Fr. Joseph Nguyen celebrates Chinese New Year’s with parishioners at Calgary’s Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish. Photo courtesy of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish

Parish helps Chinese adapt in new land

  • May 16, 2021

If you call Our Lady of Perpetual Help (OLPH) Chinese Catholic Church in Calgary these days, it’s likely pastor Fr. Joseph Nguyen will be the one picking up the phone.

While the churches in the Alberta city were closed from March to May of 2020 due to COVID-19, secretaries were temporarily laid off by the Diocese in Calgary. Some parishes were able to call their secretaries back in September, but to save money, Nguyen decided to take on the job himself.

Nguyen, originally from Vietnam, believes he has been called by God to serve the Chinese Catholic community in Calgary. He leads services in three languages — English, Mandarin and Cantonese — none of which are his mother tongue.

“As a priest, I will tend to God’s people wherever I am sent in order to complete my mission,” said Nguyen, who has been at OLPH since 2005. “Although I am not able, God will provide if I’m willing. I myself experienced the miracle of God through these years as a pastor at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church. I do my best, and let God do the rest.”

As Asian Heritage Month is celebrated across Canada in May, many parishioners can’t help but recognize the significant role the parish has played over the past seven decades in helping Chinese Catholic immigrants transition to life in Alberta. The parish is 90-per-cent Chinese and ministers to a community of about 600 registered families.

Traditions have been brought from China to the new land, as witnessed by the Chinese lanterns that hang from the ceiling along the aisle. On Chinese New Year, the church pillars are covered in red and the priest and deacons hand out red envelopes associated with the special day.

Anne Lam, is the editor of the parish’s bimonthly magazine, Echo, and has attended OLPH since moving to Calgary in 1988 with her husband Edward, a deacon at the parish. The only Chinese Catholic church in the city, new immigrants of the faith travel from across Calgary to find community and support as they transition to Canadian life. Children who have grown up at the parish have built lifelong friendships.

“We are attracted to (OLPH) because we have the same culture and we have the same beliefs,” said Lam, whose 27-year-old daughter still attends the parish. “It’s just like a big family and we help each other out.

Especially in the early years after coming to Canada, a lot of immigrants talk about the difficulties they have and we help each other out. We are very connected to the church and we find love as a big family.” As Catholic Chinese immigrants and their families become more and more confident in the English language and Canadian culture, they also often feel comfortable attending church closer to home.

“The church is very attractive to new immigrants as they learn to merge into society,” said Lam. “They learn together. Some families after they become more secure choose to attend their neighbourhood church. Once the second-generation grows up, they often merge into the English-speaking churches as well and it’s beautiful to see.”

Nguyen himself got an early start with English, beginning to learn the language in his late teens. He would soon expand his language proficiencies when, after being ordained a priest in Vietnam, he was asked to go to Taiwan to learn Mandarin. He would go on to serve there for five years.

His path to Calgary came when the previous OLPH pastor, who was from Hong Kong, planned to retire. He contacted the diocese there in search of a Chinese priest but finding one willing to migrate to a foreign country was not easy. But it led to Nguyen, and while the decision to transition to a new culture and language is a difficult one to make, Nguyen already had that experience and had the boldness to say yes. When he arrived in Canada and needed to learn Cantonese, the close knit OLPH congregation stepped in. They set up private tutoring sessions with 10 parishioners teaching him until he was fluent. Church members say his dedication to the church, the culture and the community has been endless.

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