Fr. Toan Vu, SVD
Born in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, Toan Vu is the youngest of ten. He grew up in an all-Catholic settlement and graduated from high school in Ha Tien, which borders Cambodia. After escaping from Vietnam, Toan spent three years in a refugee camp in Thailand, and then came to the US, alone and unassisted. He graduated from college with an AA Degree and began working, but soon felt God’s call. In 1995, Toan entered Divine Word College as a seminary student. Graduating in 1999 with his BA Degree, he went on to novitiate and theology studies in Chicago. He did his CTP in Chile for two years. Fr. Toan was ordained at Techny in May of 2006, and in September he went to Ecuador, where he serves as a missionary for Divine Word Parish in Caupichu.
Fr. Toan Vu is no stranger to hardship. “After high school, I decided to escape from my Vietnamese homeland with a group of 49 people in a small boat,” says Toan. “Our trip to Thailand took 32 days – we experienced thirst, hunger, disappointment and even pirates.” Upon arrival, no relief was in store for the tired group. Toan spent three years in the refugee camp, still fighting hunger, disappointment and frustration.
“Yet in the midst of hardship, I heard God’s call,” says Toan, “to serve my fellow countrymen in the camp.” As a volunteer worker, Toan distributed food for the sick in the hospitals in both the Vietnamese and Cambodian refugee camps. Through this opportunity to serve, Toan met several missionaries from Italy and France. “They worked tirelessly to help better the condition of the refugee,” says Toan. “Their dedication inspired me to follow in their footsteps, to help God’s people. I longed to be one of them when I got to the free land.”
More challenges awaited Toan after his arrival in the US. “I came alone, with no help from others,” he says. “Life was hard. I struggled to work, study and survive in the new country and culture.” But within a few years, Toan had earned an associate degree in mechanical engineering, gotten a job and was working - until he realized that “this was not what I wanted. I felt empty even though my life had become stable.” After discerning his call, Toan contacted several Catholic congregations. The SVD responded first, sending a vocation director to personally visit him in Oregon, where he was working at the time.
In 1995, Toan came to Epworth as an ESL student (English as a Second Language) and graduated from Divine Word College in 1999. Ordained in May of 2006, the new SVD missionary priest left for Ecuador at the end of September. “First, I had to study the language, culture and way of life,” he says. After five months, he was assigned as pastor to Divine Word Parish in an area called Caupichu, located in a mountainous region in southern Quito, the capital of Ecuador. “Life and infrastructure are primitive,” Fr. Toan says. “Located in a high mountainous area, it is cold and rainy year round.” He adds, “There are only two paved roads, so commute is difficult. We do have electricity and running water, but no sewer, phone line or internet service.”
The Divine Word Parish encompasses 23 precincts in a vast area in the mountains, with four churches, two centers and more than 3,500 Catholic families. Though the SVD have worked here for many years, the parish itself was created ten years ago. Comprised of both indigenous and mestizo people (those of both native and Spanish origin), it helps serve the needs of the immigrants coming from other provinces to find a better life. Mostly farmers and workers, they struggle everyday to survive. “More than 60% have no jobs,” says Fr. Toan. “They raise a few livestock in their backyards to survive day by day.” He adds, “But the people are relaxed and happy and enjoy their lives as much as they can.”
A typical day for Fr. Toan combines a dizzying schedule of saying Mass, visiting parishioners and the sick, coordinating groups of people to help in the parish centers, preparing meals and keeping six hours of open office time each day to attend to parishioners’ needs. Weekends are busier. “We celebrate five, sometimes nine Masses in different centers on Saturdays,” says Fr. Toan, “in places like public halls, courtyards, football fields and capillas.” On Sundays, five Masses are celebrated in five main centers of the parish. Baptisms, weddings, funerals and meetings with different pastoral youth and Bible groups all take place in this diverse cultural setting.
“The biggest challenge in my mission work is to unite people as one parish and organize pastoral work to meet their needs,” says Fr. Toan. “Many young people drop out of school. Domestic violence and alcoholism are common problems. Transportation needs, financial and professional support are all big challenges for us.”
But despite the difficulties and hardship, Fr. Toan feels joy and satisfaction. “The biggest reward for me is the presence of God in my life as a Divine Word Missionary and in the lives of the people I serve. I am blessed to be with them, and they accept me as one of their own. I see the good results from those who respond generously to our call – worshipping and working together to build a better community for all.”
Fr. Toan says, “Divine Word College is always my home…where I learned to serve generously, live fully and work effectively in my calling. Its international aspect has prepared me to live and work with people of different cultures and religions. I am open to learning humbly from the simplest people; serving them all as my brothers and sisters in God’s family.”
“The phrase in the prologue of the SVD constitution, “His mission is our mission,” has inspired me in this work,” says Fr. Toan. “Just as Jesus worked tirelessly to help the needy, to proclaim the Good News and to live simply – so am I called to continue His mission.” He adds that the field of mission is endless and diverse; that “every one of us is called to do God’s mission in our own special way.”
And though it seems like Fr. Toan and hardship are partners for life, he makes one thing clear: “It is not easy, but I am not alone in this mission. I’m grateful for the work of the many SVDs here before me…now it is my time to continue this beautiful mission. I’m grateful to those who pray for us, and for the blessings of God. He has called many young men to DWC – to a joyful, yet struggling time - discerning, learning and preparing for future mission work. We are waiting for you. May God bless our work and our mission.”