On Wednesday, June 10, at 100 years of life, died the eldest hierarch of Vietnamese Bishops - retired Bishop Michael Nguyen Khac Ngu - who celebrated his 100th birthday on May 14 of this year.

Bishop Michael Nguyen lived through some very difficult times in the country's history, and at the end of his life he had to witness a new wave of persecutions in the diocese he founded and dedicated his life to serve.

Born in 1909 in the northern diocese of Thai Binh, he entered St. Therese Minor Seminary in Lang Son diocese in 1922, and later traveled to France for further study and was ordained there as a priest in 1934.

After returning to Vietnam, he taught at a minor seminary, cared for two parishes and served as the secretary of the apostolic delegation, then based in Hue, central Vietnam.

In 1954, after the communist takeover of the North, while Church activities were strictly being limited, foreign missionaries expelled, and many local priests killed, he decided to lead his parishioners to the South amid all military and political chaos. They settled in Long Xuyen province, 140km south of Saigon, where he spent his ministry as a builder in many aspects: helping to create some of the church buildings in his diocese as well as evangelizing in remote areas.

He built the Queen of Peace Cathedral, two minor seminaries, a major seminary and many educational centers at various parishes.

Long Xuyen diocese was established on Nov. 24, 1960, with Bishop Michael Nguyen as its first prelate.

According to Church records, the Catholic population in the diocese has increased dramatically. At the time it was established, the diocese had 20,000 people in 12 parishes and some sub parishes. The diocesan population has now grown to 240,000 Catholics in 108 parishes and 45 sub parishes, being served by 240 priests.

Right on the day of the communist takeover of South Vietnam on April 30, 1975, he ordained his coadjutor Bishop Jean Baptiste Bui Tuan and handed the reins of the diocese to the young bishop, although the elderly bishop only officially retired in December, 1997.

Bishop Jean Baptiste Bui, in his turn, retired and handed the administration of the diocese to Bishop Joseph Tran Xuan Tieu on Oct. 2, 2003. As of yesterday, the diocese had the grace to have three “generations of bishops”.

On May 14, at the diocesan Cathedral, Cardinal Jean Baptiste Pham Minh Man of Saigon and 21 archbishops and bishops throughout the country concelebrated a special Mass to celebrate his 100th birthday, and other two great milestones: 75 years since he was ordained a priest and 50 years since he was made a bishop. The bishops were joined by 260 priests, 140 Religious and 1,200 lay Catholics.

Talking about the late bishop, Bishop Joseph Tran Xuan Tieu of Long Xuyen recalled how simply the late prelate had lived: "He lives in a 20-square-meter room with an old bed and without a television or personal computer."

Bishop Joseph Tran, 63, said the late bishop set a shining example to others by devoting much time each day to prayer, and never missing daily Mass even when ill.

"He read books and newspapers daily, washed his own clothes and cleans his own room, and made toothpicks for the people in the bishop's house", added Bishop Joseph Tran, the third generation of bishops in the diocese.

Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet of Hanoi, himself was a student of Bishop Michael Nguyen, praised the late bishop for the graceful way he relinquished power. He loved his priests very much. "He saved money and sent it to elderly priests or those who worked in remote areas," said Archbishop Joseph Ngo.

He also praised the late bishop for building so many educational centers for the diocese.

The three seminaries that Bishop Michael Nguyen founded trained hundreds of seminarians before being "borrowed" by the government after 1975, when the country was reunified by communists.

Educational centers at parishes were also confiscated in 1975.

Among the buildings that the late bishop built in his life, except the cathedral, all of the others have been seized by the communist government and he had no luck to see any single one of them returned to the Church.

Only six days before he died, the monastery of the Congregation of the Brothers of The Holy Family of Banam (Frères de la Sainte Famille de Banam, FSF) in Long Xuyen, South Vietnam was abruptly demolished.

To date, local government has not announced its intention for the future use of the land, nor informed the diocese of its decision to tear down the building.

The altar and religious statues were also discarded in a rubbish dump without informing the diocese or the religious order being asked to come and retrieve those items.

Bishop Michael Nguyen Khac Ngu will be deeply missed not only by his flock in Long Xuyen but also by many Vietnamese Catholics from the North to South Vietnam whose lives he had touched since he became a priest in 1934.