SALT LAKE CITY — A desire to serve others and the example of several diocesan priests led Dominican Father Francis Hung Le to leave a career in Silicon Valley and take the vows of priesthood.
A member of the Western Province of the Dominican Order, Fr. Francis came to Utah last month to serve as superior of the Dominican house at St. Catherine of Siena Newman Center in Salt Lake City. He also accepted the request from Bishop Oscar A. Solis to be chaplain at Judge Memorial Catholic High School.
The thought of a priestly vocation never occurred to him as a child. He was born in Vietnam during the country’s civil war. His hometown was near the demilitarized zone, and he regularly heard bombs exploding at night. As a boy he admired soldiers and their gear; his dream was to be old enough to be drafted so he could defend south Vietnam. When the war ended with the north victorious, his parents decided to pay to have two of their eight children smuggled out of the communist country as part of the mass exodus of political refugees from the south.
Then 14, he was unaware of his parents’ plans.
“You had to do everything in secret because the whole country was under martial law,” he said; if caught, those attempting to flee faced prison.
Because the family couldn’t afford the smugglers’ fee for them all to escape, Fr. Francis and an older sister were chosen to go. The two of them crowded into a fishing boat with 135 other people and set sail for a one-day trip to Thailand, but no one aboard knew how to navigate, so they got lost at sea. Three days later, a tanker spied them, provided them with some food and fresh water, and directed them to the nearest country, which was Malaysia.
At that time the Malaysian government was unready to accept the 137 refugees, who were forced to remain on the boat, which was built to hold a crew of 20. Among the refugees was “a wonderful priest, Fr. Francis Xavier Tran Van Can. He is the one who kind of inspired me” to become a priest, Fr. Francis said. “He was a very self-giving person. … I had no idea about priesthood until the escape boat really changed my mind.”
After two months on the boat, the refugees were allowed by the Malaysian government to disembark on an uninhabited island, where they had to dig a well and build their own huts. Then they waited to be resettled in other countries. Fr. Francis and his sister were sponsored by St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Mansfield, Ohio. The parish pastor, Msgr. Edward Dunn, also made an impact on Fr. Francis.
From Ohio, he and his sister went to California, where he was an altar server, sometimes helping at three Masses a day. A wealthy parishioner, seeing his dedication, offered to pay for him to attend a minor seminary, but Fr. Francis’ sister objected. Not wanting to go against his sister’s wishes, he instead attended the University of California, Santa Barbara, graduating with a degree in engineering. He then began working in Silicon Valley, where he obtained a master’s degree from Santa Clara University.
“I did all that in order to help my family back home financially,” he said; having seen how much his sister sacrificed to put him through college while also sending money home, he felt obligated to help the family as well. However, because by then he felt a call to the priesthood, he made a plan to work for seven years, then pursue a religious vocation.
For him, becoming a priest was a way to serve others in a similar way as he had thought to do as a boy, when his dream was to defend his country. ““I knew all my life that my heart is for others,” he said.
His family, on the other hand, didn’t understand why he would give up a good-paying job to become a priest, despite his genealogy: He is related to St. John Doan Trinh Hoan, one of the 117 Martyrs of Vietnam; his paternal grandfather’s brother was a priest; and his younger brother is a diocesan priest in Vietnam.
When he began exploring a priestly vocation, he thought he would become a diocesan priest, not only because of the examples of the priest on the boat and Msgr. Dunn but also because he was unaware of religious orders. Then he attended a “Come and See” weekend hosted by the Archdiocese of San Francisco, where he was given a booklet describing the different orders.
Flipping through it, “I said, ‘Oh, wow! Look at all these things – the Jesuits, the Franciscans, the OMI,’” he said. He contacted several orders, but found a fit when he went for a long weekend to the Dominican house in Oakland.
“I just loved the way that they pray – very traditional, very contemplative,” and he appreciated the order’s community life, he said.
In 1996 he entered the novitiate in Oakland.
“It was like a new world because my world was math and science, and I didn’t know anything about philosophy and theology at all,” he said about the course of study. “The Lord kind of opened the way. I learned everything from scratch.”
Following ordination in 2004, he served assignments at Dominican parishes in the Bay Area, Alaska, Oregon and Washington. During his first year as a priest he cofounded, with Dr. Libby Albinda, Holy Rosary International Medical Mission, an organization that provides medical care to Vietnam, the Philippines, Mexico and Peru.
He sees his vocation as a gift, he said. “Every day I unfold that gift, and it’s through that I find joy. And I try to share that joy, that conviction in ministry.”
Coming to Utah, he immediately found a connection to his home country. On the first Sunday after his arrival in Salt Lake City, he was asked to celebrate a Holy Hour for the Carmelite nuns at their monastery. There, he recognized four nuns who were from the Carmelite convent in his hometown of Kim Long village near Hue City in Vietnam. The convent is located within a 10-minute walk of his mother’s house, he said; every year when he returns home to visit his mother, who is 91, he celebrates Mass at that convent, he said.
In Vietnam, even though the Church is still under persecution, “all religious congregations, including diocesan priests, are growing by leaps and bounds,” he said.
As chaplain at Judge Memorial, his role will be caring for the spiritual needs of the students and their parents, he said. He plans to train those students who are interested to be altar servers, lectors and Eucharistic ministers. He also has begun offering online links to daily reflections, a saint of the day, and information on how to pray the rosary, “to help them grow spiritually online,” he said.
In addition, he is making plans for a Lenten “Stations of the Cross on Wheels,” where he will lead students on a bicycle journey to different churches in the area to help them get to know the Church community outside their own parishes, he said.
On the weekends, he will help with the Masses at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Kearns, where his ability to celebrate the Mass in both English and Spanish will be put to good use.
In addition to bicycling, he enjoys tennis and downhill skiing, and hopes during the season to find people to ski with. His daily reading includes selections in Vietnamese, Spanish and English.
“The two things I enjoy most are preaching and teaching,” Fr. Francis said. “I love to share my faith” and learn about the faith journey of others. “I hope I can be an instrument of God to enrich their faith through our conversation, and they to me, because we need to help one another go to heaven.”