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Breaking bread: Vietnam couple whet appetites for Gospel

Lent a prime time for Catholics to do charitable deeds and introduce Catholicism to people of other faiths, says priest

ucanews.com reporter, Hue

ucanews.com reporter, Hue

Published: April 11, 2019 04:53 AM GMT

Updated: April 15, 2019 03:36 AM GMT

Breaking bread: Vietnam couple whet appetites for Gospel

Father Francis Xavier Nguyen Thien Nhan (second from right) and sisters offer free bread with pork to patients and their relatives on April 4 at a convent in Vietnam's Hue City. (ucanews.com photo)

Every morning, Mary Tran Thi Sen stuff 50 baguettes with roast pork, vegetables and condiments at their home in Hue City and use their rusty old moped to deliver them to those in need free of charge. They take bread from a church-run bakery nearby.

The mother of five from Phu Hau parish in this central Vietnamese city said the couple began dispensing banh mi to those living on or below the breadline in late 2018 after benefiting from Christian charity themselves. They are stepping up their philanthropic endeavors over Lent, which is celebrated in different ways around the country.

Sen said local Catholics threw her a lifeline four months earlier by furnishing her with a handcart so that she could earn a living selling street food.

"We give bread to the poor in a humble and respectful way. We treat them like our customers and bring God's love to them," the 52-year-old said.

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"Although we are also scratching a living, we are trying to follow other Catholics by helping those in need over Lent," added Sen, who converted to Catholicism six months ago. Her husband works as a carpenter.

"Lent is a great opportunity for Catholics to do charitable deeds and to introduce Catholicism to people of other faiths," said the couple's parish priest, Father Francis Xavier Nguyen Thien Nhan.

Father Nhan, who actively evangelizes, said the bakery, which is operated by 10 volunteers, produces over 200 loaves a day that are given away for free to patients at local hospitals and others in need.

The priest said local Catholics and retired priests cover most of the costs of the project, dubbed Banh Mi Bac Ai (Bread of Charity), to help spread Catholicism to people of other faiths. 

Volunteers make bread at a bakery at Phu Hau Church on April 5. (Photo by Peter Tran/ucanews.com)


The bread is wrapped in paper bags decorated with the words "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy."

"They can read the words of God while eating bread," said the priest, who launched the initiative last year.

It bears some of the hallmarks of another project run by faith-based organizations 1,000 kilometers away in Hong Kong in 2016 when attempts were made to set a new Guinness World Record.

Spreading the love at Lent

Father Nhan said many non-Catholics celebrate Christmas and attend Christian wedding ceremonies and funerals at his church. Some even let their children take catechism classes and partake in cultural performances there.

The parish welcomes 10-15 newcomers a year and serves 763 Catholics, mostly farmers, among a local population of 13,500 people, he added.

Sister Josephine Huynh Thi Ly from the St. Paul de Chartres congregation, which will celebrate its 160th year in Vietnam in 2020, said Father Nhan also supplies bread to 150 patients and their relatives at her convent.

Sister Ly wakes at 3 a.m. and works with two other sisters to prepare meat and vegetables that are used as fillings for the banh mi. Hungry benefactors can be seen lining up outside the convent at the crack of dawn, she said.

The nun, who works at state-run Hue Central Hospital, said many patients spend months at the facility but cannot afford to eat properly, let alone afford all their medical bills. She said the nuns also offer them free chao, or boiled rice and meat.

"We try to console them by serving them good meals," she said. "Patients are the very image of a suffering Jesus."

Retired Father John Baptist Le Van Nghiem said that during Lent volunteers deliver free lunches to 150 patients and their relatives at local hospitals.

Father Nghiem runs a restaurant that provides cheap meals to motorbike taxi riders, peddlers of second-hand wares, and lottery-ticket vendors.

Le Thi Toan, whose husband has bowel cancer, has been receiving food from the nuns since her spouse was hospitalized in February.

"We are deeply grateful to the Catholics who comfort us with good food in our time of difficulty," said Toan, a Buddhist.

The 59-year-old also benefited from a generous donation of 10 million dong (US$432) to pay for her husband's treatment thanks to the fundraising efforts of local Catholics.

Sacred Heart Father Joseph Duong Bao Tinh said he called on Vietnamese-French Catholics to drum up financial support for their community. They offered rice, money, wheelchairs and bikes to 500 people in need from three parishes in Hue Archdiocese.

Thomas Bui Van Nam, a lay leader from Lai An parish, said Catholics from many parishes save money to repair ramshackle houses regardless of their tenants' faith, and offer capital to poor people to raise poultry for a living.

Nam, 58, said the Church has thrown a lifeline to many people who are ill, unemployed or who have seen their crops washed away by floods and coastal erosion

"We are very happy to humbly share God's love and what we have with our brothers and sisters over Lent," Nam said.

Hue Archdiocese has 72,000 Catholics served by 150 priests among a total population of 2.1 million in the two central provinces of Thua Thien Hue and Quang Tri. 

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