Vietnamese refugee to be Canada's first Asian bishop

OTTAWA — A Vietnamese priest who found refuge here as a boy after fleeing religious oppression back home is to be named Canada's first Asian Catholic bishop on Wednesday.

Vincent Nguyen, 43, knew as a child that he wanted to enter the priesthood, inspired by his great-great-grandfather who became the first of his family to convert to Roman Catholicism in the 1840s.

His ancestor died when Vietnam's imperial rulers tied him to a post in a harbor near Saigon and left him to wait for the tide to come in. He would be counted among some 100,000 Vietnamese martyrs later recognized by the Church.

After the Communist North's victory and the closure of Catholic schools in Vietnam, Nguyen decided he would leave to pursue his faith.

He set out to sea in 1983 with his uncle's family in a wooden fishing boat, aiming for the coast of Indonesia.

They were picked up by a Japanese freighter seven days into their journey and taken to a refugee camp in Japan, where he spent one year before coming to Toronto to reunite with two older brothers.

He has been a priest now for only 12 years, but his rapid rise is welcomed by Canada's immigrant communities who helped sustain the Catholic Church in this country in recent decades, as the total number of church-goers fell nationwide.

Neil McCarthy, a spokesman for the Toronto archdiocese, said Nguyen's appointment was not specifically linked to his heritage.

"He is to be appointed not because he is of Asian origin, but because he is a good priest and has the necessary qualifications, and we need a good bishop," he told AFP.

However, the appointment is also "important for the church" because he will help the church hierarchy "to begin to represent the people we serve."

The Toronto diocese is one of the most ethnically diverse in North America, celebrating mass each week in 30 languages.

"We don't keep statistics on the faithful of Asian origin, but the Chinese community is huge, followed by Koreans and Vietnamese," McCarthy noted.

"One hundred years ago, the church was receiving an influx of Polish, Italian and Portuguese immigrants. These last decades, it is receiving (mostly) Asians."

For Nguyen, his ordination will also be the first time in 30 years that nearly his entire family -- eight brothers and sisters, including six traveling from Vietnam -- will be reunited.

He will be named an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Toronto.