Vietnamese celebrate establishment of first parish in archdiocese

MEDFORD -- After many years of waiting, the Vietnamese Catholic community of the Archdiocese of Boston at long last has a parish they can call their own.

The new Blessed Andrew Phu-Yen Parish of St. Clement Church in Medford, the first Vietnamese parish in the Archdiocese of Boston, held a Mass on June 13, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, to celebrate the establishment of the parish and the installation of Father Phong Pham, its first pastor.

During the Mass, North Region auxiliary Bishop Mark W. O'Connell announced Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley's decree of the new name of the parish and installed Father Pham as the pastor. The occasion also commemorated Father Pham's 30th anniversary of priesthood.

Vietnamese Catholics in the Boston area have long petitioned the archdiocese to form a Vietnamese parish, Father Pham said in a June 21 interview.

"They've been longing for a parish of their own so that they can carry on preserving not only their faith but also their cultures," said Father Pham.

Many of them, especially those living in East Boston, came to the United States to escape Communist persecution in Vietnam.

"In the past, they were at the welcoming hospitality of nearby parishes. They became a part of the parish but never had what they call a home of their own," Father Pham said.

Since St. Clement Church was in danger of closing, Bishop O'Connell had the idea to form a Vietnamese parish at the church, which seemed to be a "win-win" solution for both communities.

"The parish will remain open, the church will remain open, and the Vietnamese will have a home," Father Pham said.

The new parish takes its name from the first Vietnamese martyr.

"This is going to be the first Vietnamese parish, and so, it's so fitting (because) Andrew Phu-Yen is the first Vietnamese martyr," Father Pham said.

A priest for the Diocese of Thanh Hoa, Vietnam, Father Pham had been sent to the East Coast to be close to seminarians studying abroad. After spending a few months at Sacred Heart Church in Quincy, the archdiocese approached him about celebrating Mass in East Boston. They told him about St. Clement's and put him in touch with Bishop O'Connell to discuss the future of the Vietnamese Catholic community.

Father Pham said that, at first, he was hesitant about taking on the position of pastor -- until he was told that if he did not, there would not be a Vietnamese parish for the time being. He prayed about it and ultimately accepted the position.

As soon as he came to St. Clement's in the summer of 2020, he started meeting the people to get to know them, explain the situation to them, and give them a sense of direction.

"I did everything I could, not only to allay their fear but to walk (with) them side by side," Father Pham said.

He said he was like a bridge, channeling communication between groups. He told the English-speaking community about the persecution of Catholics in Vietnam, and he told the Vietnamese community about the St. Clement parishioners' pain and fear of losing their parish.

Father Pham initially planned to have the different Vietnamese communities come together with the parishioners of St. Clement's over the course of three years. But they wanted to form one community right away.

"I was extremely moved by the love that the Vietnamese are showing for each other and the English-speaking folks showing for the Vietnamese Catholics," he said.

Father Pham said works of charity have been an important instrument in helping to bring the people of the new parish together, since "everyone has a heart for the poor."

Even though the church was in the red when Father Pham arrived, they have put aside a percentage of the collection for charitable work, and several projects have been completed or are underway. They have a thrift shop for clothes, the youth are organizing a community pantry, and, last Christmas, the parish raised money to build two houses in Vietnam and buy food for a leper colony and an orphanage.

He said he is also considering serving food at the parish on Sundays as both a fundraiser and a way to bring people together, though those plans are currently on hold due to the pandemic.

"Our whole existence as Christianity is about banqueting, about sitting down together, the saints and sinners, the older folks and the young, men (and) women, we all sit together at table. And so I use these two prongs as a means to pull the parish family together," Father Pham said.

Father Pham said the June 13 celebration was a joyous occasion.

"The greatest thing was people were so happy," Father Pham said.

He said they are grateful to God, to Cardinal O'Malley, and to Bishop O'Connell "for seeing this through."

"I'm so happy the people have stepped up and taken ownership of this place. It's not a matter of thinking or believing, but I know that St. Clement's is back for good," Father Pham said.