Boat person returns to homeland on a mission

08 Oct 2008

By The Record

By Robert Hiini
What do a former refugee, an archbishop and a “pub muso” who’s taken a vow of poverty have in common?

An infant with a spinal disability at the centre.

They’re all committed to improving the lives of the kids at the Rose Handicap Centre, a struggling facility for orphaned and disabled children 30 kilometres north of Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam.  
Twenty-six years after escaping Vietnam as a refugee, Fr Francis Ly has established a group in his parish to raise funds to provide badly needed upgrades to the centre so it has a greater capacity to help more children.
Fr Francis, parish priest of Holy Family Church in Maddington, led a spiritual retreat to Vietnam accompanied by 10 of his parishioners, Archbishop Barry Hickey and Alex Leitch from September 25–30, bringing gifts and the money raised thus far.
The centre is currently home to about 60 orphaned children with a variety of disabilities and is administered by the Dominican sisters who founded it. 
Fr Francis says that the hope is to enable the centre to care for at least 150 children through upgrades made possible by fundraising here in Perth. 
Although he has been involved in raising funds for the centre for over a year, the wheels were set in motion when Fr Francis visited Vietnam for the first time in 23 years in 2005.
Fr Francis arrived in Perth as a ‘boat person’ in 1982. An ordained deacon, he had been prevented from becoming a priest due to the Communist regime’s persecution of Catholics and escaped likely death via Malaysia.
After two years of work experience, he was ordained by then-Archbishop of Perth William Foley in 1984 and has been serving as an diocesan priest ever since.
Upon returning to Vietnam he felt God calling him to help orphans and sought permission and sponsorship from Archbishop Hickey, spending time searching for an orphanage he could assist before meeting Bishop Dominique Nguyên Chu Trinh of Xuan Loc Diocese.
The local bishop asked him to help the Rose Handicap Centre – a centre with very distinct needs and challenges – and Fr Francis accepted the mission.
When asked why he didn’t return to the diocese of his home parish, Thu Ngu, in the south of the country, Fr Francis said that helping out somewhere else keeps him grounded.
“Like Jesus we cannot be honoured in our own town,” he said.
Although he has been to Vietnam on three previous occasions, Archbishop Hickey’s recent visit was his first to the centre. 
Fr Francis and the Archbishop will meet shortly to discuss ways they can make their commitment an ever-growing reality. One of their fellow travellers, Mr Leitch – a musician who has played in pubs around Perth for the past 20 years – said that while he enjoyed the journey, Vietnam was very different from what he is used to in Perth.
“The first thing that hits you is the traffic – hundreds of motorbikes, mopeds, people carting big planks of wood on bikes, cars and trucks weaving in and out of traffic,” Mr Leitch said.
He has set himself the ambitious task of raising $160,000 in three months.
Mr Leitch filmed much of the trip and plans to make a film with the help of volunteers he hopes to train up at St Bartholomew’s Men’s Shelter in East Perth where he often plays.
God was looking out for the project when he approached “St Bart’s” director for editing assistance, Mr Leitch said. The director told him that several Tafe film students had recently visited the centre in search of a film project. 
Mr Leitch is confident that, when completed, the film made by homeless men in Perth about orphans in Vietnam will be a solid fundraiser for the orphanage through increasing public awareness of their daily struggles.
He hopes that the film will be shown in schools and community centres.
In volunteering his time and effort, Mr Leitch is keen to point out that his motivation for helping is the realisation of his own poverty and the love he has received from Jesus Christ.
“The last thing I need is for somebody to make me out as some saint. It’s not the case…I’m not a good person taking the Gospel to the poor, I’m a poor person with the same troubles as them, saying I have been forgiven,” Mr Leitch said.
In this the Jubilee year of St Paul, he says that his mission is the same as the Apostle to the Apostles.
“If God can love me as I am, everything else is up to God. Anything good that comes through me, comes from God,” Mr Leitch said.
Donations to benefit the children of the Rose Handicap Centre can be made through
Fr Francis Ly on 9493 1703.