Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower

Fr. Marion Bui: Discalced Carmelite among ‘boat people’ to escape post-war Vietnam to pursue vocation

Fr. Marion Bui, one of the six Discalced Carmelite Friars of San Antonio who serve the community at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower, celebrates 32 years in the religious life in August 2018. Fr. Marion has a great deal to celebrate in achieving this hard-won anniversary: survival, freedom, and God’s providence.                                                                                                                                                                                                  Fr. Marion was born into a Catholic family in central Vietnam in 1966; he was named Thanh Quang Bui. His parents had moved to the South from the Communist North in 1954 when the divided country signed a peace agreement. As peace turned to war, his father joined the army in 1960 and spent the next 15 years on the front.                                                                                                                                                                                                        Thanh Quang never saw his father until after the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. While the end of war brought the return of his father, it led to the young boy’s own desperate escape from the country just a few years later.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Already as a child, Thanh Quang had a calling to the priesthood, but in the reunified Vietnam under the Socialist Republic, the first of many obstacles arose. All seminaries in the country were closed down. Then by the late 70s, the government had begun drafting young men for military service in the war against Cambodia. His mother looked for a way for him to leave the country to pursue his calling.

In 1980, as a 14-year-old, Thanh Quang joined in an attempt to illegally escape from the country, by boat, and was captured.

Following his arrest, he was one of an estimated 1,000,000 Vietnamese sent to prison camps, where some 165,000 perished, after the reunification of Vietnam. At U-Minh Re-education Camp for six months, Thanh Quang endured continual hunger and forced labor, mostly in the jungle.

“Thanks be to God, we were able to capture insects and animals,” he said. The prisoners survived by eating grasshoppers, snakes, frogs, rats, which they would add to their tiny daily ration of rice. “Snakes made a very good meal,” he noted.

Other significant threats were mosquitos and leeches. “If they had tied you up and left you to the mosquitos, you would probably die from loss of blood within an hour,” Fr. Marion said.

In the camp, Thanh Quang met a seminarian who taught him to pray. Nevertheless, those months on the edge of survival were a time of great depression, fear, anger, and hopelessness, he reported.

“There was no court, no recourse,” Fr. Marion said. “We expected to die.”

The days at U-Minh camp began at 4 a.m. with a small bowl of rice and indoctrination sessions. During those sessions, some names would be called and those individuals were separated from the others. When finally one morning his own name was called, Thanh Quang knew he wouldn’t be coming back. Before he walked away, he had only the time to pass on to a campmate the location of a precious fishing net he had made.

Thanh Quang was sent home, where his arrival was the first news his family had received of his fate since the day he had left. The joy of his homecoming was darkened by his physical brokenness, depression, and shame. The failed escape attempt had not only been financially costly; it had also brought scrutiny and harassment upon his parents. The young man despaired of his future.

Upon arrival at the U-Minh camp, Thanh Quang had been befriended by Nam Le, a Catholic man. They discovered that they had come from the same area; their sisters had been classmates. The two were then separated most of the time at the camp, but were sent home at the same time.

They continued their friendship back home, and three months later, Nam Le proposed that they attempt another escape together. The Bui family again scraped together the funds to send him. Thanh Quang, and Nam Le, with his wife and two small children, escaped, again by boat.

The first week the group spent near the shore in a small boat waiting to join a larger boat with other refugees, ever fearful of drawing notice.

When they were finally able to join the promised larger boat, it turned out to be an open motorboat—more suited to navigating a river than the open sea. A total of 32 refugees set out for Thailand, several hundred miles away. The group included five younger children, the smallest among them Nam Le’s one-year-old son.

Among the group, one refugee with military experience had a compass and knew how to navigate. He enlisted Thanh Quang to assist him with the rudder.

The refugees found their small boat equipped with 15 five-gallon cans of diesel fuel.  They were also provided 50 pounds of uncooked rice, but without any means of cooking it, and fewer than one coconut per person. The only water provided was consumed the first day, but they used the empty fuel barrel to collect the abundant rainfall. They didn’t know how long the voyage might take, if they were successful. The known risks were many.

On the overcrowded boat, the refugees lacked space to lie down to sleep comfortably. They were constantly damp and many battled seasickness.

Then shortly after reaching the open ocean, the boat was seized by a Thai fishing boat. The fishermen forced the refugees onto their vessel, separating the women from the men. Some of the women were raped. The abductors stripped the refugees of all valuables, even wrenching out one man’s tooth to obtain the gold filling.

The pirates also took the one functioning motor of their boat’s set of two. Each refugee was then repaid with a bowl of fish soup before they were once more abandoned to their own boat. The terrifying ordeal had lasted about 10 hours.

The refugees despaired at that point of ever reaching land. While they managed to get the remaining motor to run, the wind had blown them off course and they had no indication of their location, with only the horizon spreading out before them in all directions. They waited for death, sharing the few remaining coconuts and the rice, uncooked.

Then two days later, yet another group of pirates attacked the refugee boat. Again, the fisherman separated the women from the men, for the same purpose. Though little else was left to steal, the pirates used an ax to remove the remaining motor. Again the pirates fed the group as the first had done, and set them adrift once more.

Lacking any means of propulsion for their boat, the refugees constructed a makeshift sail from their clothing and a bamboo stick. They prayed for the wind to blow them somewhere, anywhere.

They reached land one night, a week after setting forth, the boat shattered as the waves slammed it onto the shore. None of the refugees had even the strength to walk out of the water. The villagers, speaking an unknown language, came out to help them ashore. All 32 refugees, even the children, had survived. They had reached their destination: Thailand.

The group was taken to a refugee camp with some 30,000 or 40,000 other Vietnamese boat people, Fr. Marion recounted. There they began to recover from their ordeal. They were given food, spaces in barracks, and mosquito nets. They were then assisted in contacting relatives who could help them or in beginning the process of emigration to countries that would accept them as political refugees.

Nam Le and his family planned to join his brothers and sister in the US, where they had been living since 1975. They agreed to take young Thanh Quang with them. Before they could go, though, they waited six months in the refugee camp. Then they were sent to Bataan in the Philippines, for yet another seven months, where they were prepared for new life in the US with lessons in English and American culture.

Through prayer, Thanh Quang began to find peace following his anger and healing from the traumatic events he had endured.

Finally, in June 1981, he arrived with Nam Le’s family in Alexandria, La. They were among the estimated 823,000 Vietnamese refugees that the US accepted during those years.

Three years in two different high schools in America proved to be yet another time of challenge in the young Thanh Quang’s life. Though he had had English lessons while in the Philippines, his “mind had not been able to accept” the teaching at that time, he explained.

In his school, he was nearly alone as a Vietnamese student. He credits his survival to his solid math skills and a helpful teacher who taught English to foreign students.

Also during that time, Nam Le and his wife lost their two-year-old son, who had survived the flight from Vietnam, when he drowned in a swimming pool.

While in high school, Thanh Quang was accepted to a university in Lafayette and had decided to enter the Benedictine order, where Nam Le’s brother was a friar.

Then early in his final year, Thanh Quang met Fr. Henry Bordeaux, now the senior Discalced Carmelite priest in San Antonio, who was in Louisiana visiting his mother.  Fr. Henry invited Thanh Quang to visit the monastery in San Antonio, so he spent a week in December there. By the time he graduated from high school in May 1984, Thanh Quang had chosen to join the Carmelites.

After a year of novitiate in the Carmelite community in Little Rock, Ark., Fr. Marion attended St. Mary’s University, graduating in 1991 with majors in philosophy and theology. He then went on to Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. In 1995, he was ordained to the priesthood, finally fulfilling the dream of the young boy who had so courageously pursued his vocation, and at such a high cost.

Fr. Marion has visited his family in Vietnam for the first time in recent years. He was thrilled to see his parents again and his siblings with families of their own. They were all in good health, though his father has since passed away.

Today, Fr. Marion, holds the role of parochial vicar at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower and Our Lady of Mount Carmel and St. Therese Parish.

“God’s providence has been with me throughout my entire life to make it possible for me to become a priest and to strengthen and heal me from the difficulties I encountered,” Fr. Marion said. “I thank Him for the wonderful years I’ve had with the Carmelite community and for the future I now have of serving Him through the Carmelite mission.”