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Vietnamese priest hailed for saving religious property

Late Father Niem leaves strong legacy after fighting for church and convent in HCMC by protesting development project

ucanews.com reporter, Ho Chi Minh City

ucanews.com reporter, Ho Chi Minh City

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Vietnamese priest hailed for saving religious property

Sisters from the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul congregation in Vietnam join lay Catholics in posing for a photo by a picture of recently deceased Father John Baptist Le Dang Niem on May 4, 2019, at Thu Thiem Church in Ho Chi Minh City. (ucanews.com photo)

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Catholics in Ho Chi Minh City have joined people from other faiths in mourning for a priest who fought to protect church properties from being impounded by the government, after he died on April 30 at the age of 81.

Thousand attended the funeral of much-loved Father John Baptist Le Dang Niem, the former pastor of Thu Thiem parish, at Thu Thiem Church on May 4. He died of natural causes.

Bishop Louis Nguyen Anh Tuan presided over a Mass joined by 120 priests from the local archdiocese.

Joseph Cao Thang Ca, a member of the parish council, said neither the church nor a Lovers of the Holy Cross convent nearby would exist were it not for the priest's efforts to combat the city's moves to confiscate them.

In May 2018, city authorities were planning to remove the old church and convent from a new urban area in Thu Thiem, to pave the way for a controversial development project.

This saw about 50,000 residents forcibly removed or evicted from their homes and awarded compensation payments that human rights groups say fall woefully short of the mark.

Ca, 68, told ucanews.com that when Father Niem was alive, the priest, who served the parish for 17 years until his death, promised local Catholics he would fight to protect the church until his dying breath. The parish was established about 150 years ago.

The lay leader said many people trusted the priest and rejected the compensation payments as they joined him in opposing the project.

He said Father Niem had been wheelchair-bound since 2013 but had continued to join people in celebrating daily Mass until the very end.

"More than 1,000 people used to make the journey to attend Sunday Mass at his church to show their solidarity with what he was fighting for, even though many people lived far away," Ca said.

Father Niem would often invite them to eat with him at the church once a month, Ca added.

Sister Cecilia Pham Thi Nhuong said her congregation, which has been active in the area for nearly 180 years, followed Father Niem's struggle and refused to obey the government's removal order.

She said the priest refused to let his restricted mobility prevent him from joining the sisters in staging protests against the authorities, which were moving to confiscate the congregation's aging facilities.

Ca said Father Niem, who also supported local Buddhists' efforts to protect one of their temples, completed his mission of saving the church properties before his death.

On April 18, Bishop Joseph Do Manh Hung, Ho Chi Minh City Archdiocese's apostolic administrator, said city officials had told him they had "made a plan to keep Thu Thiem Church and the convent as historic, cultural heritage sites."

Bishop Hung said he appointed Father Ignatius Ho Van Xuan, vicar general, to work with the government on the plan.

He added the archdiocese had already purchased enough land to establish 25 of 50 mission stations to provide pastoral care to 300,000 Catholic migrants working in the city. On average, each mission station serves 6,000 people.

Ca said Father Niem had lived an ascetic life but was always happy to share what he had with those in need.

The late priest celebrated the 25th anniversary of his priestly ordination in 1991 by driving his mother around on a motorbike to donate gifts to impoverished families.

"We will unite to develop the parish as he would have wished," Ca said.

Born in 1937 in neighboring Binh Duong Province, Father Niem entered St. Joseph Major Seminary in the city formerly known as Saigon in 1958, and was ordained a priest in 1966.

He taught at a minor seminary before serving in a total of five parishes and leading several Catholic associations.

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