Twenty years have passed since he left this world, yet the memory of Fr. Thang Tran, SVD, remains vivid among those whose lives he touched.
“Thang was so easy going and he related so well with people, they just felt so comfortable around him,” said Sr. Theresa Marie Tran, SCC, spiritual director and Theology Instructor at DWC. “There was no guile in him.”
A vocation director, Fr. Thang left DWC on December 16, 1993, for New Orleans to meet with prospective students and to visit his family. Early the next morning, his car crashed into a guard rail near Winona, Mississippi. He was killed instantly.
Born in Vietnam, in 1962, he fled with his family in 1975 and came to the U.S. After high school, he attended DWC and graduated in 1984. After professing his First Vows, it was on to the Theologate and studies at Catholic Theological Union (CTU).
During those years, a local priest, Fr. Peter Hung, associate pastor at St. Thomas of Canterbury parish in Chicago, liked to invite religious of Vietnamese descent to help out at the parish. During these times, Fr. Thang got a break from his studies with some of his former DWC classmates, such as Fr. Khien Luu, former dean of students at DWC, and Quang Duc Dinh, rector for the SVD community at Techny. Sr. Theresa Marie was also part of the group.
“We would teach CCD and sometimes after Mass, go to a family’s home to eat or Fr. Peter would gather us together and have a meal,” she said. “We all became good friends.”
During his training at CTU, he went to Brazil for two years for his Cross-cultural Training Program (CTP). Ordained on March 16, 1991, at Techny, Fr. Thang was assigned as a vocation director and responsible for contacting young men in the western part of the U.S. who were interested in the SVD.
“Thang was a natural vocation director, because of his goodness,” said Sr. Theresa Marie, noting that her sister and her family live in California had become great friends with Fr. Thang. When he was in their area, he was welcome to stay with them. “My sister, her husband and her children just loved him. He could easily relate to people of different ages.”
Fr. Thang Hoang, SVD, assistant dean of students at DWC, remembers when Fr. Thang Tran visited him at his home in California, in early 1993.
“He came with his t-shirt and jeans, a very casual kind of guy. He was very gentle and cheerful and that’s what attracted me,” said Fr. Hoang, who enrolled in DWC that August. “He is one of the major reasons I am here today.”
Fr. Bang Tran, SVD, dean of students at DWC, was an upper classman when Fr. Thang Tran was a vocation director. When he was back from one of his trips, Fr. Thang would visit him and other upper classmen who were in Megan Hall at the time.
“I always remember his sharing about his experiences in Brazil as a CTP student,” Fr. Bang said. “His sharing helped me to overcome obstacles and difficulties that I encountered in Paraguay during my CTP years.”
Fr. Hoang later chose Fr. Tran to be his spiritual director, but they only met a few times before the fatal trip to New Orleans.
“His death was a total shock,” Fr. Hoang said. “I had just talked to him the day he left, just casually saying, ‘Have a good trip. See you in the new semester, in January.’ So no one expected that.”
His loss touched many lives. Many from DWC, Chicago and California traveled to the funeral.
“The funeral mass was held in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi but the distance was not an obstacle for us to say goodbye to our confrere and a good friend,” Fr. Bang said.
Three years later, a Vietnamese custom called “Mãn Tang,“ or memorial mass to end the period of mourning, was dedicated to Fr. Tran, and many more people made that trip. Today, 20 years later, the memory of his tragic death will still draw tears and sadness, but his legacy is one that everyone who knew him can be proud of.
“We all were drawn to the joy within him, his joy of being a priest and minister for the people,” Fr. Hoang said. “He had something in him that brought out the best in people.”