Escaping Communism and staying close to Christ for 50 years as a priest
Father Peter Tran escaped the terrors of Communism in his native Vietnam in the 1970s and found freedom in America – starting over and learning how to “fit in,” as he described it.
Through those life-changing – and sometimes life-threatening – struggles, Father Peter remained constant from one continent to another: sharing joy, peace, and prayers with everyone he met.
He is celebrating 50 years since his ordination to the priesthood on May 29, 1973, in Vietnam.
Father Peter’s prayers are known across the diocese and especially at his parish of nearly 30 years, Our Lady of Mount Carmel (OLMC), Newport News. More than half of his time as a priest has been at OLMC. He served as parochial vicar from 1996 to 2011 and remains there in his retirement.
“We have no permission to judge,” said Father Peter in a one-on-one interview, “but we always have permission to pray.”
“If I see something I don’t understand, I just shut my mouth and pray,” Father Peter added, laughing.
The pastor of OLMC, Father Dan Beeman, paid homage to Father Peter during a Mass and dinner on June 3 celebrating the golden anniversary.
“When I moved into the rectory, I had heard of Father Peter,” said Father Dan during his homily. “I knew that he was a prayerful, faithful priest.”
He also gave a nod to Father Peter’s prayer catchphrase: “I knew that there were three things he would tell me to be, and you know those three things, too: he would tell me to ‘be healthy, happy, and holy,’” said Father Dan, with parishioners in the pews saying it along with him.
During Father Dan’s homily, he recalled telling his mother that “living with Father Peter … was like living with ‘Saint Yoda’” – describing the elderly priest as “quiet and faithful, wise and insightful, sage with advice.”
‘Incredible capacity to love’
At the dinner celebrating Father Peter after Mass, Father Dan opened up again about life with Father Peter. “It’s an incredible joy to live with him. It’s like living with your grandfather – but the kind you really like,” he joked.
“Ever since the first day I moved into the rectory, Father Peter has said to me, ‘Thank you for taking care of me.’ But it’s actually Father Peter who has done so much more to take care of me,” he said.
The pastor’s voice began to break as he shared a personal moment: “He mourned with me when my mom passed, like she was his own.”
“Father Peter has shown his love for people with his love of praying for them in an astounding way for the last 50 years,” said the pastor.
He remarked that Father Peter is in constant prayer for everyone throughout the day, no matter the situation.
John Wilcox, a parishioner at OLMC, said “you can tell he spends all day praying.” He shared that his mother passed away on Divine Mercy Sunday and that weeks later, Father Peter told him he is still praying for her every day.
Wilcox, and numerous other parishioners, all said that Father Peter has “a great memory.” They said he knows the names of their children, siblings, and other family members – and prays for them.
Eileen Mazary, a longtime staff member and parishioner at OLMC, remembered a time when Father Peter prayed with her for an hour and a half when she was dropping him off at home. “Every moment, he prayed. He prayed for all my kids. Everything I brought up, we prayed about it.”
“If you really have something serious, you go to Father Peter. He’s a miracle worker. He’s the one you want on your side,” said Janet Hassan, former staff member at OLMC. She worked with Father Peter for 22 years and said they have been friends ever since.
“Anyone who knows Father Peter knows that because of his relationship with the Lord, he has an incredible capacity to love,” said Father Dan. “He has loved the families of this parish like they are his own.”
Strong Catholic upbringing
OLMC has been Father Peter’s family for decades now, but he credits his strong Catholic upbringing in Vietnam with influencing his path in life.
“I heard the call of God from my family, especially my mom,” said the priest.
He said religious life was a tradition in his family. He had two uncles and two cousins who were priests. Two women in his family also entered religious life.
Father Peter said his family was close with many priests and women religious. He said as a child “they trained me well.”
He laughed as he said that if he did something wrong, he knew he should tell his parents right away, because if the priests and sisters got to them first, “I will be in big trouble.”
He recalled his childhood routine of going to daily Mass before breakfast, then returning to church after school to pray the rosary and spend time before the Blessed Sacrament. He said time in the evening was spent studying and praying. Frequently, his family would say another rosary before bed.
Father Peter said he entered the minor seminary in Vietnam when he was seven years old. He spent the next 19 years in seminaries and theological studies. He recalled the discernment process, saying he had monthly spiritual counseling to help ensure his vocation.
When he was asked if he was ready to answer the call, he responded, “I have been answering the call for a long time.”
He was ordained a priest in 1973 by Archbishop Philippe Nguyen Kim, the Vietnamese prelate of Hue who was eventually placed under house arrest for defying Communist efforts to control the Catholic Church.
Not long after he was ordained, Father Peter said he and other priests were told to prepare for the fall of Vietnam, and that “the people should have a priest with them” as they fled the country.
Father Peter recalled the frightening time and said he made it to Guam on an American ship. His first stop in America was Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
He said it was hard work, learning American ways and trying to fit in while still keeping the Vietnamese culture. “In the beginning, we didn’t understand each other – but because of our faith, we all get along and understand each other now.”
He spent several years there before a brother priest suggested he might like the Diocese of Richmond for its “good climate” and proximity to the ocean.
Father Peter has been in this diocese since 1985, serving at Holy Cross, Lynchburg (1989-1992), and Saint Andrew, Roanoke (1992- 1996). He said he was the second pastor to minister to the Vietnamese community in the Hampton Roads area.
‘We all have a call’
Father Peter said out of his initial seminary class of 90 students, only nine became priests. He acknowledged that was a small percentage, but said, “We all have a call to be Christian, to be followers of Christ.”
“We need to promote the vocation of the Catholic faith, of being Christian first, and then God will provide,” he added. “No one is perfect, but God makes us perfect.”
In looking back at 50 years of being a happy priest, Father Peter said, “Take time to smile. … Just remember the good times and forget the bad things.”
He said as he gets older and has faced health issues in recent years, he focuses on “praying all the time.”
“One year, two years, it doesn’t matter – God can call me back anytime,” Father Peter said about his time left on earth. “Time doesn’t matter as long as we stay with Jesus.”
Throughout the hardships in his life, Father Peter said he stayed joyful because he focused “on praising Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist, to be one with him. We are nothing without God.”