Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Catholic World News News Feature

A "Boat Priest" Travels Home April 05, 2003

By Kevin Grant with Peter Jennings

Profound sorrow and shock overtook the Vietnamese Catholic community in Britain, and especially in the Archdiocese of Birmingham, with the news that Msgr. Peter Dao Duc Diem had been murdered. The beloved priest, who was serving as pastor of a Vietnamese community in Birmingham, met his death during his first return visit to his native Vietnam since he fled among the "boat people" in 1979.

Msgr. Diem had stayed for a few days in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) to see relatives and friends. He then continued on to North Vietnam to visit more friends, especially the newly ordained bishop of his home province. On his way back to the South he made a pilgrimage to the Marian shrine of Lavang. Leaving there he went to Hue, Vietnams ancient capital. His mysterious death--of which precise details are not yet in the public domain--happened sometime in the morning of Saturday, January 25.

Ordained in 1969, Father Diem had come to England as a refugee in 1979, escaping by boat on his fourteenth attempt, and arrived in his new land a frail and slight figure among a suffering people. He came with no material possessions, and little knowledge of English, but was supported by the friendship of stalwarts like Msgr. Tom Fallon, at St Franciss Church, Handsworth, Birmingham and Archbishop Maurice Couve de Murville. By the time of his death, the Vietnamese Catholics of Britain and Ireland were deeply in his debt. He had established chaplaincies and centers in Birmingham and London; been elevated to the title of Monsignor in 1990 for his service to his countrymen; had traveled to the scattered Vietnamese people in Norway, Finland, Sweden, Germany, Holland, the Philippines, Thailand, the US, and Australia; and had known the joy of leading numbers of his countrymen to Rome in 1988 for the canonization of the 150 Vietnamese martyrs.


Sister Catherine Shakespeare, who served as national secretary of Aid to the Church in Need in Britain at the time when the flood of boat people was at its height, remembers Father Peter's earliest days in the country. At that time he lived in one room above a London shop, but organized a scrupulously clean dormitory for his countrymen, in which each man had a mattress on the floor, with a clean shirt on one hanger above it. The little man with the shining face was gracious, full of integrity, and filled with the Holy Spirit, Sister Shakespeare remembers.

Peter Diem was born in 1939 in the Hai Duong District of North Vietnam, the second of four children from a Catholic family of three boys and a girl. His father died when Peter was 10 and the family had to move. In 1951 he entered Den Thanh School in the town of Hai Duong, began as an altar boy in 1952, and in 1953 was accepted into the Quang Yen Minor Seminary.

In 1954, after the Geneva Conference, Vietnam was divided into the Communist north and the Republican south. Peter followed his mother, younger brother, and his sister, in a family exodus to the South. Peter entered the Chan Phuoc Liem minor seminary in Binh Duc, My Tho. Beginning in 1962 he studied philosophy and theology at Saigons major seminary.

He was ordained to the priesthood on May 1, 1969 in Dalat cathedral, by Bishop Simon Hoa Nguyen Van Hien. He worked in the cathedral for six years at a variety of pastoral assignments. But the Communist triumph of 1975 overturned his life. On July 29, 1979, after a series of failed attempts at escape, he joined a group that managed to steer a flimsy craft off the coast and out to sea. After eight days adrift, ignored by many passing vessels, he was rescued by a British ship and taken to a refugee camp in Singapore. He was fortunate; less than a quarter of the Vietnamese boat people survived. Father Peters brother-in-law was lost at sea with his children.

Those who made it to England were succored by charitable groups such as the Ockenden Venture, the British Refugee Council, Save the Children, and Aid to the Church in Need. Father Peter was allowed into Britain in 1980. Unused military camps were provided at first as staging areas for the new emigrants, and it was in visiting these camps that Father Peter came to know his new flock.

Sister Shakespeare recalls visiting the Vietnamese in such a camp at Thorney Island, near Portsmouth. A Redemptorist priest from France, Father Quy, was doing his best to minister to the Vietnamese refugees, working on both sides of the English Channel but then Father Peter took up residence at St. Francis Presbytery, in Birmingham. The Sisters of Mercy taught him English and he in turn set about looking after the exiled Vietnamese families, their welfare, and the education of their children.


Sopley, near Ringwood, in Hampshire on Englands south coast, was one place where a large community of Vietnamese settled. On Father Peters first Christmas in Birmingham he brought many people all the way from Sopley to St. Franciss church for Midnight Mass. He then hurtled down to the Sopley refugee camp to offer Mass before dawn for the remainder of the community there, somehow returning in time for Mass in Birmingham at 2.30 pm.

Msgr. Tom Fallon was often the driver as Father Peter careened around the country. "His wonderful spiritual leadership never ceased to impress me," writes Msgr. Fallon. The people would gather and pray before he said Mass for them. They knew he was there to serve them and would always put them first." An indefatigable pastor, Father Peter ministered in camps near Canterbury, York, Salisburym and Christchurch. Meanwhile he became established as a priest of the Birmingham archdiocese.

The Vietnamese Catholic communities in Britain and Ireland continued to grow under Msgr. Peters pastoral oversight. In addition to two centers in Birminghan and one in London, he was, during his last two years, given a church in Bow Common Lane in East London for the Vietnamese chaplaincy in the Westminster archdiocese. Together with his assistants--Father Peter Nguyen Tien Dac in Birmingham, Father Paul Huynh Chanh, and Deacon Paul Ly Trong Song in London--he was utterly devoted to his mission of building up a deeper spritual life among the Vietnamese Catholics in England.

In a personal tribute his closest and most faithful friend from the first days in Birmingham, Msgr. Fallon, said: Let us look forward to seeing that smiling face again. Our Lady of Perpetual Help, help him and us. May his example inspire our faith, hope, and love.

[AUTHOR ID] Kevin Grant, a founder and frequent contributor to Catholic World Report, is a Past Master of The Keys of the Catholic Writers Guild, and was British Director of Aid to the Church in Need from 1983 to 1986.


WARM TRIBUTES FOR A "TRAVELING PREACHER" Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham led the warm tributes paid to Msgr. Peter Dao Duc Diem, a Vietnamese priest of the Birmingham archdiocese.

"For so many years he has been an outstanding chaplain to the Vietnamese community," Archbishop Nichols said. "The violent and unexpected circumstances of his death make this loss all the harder to bear. We pray for the repose of his soul and the comfort of the Vietnamese Catholics in this country." Archbishop Nichols celebrated a Requiem Mass for Msgr. Peter Diem on 12 February 12 at St Francis's Church, Handsworth. Archbishop Maurice Couve de Murville, the former Archbishop of Birmingham, who did so much to help establish the Vietnamese chaplaincy in England, preached a homily during which he described Msgr. Peter Diem as: "A traveling preacher like the Lord Jesus himself."

Archbishop Couve de Murville said: "Today we all share the sorrow of the Vietnamese people, their sense of bewilderment and loss after Mgr Diems mysterious death, their grief at the disappearance of a great priest and a great leader."

Archbishop Nichols wrote to the Bishop Peter Nguyen Van Nhon, of Dalat, Vietnam, where the slain priest was ordained: "Mgr Peter Dao Due Diem worked heroically and tirelessly for the Vietnamese community here in England. His ministry, which began in 1980, was blessed by God and gave great help and grace to so many people. He was a focus of faith and a tower of strength to people newly arrived in this country in circumstances of great difficulty. The Vietnamese community here are heartbroken at the loss of their pastor."

The archbishop added: "We are very grateful to the Catholic community of Vietnam for the men who have come to this country and serve here as priests. We have treasured Msgr. Peter as a great gift from the Church in Vietnam to us."

Speaking on behalf of the Vietnamese Community, Father John Minh, who is based in Cambridge, told Catholic World Report: "We miss him not only as a pastor, sent to us by God through the Archdiocese of Birmingham, but also as a father of our own blood and flesh."

By Peter Jennings