Marco Ceccarelli | Archdiocese of Perth
As he dwells on an extraordinary life of achievements, graces and favour, but also of hardship, tribulation and suffering, it is difficult for Minh Le to speak about his past without shedding a tear or two. The Bayswater parishioner, who is now serving his fourth term as President of the Vietnamese Catholic Community in WA, escaped the Vietnam War in 1982, being forced to abandon the vocation to the priesthood he had been cultivating. In an interview with Marco Ceccarelli, the now married father of three recounted his journey from a life of fear to one of gratitude.
“I was born in 1951 and raised in a village named Tri Buu within the Quảng Trị Province of Central Vietnam – an area renowned for the persecution of Christians by governing forces in the late 18th century and again from 1830 to 1885,” said Mr Le, contextualising his family history and somewhat hinting at his own.
“The fear of the spread of Catholicism forced many of my ancestors to live in remote parts of the country, in forests, for fear of persecution. This area is now called Lavang,” he added.
Raised within a Catholic household, Mr Le felt called to enter the seminary after high school – something made possible by the support of his parents.
“After passing my high school exams, I attended university and began to study philosophy and theology in the Archdiocese of Huế. I eventually entered the Archdiocese’s St Sulpice Grand Seminary, where I did three years of study between 1969 and 1972.”
Despite a strong desire to continue his formative journey towards the priesthood, Mr Le’s life within the St Sulpice Grand Seminary was cut short in 1971 by the expanding Vietnam War.
“The area in which I lived began to be affected by bombings and invasions,” he recounts. “The North Communists took over small villages on the border of the Huế and Quảng Trị Provinces. My family and friends back in my village were also affected.
“This truly was a terrible time in my life. I recall hearing cluster bombs falling from the sky while we slept, then the horrible sound of explosions, the fear of not knowing where the next bomb would fall...”
As the war escalated, Mr Le decided to put his seminary studies on hold and began working as a volunteer throughout the country, helping refugees and displaced youth.
In response to a call from the Bishop of Ban Mê Thuột for seminarians to help in his diocese, Mr Le, in turn, offered his expertise as a teacher for almost ten years of his life, from 1973-1982.
“I wanted to keep my vocation alive and still be of service to refugees who were in need of practical help and education. I kept the spirits of displaced young people alive; gave a sense of purpose to their lives. I brought them together to do activities, to learn new things, to sing and to play,” he said.
In 1981, Mr Le was caught in yet another predicament as government forces interfered with the Ban Mê Thuột diocese and sent all seminarians home. The local government of his home village, however, did not recognise him, leaving him in a state of limbo with nowhere to go.
That year, after many discussions with his family, Mr Le decided to escape to Australia with his mother, father and younger brother. After a first failed attempt, the family managed to secretly board a boat on a stormy March night in 1982.
“Stormy weather was the ideal setting for a successful and undetected escape,” he said. “This, however, also meant that we were violently shaken in the hull of the boat for the first part of the trip. One hundred and 30 people boarded this boat when, in reality, only 100 should have been there. It was crowded, uncomfortable and dangerous.
“The next day, people’s faces were pale with exhaustion and fear. We had made it through the night, but at a great cost. A woman holding a baby was found unconscious and the infant in her arms had lost his life. We prayed together, wrapped the baby in a blanket and put him in the sea.”
Having experienced death so closely through this heart-wrenching experience, Mr Le and the refugees on the boat soon began to fear for their own lives as the motor broke down and could not be fixed.
“The overcrowding on the boat had an impact on the motor. It stopped working. We drifted aimlessly for two days, water was becoming scarce, people became weak: I was prepared to die.”
On the third night of the voyage, the groups saw a light in the distance and noticed an international oil rig in the middle of the ocean. They were rescued within hours, given food, clothes and brought to Malaysia to a temporary refugee centre. Thanks to his training as a teacher and ability to speak English, Mr Le was within weeks, resettled in Australia and arrived in Perth in June 1982.
“Had God not intervened in this situation, I don’t know how we would have survived. I thank Him every day for having protected me,” Mr Le said.
In Perth, Mr Le began to rebuild his life, found a job and took full advantage of “the freedom that only a wonderful country like Australia can offer”. He joined St Thomas Parish in Claremont, where he met his wife, and was married in 1984.
Mr Le now has three grown children and, in 1995, in recognition of his tireless efforts to serve the Church in the Archdiocese of Perth, he was elected External Assistant President of Perth’s Vietnamese Catholic Community. In 2006 he was elected President.
“If I look back at my life with the eyes of faith, I see that God has always loved me very much. Leaving my vocation to the priesthood was very difficult for me, but my desire to serve the Catholic Church remained strong.
“This has brought me to serve the Church in Australia, to give back to the same Church that gave me so much in Vietnam, and to lead our Vietnamese Catholic Community. After more than 30 years in Australia, I have seen our community contribute to the Archdiocese and to the wider community in an extraordinary way. I hope it will continue to do so in the years to come.”
As he glanced at a portrait of his wife and three children fixed on the wall of his lounge, Mr Le summarised his extraordinary life journey by repeating a sentence he had uttered moments earlier: “God has loved me very much”.