Father Paul Duong Cong Ho (center) and road workers pose for a photo in July. (Photo supplied)
Father Paul Duong Cong Ho, clad in faded blue jeans and an old T-shirt, supervises workers building kiosks on a plot of land that Vietnam's government recently returned to his parish.
The priest said he will gather street vendors at the kiosks when the construction finishes.
“They will have a safe place to trade and make money to support their families,” the priest said, adding that his top priority is to provide facilities for disadvantaged people to improve their lives.
Father Ho, who was assigned to Thanh Tam Parish in Bao Loc city in 2016, paved the church’s yard, built a Marian grotto and a multi-purpose building where children play and people hold wedding parties, birth and death anniversaries and feasts.
The parish has 5,500 members whose ancestors moved from the north in 1954 when communist forces defeated French troops.
The 64-year-old priest holds courses in English, music and martial arts for children.
He rebuilt the parish’s cemetery, which dates back to 1954 and had few vacant plots. Local people were persuaded to disinter their old tombs built 20 years ago and rebury them in the new U-shaped columbarium.
“At first some people refused to unearth their ancestors as removing graves is strictly taboo by tradition. But later they agreed for the common good,” Father Ho said.
The 15,000-square-meter cemetery has a big Marian statue and is decorated with grass, flowers and electric lamps, attracting many visitors from other places. People daily gather to pray for their ancestors at night.
“The welfare services by Father Ho have made extensive changes to our life,” Therese Nguyen Thi Thuy Tien said after she and her child prayed in front of the Maria statue at the cemetery.
Tien, 34, said many people regularly attend Masses and send their children to catechism classes and other activities at the church after muddy roads were repaired. They also save half the cost when they hold wedding parties at the parish’s house rather than at restaurants.
Father Ho upgraded and surfaced 10 kilometers of roads and paths around the parish in July. Local people voluntarily worked on roads and made donations to partly cover the costs.
In the past those roads were rough, muddy and flooded in the rainy season and people hardly traveled and their houses were often inundated.
The white-haired priest has also built houses for those who could not afford one.
Children study at an elementary school in Da Teh district provided by Father Ho. (Photo supplied)
Basic facilities in remote areas
Ordained in 1992, Father Ho served as assistant priest at Madaguoi Parish in Lam Dong province’s Da Huoai district and built the first church in early 1999 in the neighboring district of Da Teh, which had no church and basic public services. The new church serves ethnic K’Ho villagers who previously had to travel 20-30 kilometers on foot to attend weekend Masses at Madaguoi Church.
Father Ho, who became the first pastor of De Teh Parish with 1,500 Catholics that year, said the new church attracted many people and consequently 500 people from ethnic minorities embraced Catholicism at the end of 1999.
The priest, who travels by motorbike, also assisted in building two new churches in Madaguoi and Dambri in 2000 and 2006 respectively and constructed a church in Da Nha subparish serving 1,000 Catholics in 2014.
Father Ho pays much attention to children from poor families. He erected two nursery schools and one elementary school between 1994 and 2010, assigning them to Catholic sisters. The schools take all children from poor families regardless of their background.
Ethnic children are given free accommodation and tuition as their parents have them to work on farms.
The primary school’s headmistress, Sister Agnes Bui Thi Kim Ngoc, a member of the Congregation of Notre Dame based in Ho Chi Minh City, said 100 students graduated from the school in July. It is compulsory to attend courses in English, computing and swimming, which are not taught at other schools.
After leaving the school, many students enter nearby public secondary schools.
The priest has improved people’s material lives by using tissue culture technology to propagate and provide banana saplings for farmers to grow for a living.
He also established a cooperative to produce chairs and tables using water hyacinth and plastic. Some 1,000 people fill their leisure time working at the cooperative to earn extra income. In the past, they suffered lack of food and collected vegetables in forests.
Projects in the pipeline
Father Ho is seeking building permits from the local government to erect an elementary school on land near Thanh Tam Church. The 4,000-square-meter plot was donated by a local Catholic. The three-story building is expected to serve 160 students from poor families.
He also plans to build a secondary boarding school to serve students, especially ethnic students who graduated from church primary schools.
“We try our best to provide opportunities to poor students to study further so that they can have a better life in the future. If not, they will drop out of school early and work to support their families,” the priest said.
“Education is the key to human development. Our efforts are in vain if people have poor education.”
Pham Hoang Thai Duong from Da Teh Parish said Father Ho is his idol. “He sacrifices himself for a better life for the disadvantaged,” the flower trader said.