By Rachel Curry
With his positive outlook, friendly nature and healthy sense of humour, it should be no surprise that Father Vinh Dong became a priest.
His vibrant personality has made him the perfect fit to lead the recently established Banksia Grove Parish, where has been busy building community and raising funds for a church building over the past two years.
However, Fr Dong – who recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of his ordination – said a religious life was the last thing his parents would have predicted for him.
“I am one of 12 siblings and was the least expected to become a priest in my family,” he said.
“My parents thought I would grow up to be a lawyer or businessman, so they had a shock when they came to Australia and found me in a seminary.”
Fr Dong’s path to the priesthood is irrevocably linked to his background as a child refugee.
His father worked for the South Vietnamese Government, and when the Communists took power in 1975, the family knew they had to flee.
“There was no future for anyone from the south of Vietnam who had family members with any association to the South Vietnamese Government, and being Catholic made it more difficult,” Fr Dong said.
“So in the late 1970s I tried to escape. I tried 14 times before I succeeded.”
Fr Dong tells a funny story about one his escape attempts, when he was caught by the authorities along with a neighbour, who claimed the pair were siblings.
The boys were asked for their birthdays, but their answers left the police wondering how two brothers could be born only four months apart.
Despite his sense of humour about the experience, Fr Dong acknowledges it was a tough time.
He eventually escaped Vietnam alone at the age of 11, spending a horrible nine days and 10 nights on a small wooden boat with some 80 other people before reaching Malaysia.
“There were many times that I thought the boat would capsize,” Fr Dong said, looking back on the journey.
“There was one night where we experienced a big storm and a lady next to me said, ‘Say a prayer; we might not wake up tomorrow’.
“I said a prayer and I said, ‘God, if you look after me, if you rescue me, I’ll be a good boy’.”
After spending 10 months in a refugee camp – where he was further inspired by a French missionary priest – Fr Dong was able to reunite with two of his older brothers in Perth.
He learned English and attended school at St Mark’s College in Highgate and Mercy College in Koondoola, before deciding to fulfil the promise he had made to God all those years earlier.
He entered St Charles’ Seminary and, after completing his formation at St Francis Xavier in Adelaide, was ordained by Archbishop Barry Hickey on 13 December, 1996.
In the two decades since, he has served as an Assistant Priest at Highgate and Kalgoorlie and as Parish Priest at Lockridge, Greenwood and now Banksia Grove.
The goodwill towards Fr Dong is obvious, with members of Lockridge Parish, Greenwood Parish and the Vietnamese Catholic Community strongly supporting his current fundraising efforts.
Perhaps this should be expected, considering his philosophy that the most important thing priests can do is “see their parishioners as their family”.
This is certainly the case at Banksia Grove, a multicultural parish home to thriving African, Filipino and Indian communities.
“Many of them are new to the country and the culture here is very different,” Fr Dong said.
“For me, who’s been here 35 years and is a migrant like them, I hope I can share what I’ve learnt.
“One of the things I shared with them is that the word ‘Catholic’ means universal, so no matter where we may be, we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Looking back on his ministry after 20 years – and looking forward to the next 20 – Fr Dong said he had “loved every bit” of being a priest, even the challenging periods.
“”One of the mottos I chose for my ordination was ‘Here I am, Lord, send me’ (Isaiah 6:8),” he said.
“I shared that with people on my anniversary day because it was on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, and the Gospel of that week was about Joseph hesitating to take Mary as his wife and being visited by the Angel.
“I reflected on that and said, ‘There are times when I am afraid to take a step further, but the words of Isaiah say, ‘Do not be afraid’, so I respond with, ‘Here I am, Lord, send me.”
Banksia Grove Parish is currently fundraising for the construction of their church building. To donate, contact Fr Vinh Dong on 0422 422 773.
From page 22 and 23 from Issue 6: ‘Prayer – What does it mean to pray without ceasing?’ of The Record Magazine