More than a thousand members of the Vietnamese Catholic community gathered last weekend for the 2022 Divine Mercy Congress held at the St Vincent Liem Centre in Flemington. The theme for the three-day event was “Church of the Divine Mercy: Family, Society and the World” and included talks, Eucharistic adoration, Masses and keynote addresses by Fr Peter Hoang SDB and Bishop John Văn Ngân Đo from the Diocese of Xuân Lộc in Vietnam.

The St Vincent Liem Centre on Mt Alexander Road in Flemington has been hosting events for Divine Mercy Sunday for more than 20 years, explained Huyen Nguyen, one of the event organisers. ‘With support from the Vietnamese Catholic Community in Melbourne, this event continues to run annually on the Second Sunday of Easter. In 2021, the event was held but with limited numbers of people attended due to COVID-19 restrictions.’

Huyen has been an active member of the community for more than 35 years. ‘Since 1985 I have been involved as a member of the choir and doing little jobs here and there,’ she said. In 2018, she joined the centre's organising committee and has enjoyed contributing to the life of the community.

The St Vincent Liem Centre is a truly collaborative effort, Huyen shared, with generations of local Vietnamese families contributing to its development since it was purchased in 1985. ‘It used to be a pub and then eventually people put a lot of effort into it and turned it into what it is now,’ she said.

In 1985, we were a small community [here in Melbourne]. Most of us were refugees and then people started sponsoring family members in Vietnam and the community became larger,’ Huyen said.

These days she says there are about 1,100 families in the community who come from various parts of Melbourne including Williams Landing, Werribee, Flemington, Geelong, Meadow Heights, Craigieburn and Maidstone.

Over the years, the community has also been led by various chaplains including diocesan priests Fr Joseph Tien (now Parish Priest of Holy Name Parish, Preston East), the recently retired Fr Vincent Le (former Parish Priest of St Damian’s Bundoora) and Fr Raphael Vo Due Thien (Parish Priest of St Francis de Sales, Oak Park). The Blessed Sacrament Fathers looked after the community until the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) eventually took over.

Currently, the chaplaincy is shared by two brothers: Fr Joseph Minh-Uoc Pham SJ and Fr Ai Van Pham SJ.

I became chaplain exactly one year ago,’ said Fr Joseph Pham. ‘I was appointed by the Archbishop with another priest from the same order and the same family – my brother!’

Fr Joseph grew up in the south of Vietnam and was halfway through his university studies when he was drafted into the army. ‘After training, I was sent to the frontline to fight in the war for three years. Afterwards, I was put in a labour camp for a few years and then I escaped on a boat.’

He arrived in Australia in 1980 and five months later entered the Society of Jesus. ‘I started my religious life here in Australia,’ he said. ‘I arrived in Adelaide and after our noviciate [in Sydney] I took vows and moved to Melbourne to study philosophy and theology.’

His first mission was to New Zealand, and then for many years he taught theology and gave retreats in the Philippines, Vietnam, the USA and Japan before eventually returning to Australia in 2014.

‘The St Vincent Liem Centre is one of two in Melbourne, and offers daily Mass (in Vietnamese) and is the base for 27 apostolic groups,’ Fr Joseph said. This includes what is known as the Eucharistic Youth Movement, which Fr Joseph explained is a unique offering of the Vietnamese to the Catholic Church in Australia. Although it originally began in Europe during the First World War, the movement spread across the world including in Vietnam where it has become an integral part of the local Church.

‘The other centre is the Shrine of Our Lady of La Vang in Keysborough. And of course there are many Vietnamese groups in many parishes across Melbourne and Geelong but once or twice a year we all gather for major feasts like Divine Mercy or the feast of the Vietnamese martyrs in November.’

Reflecting on the weekend’s Divine Mercy Congress, Fr Joseph shared that the event was a significant opportunity for the community to gather and pray for God’s mercy. It is his hope – and that of the organising committee – that the congress helps to reconnect people after the pandemic and provides them with an opportunity to understand the teachings of St John Paul II on Divine Mercy.

As you know, the Vietnamese community has been through so many troubles — more downs than ups — so mercy is very important,’ Fr Joseph said. ‘And of course, Divine Mercy is ten times more precious than just mercy! So for the Vietnamese it is very significant.’

‘We wish for people to perceive [mercy], and then live their lives with Divine Mercy.’