Father Thuan Hoang, longtime pastor of Church of the Visitacion in San Francisco, fled South Vietnam in 1987 after communist rule blocked his dream of becoming a Catholic priest.

“I was 19 when they closed the seminary,” he said.

His harrowing journey began as a refugee in an old fishing boat and ended two years later when he came to live with his brother in San Jose. He eventually resumed his interrupted formation and was ordained at St. Patrick Seminary & University in Menlo Park in 1997. Father Thuan has served as a parish priest and canon lawyer for the Archdiocese of San Francisco ever since.

A seventh-generation Catholic, Father Thuan said Christianity was brought to Vietnam by Spanish and French missionaries and colonists. In time, Vietnamese rulers rejected French influence and power and began torturing and murdering Catholics, a practice that continued on and off into the 19th century. One of his ancestors was buried alive with 11 other lay Catholic leaders by order of King Tu Dac.

Most Catholic families in North Vietnam, including Father Thuan’s, fled to South Vietnam when communists took over in 1954. He and three siblings grew up in Saigon (now named Ho Chi Minh City).

After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, communists swept into South Vietnam. Many families rushed to escape. Father Thuan’s oldest brother, the one he would eventually join in America, was the only one in his family that chose to leave in a refugee boat.

The family conformed to the new communist regime as a matter of survival; the food supply was tied to attendance at nightly indoctrination meetings. Privately, Catholic families continued to practice and share their faith, but at great risk.

“Even my parents suggested to me to get married,” he said. “They did not see any hope for the Church or for me as a priest.”

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One spring day in 1987, Father Thuan jumped into a moving fishing boat filled with 120 other refugees seeking freedom from the communists. He was 30 years old and had only the clothes on his back.

“If I had known what the boat was like, I would not have gone,” he said. The threats were constant: waves and weather, capture and robbery, disease, drowning and despair. The passengers packed into the boat’s dark and airless hold became violently seasick. “I often thought of hell,” said Father Thuan, who “prayed constantly.”

The boat lost its way, and then its engine. Opportunistic pirates towed it to a Vietnamese refugee camp in Indonesia, then demanded jewelry and valuables from the refugees for their “help.”

Father Thuan said he meditated on scriptural stories of divine deliverance, like when Moses parted the Red Sea so the Israelites could reach the promised land.

“I wanted to be a Catholic priest,” he said. “Communists don’t want Catholic priests.” For this reason, the U.S. granted him political asylum after he joined his brother in San Jose. In 1995, Father Thuan became an American citizen.

Father Thuan has been able to extend his pastoral ministry all the way back to his homeland. In the year 2000, he and two friends founded the Blind Vietnamese Children Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has helped Catholic sisters in Vietnam fund a network of homes, schools and health care centers for visually impaired children.

The above comes from the Immigrant Journeys story on Sept. 20 issued by the Archdiocese of San Francisco.