Here is a copy of a letter recently sent by Friar Joseph Tan Doan Nguyen. Friar Joe Tan is a member of the Sacred Heart Province who has returned to his native Vietnam to teach the Franciscan seminarians. He writes of an interesting--and I would say unexpected--project of the Vietnamese friars.
A Franciscan “Mental Hospice” in Mekong Delta
During the Tet vacation, I had the opportunity to visit a "Mental Hospice" operated by the friars in Can Tho--the capital of Mekong Delta. This area is predominantly Buddhist and Cao Dai (an indigenous religion). After the fall of South Vietnam (1975), the friars were looking for a place to live because many of their friaries were confiscated and the choices of ministry were rather limited. They came here and eventually established a friary (1999). They give witness to the Gospel of simplicity and joy by reaching out to the poor of the neighborhood as well as the college students at Can Tho University.
One of their recent projects was the Mental Hospice. Built less than a year ago and now holding about 40 patients, the Hospice is served by 1 part-time and 3 full-time friars, along with a couple of local volunteers. The patients come from all over the country. They are either homeless or brought here by relatives. They are divided into 3 levels: those are on the way toward recovery and who eventually can leave or stay at the center to assist others; those unable to make any improvement and must stay here for life; and finally those who need to be isolated due to their mental conditions. Periodically, a volunteer doctor comes in to check the patient’s physical and mental conditions and to prescribe medicines.
The friars’ daily chorus sounds like a “second novitiate”! They cook, feed and bathe the patients. They organize physical and spiritual activity, help the patients to take medicines and most of all, keep them safe. The Hospice survives on the donations from local and out of town benefactors. The friars would go to pick up foods and vegetables whenever the merchants can collect the left-overs in the market. Right now, the Hospice is in need of funds for a water purification system. Hopefully, with the permission of the Bishop, the friars would like to build a small chapel as the means to evangelize the local population with daily liturgy. They know that their mission and witness must always be accompanied by the local poor.
History repeats itself. In 1957, responding to the friars’ desire to serve the poor, the Bishop of Long Xuyen Diocese entrusted to them an abandoned seminary in “Cu Lao Gieng” which used to serve both Vietnamese and Cambodian churches during the colonial times. While providing pastoral ministry for the Providence Sisters next door, the friars also established a Retreat Center, a Formation House for the lay Brothers, a Clinic for Hansen and tropical diseases, and a fishery that is still operating today. A half century later, the call for evangelization has led them to the neighboring Diocese of Can Tho. Now, along with the Hospice project as the base, the friars are reaching out to the Khmer population in nearby province of Tra Vinh, the migrant workers, and the “new poor” in the newly developed industrial areas.
Like the waters of the Mekong Rivers which continue quietly to nourish the land and the people along the Delta over the centuries, the friars have also persisted in following the Gospel of minority and adapting to the changes in the new demographic landscape of South Vietnam.