Fr. Joseph Le's faith journey brought him from Vietnam's prison and labour camps to Canada. Photo by Agnieszka Krawczynski

A journey of faith from Vietnam's labour camps to Canada

By  Agnieszka Krawczynski, Canadian Catholic News
  • October 10, 2016

VANCOUVER – How far will a man go to follow his dreams? For Fr. Joseph Thoai Le, labour camps, imprisonment and perils at sea could not block his destiny to become a priest.

Le, ordained in Vancouver in 1998, has just become the new archdiocesan chancellor. He has chased his dreams in the face of overwhelming difficulties, the first being getting out of his native Vietnam.

“I had the desire to enter priestly ministry when I was young,” said Le. “The war in Vietnam was coming to an end. After the war ended, there were problems because my dad had worked for the previous government.

“For me to go back to seminary was a no-no. They were not going to allow me, but they would give me a carrot: ‘Think about doing this and doing that, and eventually you may get in.’ So I went through all they asked me to do: the farm, the labour camp, all kinds of things trying more or less to ‘re-educate’ a person in a communist way. I went, but they never chose me anyway.”

Le saw the only was to fulfil his dream was to get out of Vietnam.

“It took me several tries. I would get caught, get sent to prison and labour camps, would get out, and would try again. Eventually God had mercy on me, I guess. I escaped.”

Le succeeded in leaving Vietnam by boat.

“They planned that in a week we would land in Indonesia or Malaysia. Then, after about five days, the engine gave up,” he said. “We put up some kind of material to make a sail so the wind could pick it up, but it was so weak, it was not working.”

Running out of food and water, things became desperate.

“The only thing you were able to do at that moment was wait for maybe a miracle to happen. You pray, you put your life in the hand of God, you ask Mary to help you, you ask all the saints to help you.”

At first, a Norwegian ship on its way to Singapore picked up Le and the 48 others on the boat.

“They wanted to drop us off in Singapore, but Singapore didn’t want refugees. We were picked up by a (different) ship and brought to the Philippines.”

All told, they were at sea more than a month before landing in the Philippines. “I was in a refugee camp for about 15 months.”

Eventually a Canadian delegation came along and asked: “Who wants to go to Canada?”

“I had stayed in the refugee camp too long already, so I volunteered. I didn’t know where Canada was, I just heard that it was a very cold place.”

Le landed in Toronto and within two months made his way to Vancouver and shortly afterwards entered Christ the King Seminary.

He said faith is what got him through the whole ordeal.

“In the re-education camp, there’s not much you can do. You just get up and go to work and wait for your family to see you and give you supplies of food and anything you need. The only thing I was able to do in that moment was put my life into the hand of God,” he said.

“I think that as long as you’re putting your life in the hand of God and doing what God is asking of you, carrying out your duty, your responsibilities, in the best of your capacity, that’s all.”

(B.C. Catholic)

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