Fr. Thomas Tou cuts the cake at his 94th birthday celebration. Photo courtesy Judy Wong

Fr. Tou, Montreal’s first Chinese-born priest

By 
  • September 29, 2019

When he was 10, Fr. Thomas Tou was unhappy when his family earmarked him for the priesthood by enrolling him in a minor seminary in northeast China.

It was the idea of his father and brother, Peter, 10 years older, who would become a bishop in Taiwan. Peter’s role in getting his younger brother into the school was to teach him the Act of Contrition, in Latin, in just one week in order to meet a basic requirement of acceptance.

The young man did well, impressing officials, earning a place in the minor seminary in 1931 and setting himself on a path to become Montreal’s first Chinese-born priest. He arrived in Montreal in 1957 and thrived in his adopted city for six decades. He died Sept. 5 at age 97.

Parishioners remembered Fr. Tou as a simple man, a beacon of the Chinese community, who gave generously to the poor and interacted like a social worker within the community.

“He is somebody ready to help people no matter what kind of faith denomination,” said Deacon Robin Cheung. “Whether you’re Buddhist, he doesn’t care. People ask him to translate Chinese at the hospital, and he’ll go there right away.”

Parishioner Wilson Wong said Fr. Tou always looked after and cared about others more than himself. When Wong arrived in Montreal to study in the 1980s as a foreign student, Fr. Tou took him under his wing.

“He introduced me to the local youth club,” said Wong. “The reason is because he understood, that as a foreign student, I was alone, with no family or friends. So he looked after, not just myself but other foreign students.”

Fr. Tou also assisted many elderly members of the community who depended on him to access government services.

He spoke English and French and intervened with all levels of government to help get a building constructed for Chinese seniors in Montreal’s Chinatown.

“The community definitely has a lot of older generations,” said Wong.

“When they come over, they don’t really know the language and can’t speak English or French and as soon as they come to our church to ask for help,  Fr. Tou was always there for them.”

Cheung met Fr. Tou when he arrived in Montreal in 1976. Cheung became a youth minister at the Montreal Chinese Catholic Mission and, he said, Fr. Tou inspired him to become a permanent deacon.

Cheung remembers a time when he joined Fr. Tou on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje in Bosnia and Herzegovina. During a rainy day, they fell down three times, suffering bruises, trying to climb up Apparition Hill to pray at a statue of Our Lady of Medjugorje.

“The pants that he wore were all broken,” said Cheung. “He didn’t have another pair of pants. We went to a nearby shop to buy another pair of pants, and I told Father to put on the new one. The pants have to be mended many times. I told father to throw it out, and he said no, I’ll keep it and bring it home and wear it home.”

Thomas Tou was born in Beinanfeng, China, in 1921. During the Second World War he was captured by the Japanese and forced into the army. It was there, while praying to Jesus and St. Joseph, that he decided to become a priest. He was ordained in Beijing on Feb. 2, 1948, a year before the communist revolution culminated with creation of the People’s Republic of China.

Following his ordination, Fr. Tou was sent to Rome to study Canon law. When Montreal Cardinal Paul Emile Léger requested a Chinese-speaking priest to serve the city’s growing Chinese community, Fr. Tou was assigned in 1957 to Montreal, where he established the Montreal Chinese Catholic Mission.

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