On the eve of the Feast of the Vietnamese Martyrs, a story of Vietnam seemed appropriate.
About half-way up the Eastern coast of Vietnam, just north of Da Nang, lies the mountain pass of Hai Van—featuring spectacular views of Da Nang Bay and the South China Sea. At the base of the pass sits the resort town of Lang-co, touted by Vietnamese officials as a “lost paradise” and home to a developing eco-tourism industry. But forty years ago, Lang-co was little more than a fishing village. It was here that Peter Quang Ngyen found himself boarding a boat on a mission from his bishop. Destination: unknown.
The only boy in a family of nine daughters, Quang was the family’s honored son. His childhood was spent much like any little boy, playing with friends, going to school, and attending daily Mass with his family. When Quang was in fifth grade, it was decided that he had a vocation. The next year, through great sacrifice, his parents sent him away to minor seminary. It was 1966.
Though intelligent and capable, Quang had no real interest in the priesthood. He was a leader among his peers and excelled in his class work, but he preferred to spend his energy devising pranks. Once—fed up with bathroom politics—he connected a live wire to the metal urinal trough, giving the bullies who pushed to the front of the line a 220-volt zap. As a penance, he was assigned to kitchen duty and given the task of hand-mixing powdered milk for the five hundred seminarians. When everyone except him developed diarrhea, Quang confessed to having added a box of soap flakes to the milk. But though he was incorrigible and often threatened with expulsion, Quang’s bishop made sure that he stayed.
In 1968 came the Tet offensive. Quang witnessed first-hand the carnage and suffering of war. Fortunately, the seminary remained intact, and the seminarians put themselves at the service of the people. Over the next five years, Quang spent his time doing everything from giving haircuts and immunizations to re-building homes and teaching. And though he found much joy in his work, he still had little thought of the priesthood.
Finally, with his studies near an end, Quang made the decision to leave the seminary. The bishop, however, still firmly believed in Quang’s vocation and suggested that he take a year for prayer and discernment while working in some new area of ministry—something he’d never done before. Always adventurous, Quang was intrigued by the bishop’s suggestion and agreed to his plan. Little did he know what the bishop had in mind. And so it was that Quang found himself boarding a boat in the village of Lang-co, with no idea where he was going or what he was to do.
The boat traveled an hour and a half across the open ocean until it reached a small island. As they neared the beach, people on the shore ran to greet them, waving excitedly and shouting with joy. Quang gasped and recoiled in horror as the people came clearly into view; he finally understood the Bishop’s mission for him: serving the people of the Hai Van leper colony.
Some people were missing arms; others had no legs. One person was missing a nose. Quang was at a loss for how to speak or act toward them. He was terrified and felt sick, but despite this gradually found himself responding to their warmth and genuine happiness. The island itself was incredibly beautiful and Quang found it a respite from the war on the mainland.
One evening not long after his arrival, Quang was strolling along the beach when he began to hear beautiful classical piano music. Following the music, he found himself at a little chapel used by the Daughters of St. Paul who staffed the leper colony. He quietly seated himself in the back of the chapel, not wishing to disturb the beautiful nun, playing expertly, her face framed in a spot of light. How strange and unexpected, in the middle of a leper colony, to find this lovely sight! When she finished, the nun introduced herself to Quang as Sister Teresa. They were immediate friends.
During the course of the year, Quang often worked with Sr. Teresa, usually serving the children of the island (These were children born to the lepers, who lived in a separate section.) Through all their different work, Quang always observed Sr. Teresa carefully. She was about twenty-six, though she looked much younger. She was also trained as a medical doctor. She had an angelic smile, and was always gentle and loving. Quang could not help wondering why such a beautiful, smart and talented young woman would become a nun—so he asked her. Sr. Teresa only smiled and went on with her work, but over the months Quang kept repeating the question. Finally, she agreed to explain.
That afternoon during a break from work, Sr. Teresa led Quang to a part of the island he had not yet visited. Eventually they came to a group of grave-stones—the island cemetery. Teresa pointed to two of the grave markers and said quietly, “There lay my parents.” Quang was stunned. This beautiful woman, this sincere and faith-filled nun, this medical doctor, this great pianist, this lover of the poor was a child of a leprous couple.*
Teresa had been born in the Hai-Van leper colony and had grown up with the nuns of the island caring for her. In sixth grade she had gone to live and study with the Daughters of St. Paul in preparation for entering their religious order. But she knew the leper colony was her home, a special oasis of faith and love where she wanted to spend her life giving to those most in need—because she was one of them.
It was in Sr. Teresa that Quang finally saw and understood the meaning of the Incarnation. Christ could have chosen a different way, one of power and might. But he became one of us, because of love. In the same way, Sr. Teresa could have easily used her gifts for earthly wealth or success, but she instead followed in Jesus’ footsteps, loving and serving the poor and using her talents for God’s glory. In quietly and humbly living out her vocation, she helped Quang find his own.
On Good Friday in 1975, after the services with the people of colony, Quang knew that he would return to the seminary and complete his studies for the priesthood. Sr. Teresa told him, “If you want to live in the truth of happiness, then be a lover of Christ, and do not be a winner as the world expects.” He knew he was called to become a “lover of the poor” and to become Christ for others. When he told his bishop of his decision, and of his experiences at the leper colony, the bishop answered, “This is just the beginning, Quang.”
The Hai Van leper colony was closed by the Vietnamese government in 1997 and turned into a resort area. The lepers were dispersed, with many living on the streets. Later, with help from Father Quang, the Sisters of the Visitation established a new camp in An Hoa. Sr. Teresa is buried there.
Monsignor Peter Quang Nguyen was ordained on June 30, 1990, at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Denver. He is currently pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes. The story of his life, including his harrowing escape from communist Vietnam, is chronicled in his book All Honor to You (*quoted above).