searching turned up no information. “When I saw the town, I thought there was no way I could find my family; it had changed so much,” Thu said.
But on day two, she ran into a former neighbor — who still recognized her after 40 years. He said her sister lived not far away — and after she and Thu reunited, they contacted their other sister.
“We hugged each other and cried,” Thu said. “They told me they kept looking for me so many years; they thought I might be dead.”
Thu learned her mother had died in 1982. Both her sisters have health problems, “but at least they’re alive,” she said.
She, Fr. Nguyen and his friends phoned their families to share the news. The reunion was “not only a joy for Thu Nance’s family, but for all of us and for our families, too,” he said.
Thu spent about 10 days with her sisters and exchanged phone numbers before leaving. And Fr. Nguyen made it back to his home parish just in time for Mass, as he’d prayed.
“It was certainly all the work of God,” he said. “After all those things happened, I found that my faith in him is even stronger.”
Fr. Nguyen returned to Clinton Jan. 19. After visiting her in-laws in Clinton, Thu later returned to her and Tom’s home in Jericho Springs, Mo.
She hopes to someday bring her sisters there, too, for a visit. “Without Fr. Nguyen, I probably would have never found them. I wouldn’t expect anyone to do for someone what he did for me. He’s such a wonderful man — an angel sent from heaven.”