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Vietnamese Bishop Seeks to Calm a Worried Flock

Dominic Luong of the Diocese of Orange returns to a parish where he helped refugees after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

September 22, 2005|Mai Tran and William Lobdell | Times Staff Writers

NEW ORLEANS — This wasn't a pastoral visit. After Hurricane Katrina, there was nobody left to minister to.

Roman Catholic Bishop Dominic Luong said he needed to see for himself the damage done to the Vietnamese community he helped bring together three decades ago.

On Wednesday, in the middle of a five-day trip to the Gulf Coast to minister to Vietnamese evacuees, Luong traveled to Versailles, a settlement in East New Orleans that had been home to 10,000 immigrants.

On the eerily quiet street that bears his name, lawns and weeds had grown about knee-high. Trash filled front yards.

Marks 7 feet high on the brick homes showed how far the floodwaters had reached.

The stench -- from sewage, trash and swamp water -- almost overwhelmed him.

His former church hadn't been spared. Winds peeled off side panels and a large section of the roof of Mary, Queen of Vietnam Parish. Floodwaters swamped its floor.

"It took me 27 years to build, and now it's devastated in one or two days," Luong said softly.

"We will rebuild, but it will take time and patience. This was a very lively town, but now it's a ghost town."

A day earlier, Luong visited 300 Versailles evacuees at a shelter at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Baton Rouge.

"I am here to share the pain and sorrow," said Luong, who is an auxiliary bishop with the Diocese of Orange and first Vietnamese American prelate in the Catholic Church. "We will survive this." He reminded them that they had faced adversity before as refugees from Vietnam and had still prospered.

During his visit, Luong slipped back into his role as patriarch of Vietnamese immigrants in New Orleans. As a priest and community activist, he had shepherded the largely Catholic community since the refugees started to arrive in New Orleans after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

His handiwork can be seen and felt everywhere in East New Orleans. Among the most impressive achievements: a drained swamp where Vietnamese entrepreneurs built about 1,000 apartments and homes, a church and a day-care center on 35 acres.

Luong eased tensions between Vietnamese and African American fishermen and developed a political base that became a factor in New Orleans elections.

In 2003, after being named auxiliary bishop of Orange, Luong left the South for the West Coast but remained a national leader for Catholics of Vietnamese heritage.

Returning to Louisiana this week, Luong was something of a celebrity, his soothing words and prayers resonating with the East New Orleans evacuees who took refuge at St. Anthony.

"At this time of challenges, his presence is very comforting," said Father Tam Huu Pham, a priest helping at the shelter.

"He was a popular figure, so everyone knows him. Just a visit says a lot. They don't expect much."

Luong wrote a $20,000 check -- money that was raised in Orange County -- to cover St. Anthony's increased electric bill, and he passed out 400 telephone calling cards.

He also advised priests there to contact government officials for financial and medical help.

"If we are quiet and keep doing it ourselves, we won't get help," Luong told them.

But mostly it was his presence that lifted the spirits of the Vietnamese immigrants, many of them themselves displaced for a second time in their lives. They stood in line just to say a few words to the bishop, many of them kneeling to kiss his ring before speaking.

"I'm very happy to see him," said Co Nguyen, 73, a longtime parishioner at Mary, Queen of Vietnam. "He has to love us if he's chosen to be here."

Priests at St. Anthony told Luong that some of the elderly had experienced nervous breakdowns after finding themselves refugees again.

The clerics said they were looking for a Vietnamese-speaking psychologist or psychiatrist to help.

"I keep reminding them: When they left Vietnam in 1975, they left their country and their relatives to survive," said Father Hung Nguyen, a priest at St. Anthony. "So this is not impossible to overcome."

Before Hurricane Katrina, many Vietnamese in Versailles lived in homes worth more than $600,000 and owned their own businesses.

Today, the evacuees were without possessions, and living in a church where 300 people share four bathrooms and public showers.

Luong told them: we "fled [Vietnam] in 1975. We have become successful. We have become professionals. To live in a place like this and become refugees again is a large sacrifice."

He said the Diocese of Orange would be a partner in their rebuilding effort.

"His visit shows that he still cares enough to see his people," said Tam Tran, 38.

"Maybe he can help us rebuild. Since he's well known, a lot of people will support him, even in different countries. Because of his strong voice, he can draw a lot of donors."

Before the bishop left Versailles, he took another look at what was left of the community he had watched become home to so many.

"There will always be a Vietnamese community here," he said. "We have invested so much here."

Mai Tran reported from Baton Rouge and New Orleans. William Lobdell reported from Southern California.

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