Once-persecuted priest says he’s blessed

Father Joseph Phung van Phung, a native of Vietnam, shares a laugh with audience members at the Newman Catholic Student Center in Iowa City March 24.

By Celine Klosterman

IOWA CITY — When Father Joseph Phung van Phung was growing up in Vietnam, his father shared words that Joseph would recall during times of trouble for years to come.  

While at sea one day with his father, Buong Phung, a fisherman, Joseph asked to be taught to swim. But as soon as the child entered the water, he sputtered and struggled to stay afloat.

“I’m here. Do not be afraid,” Buong said.


God shares that same message with us, Fr. Phung told about 65 people March 24. That message has long offered him comfort, he said at the Newman Catholic Student Center during his talk “Finding God in Persecution and Hardship.”

Pastor of St. Alphonsus Parish in Mount Pleasant, the priest shared how he came to be a seminarian, suffered amid war and later under Communism in Vietnam, and eventually escaped to the United States.

Growing up in a “very strong Catholic family,” he initially planned to become a fisherman like his father and grandfather. But when Joseph was about 12 years old his oldest sister, Thuc Phung, a nun, suggested he apply to enter the minor seminary — which Fr. Phung said begins in sixth grade in Vietnam. Uninterested, he nonetheless complied. “Obedience is a virtue,” he said with a smile.

He was accepted, and at Thuc’s urging, decided to try seminary life for a year. “I loved it.”

But his early studies were followed by tragedies. In 1970, during the first summer of his time in the seminary, his father died. In 1971, a hurricane destroyed the Phungs’ house. In 1972, his village was burned down — amid the Vietnam War that had left Joseph used to bombings, gunshots and the sight of dead bodies. In 1975, after South Vietnam’s capital of Saigon fell to Communist forces, his family members split up while fleeing their village. Eventually they were reunited, thanks to God, Fr. Phung said.

Under Communist rule, Joseph’s seminary was closed in 1979. He joined other Catholics as an underground catechist, working with youths he once had to dissuade from seeking revenge for policemen’s severe beating of a Catholic man. Twice, Joseph was jailed for his Church involvement.

For meager wages, Joseph worked five days a week from 3 a.m. to 9 p.m. chopping and gathering wood to sell. Exhaustion left him with a barely functioning mind, he said. After four years, he and a younger brother vowed to escape their punishing lifestyle.  

Joseph later heard of an opportunity to learn Chinese medicine. Despite being under close government surveillance, he managed to sneak away from home a month or two at a time to learn acupuncture and other medical techniques. He helped many villagers as a practitioner, but still felt called to the priesthood.

Thuc and his mother feared he’d be killed if he pursued that calling. But Joseph managed to escape Vietnam by boat one night and eventually made his way to the United States through a Texas diocese in 1993. He then came to the Davenport Diocese because of its Vietnamese Catholic community, studied English, graduated from St. Ambrose University in Davenport and completed theological studies at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

In 2000, he was ordained a priest at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport. Later that year, he returned to his homeland to visit family.

His mother has since died, but a niece is sponsoring the immigration of one of his sisters to the United States. She plans to live in Richmond, Va.

“God has blessed me, and brought me many opportunities,” the priest said.

His talk “should give everyone the idea they need to pray for others in difficult situations,” said Mary Grace Mayer, a member of the Newman Center who attended his presentation.

“It was touching and heartfelt — such a human story,” said Kathleen Staley, who coordinated his visit that was sponsored by the Journeys in Faith Discussion Group and the Newman Center. The presentation highlighted the struggles people have faced in foreign countries, she said. “It reminds us we must be so grateful for what we have.”

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