Twenty-six years ago, Vincent Nguyen was a boy dreaming of freedom and a chance to become a priest when he and 19 relatives piled into a wooden fishing boat and prayed they would evade Vietnam's coastal patrol and slip out to sea.
On Wednesday, Father Nguyen will become Canada's first Catholic bishop of Asian descent, as well as its youngest bishop, at a ceremony in Toronto that's being hailed as a landmark moment.
Father Nguyen will be named an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Toronto with responsibility for the areas of Scarborough and Durham. As the only non-white Catholic bishop in Canada, he will also be counted on to represent the hundreds of thousands of Canadian Roman Catholics who have immigrated from Asia, Africa and Latin America and feel as though their voices are unheeded in the church's upper echelons.
"The Catholic Church in Canada is growing through Asian people," Father Nguyen said. "The fact that I'm an Asia-born bishop will bring my experience into the conference of bishops and maybe I can contribute to the issues the church is discussing. The church is very mindful of issues of immigration."
Rev. Terence Fay, author of New Faces of Canadian Catholics: The Asians, called Father Nguyen's appointment a historic occasion.
"The church recognized the need for an Asian bishop and the people themselves felt that need," he said. Most of the growth in the church is coming from immigrant communities, Father Fay said, and the Asian-Canadians he has interviewed feel discriminated against.
"They're delighted to know that one of their own has been recognized and can speak for them among the bishops," he said.
Father Nguyen, 43, has been a priest for just 12 years, his election to bishop was announced by Pope Benedict XVI late last year, a remarkably rapid rise.
He was born in 1966 in a country divided by war. His father was a farmer and his mother a trader, but from his early days Father Nguyen thought his future lay with the church. In his hometown of Banmethout, just north of Saigon, the story of the martyrdom of Father Nguyen's great-great-grandfather has been passed on for generations.
His great-great grandfather was the first of the family to convert to Roman Catholicism, and in the 1840s he was persecuted for his beliefs. He died, according to the poem still sung in Banmethout, when the imperial rulers tied him to a post in the water and waited for the tide to come in. He was one of the more than 100,000 Vietnamese martyrs recognized by the church.
"It was a lot of pressure growing up with that story in my family," Father Nguyen said Monday. "But it's also quite an honour."
As a child he wanted to enter the pre-seminary, which began in Grade 6, but the Communists closed the Catholic schools when they took over South Vietnam, he said.
At 16, he began planning his escape. He took his uncle's fishing boat out to sea every day for a year, testing its seaworthiness and watching the coast guard. He learned their patterns and they learned his. When the morning came in June, 1983, he and his uncle's family sailed unnoticed out to sea in their wooden boat, aiming for the coast of Indonesia. Seas were terrifyingly rough along the way, and they knew that many of the Vietnamese "boat people," as they came to be known, perished making the same journey.
A Japanese freighter picked up their boat seven days into the trip, and took them to Japan. The young man spent a year in a refugee camp before coming to Toronto, where he met up with two older brothers. He learned English and completed a degree in electrical engineering. He entered a seminary in 1993, and has been a priest in parishes across Toronto since 1998.
On Monday night, Father Nguyen's family was reunited almost in its entirety for the first time in 30 years. Although there were hugs and smiles and expressions of joy, the reunion hit a snag when Father Nguyen's younger brother was detained in Vietnam. He had tried to carry on board the aircraft a hand-carved shepherd's staff as a gift for his brother. But airline security took a dim view and he was forced to wait a day for the next flight.
Members of the Vietnamese Canadian Catholic community expressed excitement at Rev. Nguyen's election to bishop.
Thuy Truong, who also calls himself "one of the so-called boat people" - came to Canada from Vietnam in 1979, settling in Saskatoon and becoming a founding member of the city's Vietnamese Catholic community.
"We are in awe. ... We feel that we have somebody to represent us to the Holy See."
He said that in the past three decades, he's seen the community grow and mature but maintain its roots.
Nguyen Thai Trung, a past president of Saskatoon's Vietnamese-Canadian Association, said the ordainment is a "coming-of-age" for Canada's Vietnamese community.
"It would mean that the Vietnamese community in Canada has become well established and become important ... playing an important role in Canadian society," he said.
"We can participate in all aspects of Canadian society - social aspects or religious aspects or any aspects of everyday life."
Rev. Thomas Rosica, CEO of Salt and Light Catholic TV network, praised Rev. Nguyen's skills as a priest.
"He has a combination of youthfulness, intelligence and holiness and ability to deal with people," Father Rosica said. "He has a transparent spirituality, a good sense of how to deal with people and to let them know that they're heard. He's young but extremely competent."
With a report from Anna Mehler Paperny