Diocese Helped Resettle Waves of Vietnamese Refugees

Deacon Daniel Resendes received a call on April, 30, 1975,  from John McCarthy, former director of Immigration and Refugee Services for the U.S. Catholic Conference (USCC) asking him what plans he had to bring Vietnamese refugees to the Arlington Diocese. "I told him that at that time I didn’t have one, but I’ll have one in 24 hours, which we did," Deacon Resendes recalled during a recent interview with the HERALD about his work 25 years ago as the founding director of the diocesan Migration and Refugee Services office. The Vietnamese immigrants fleeing to this area in 1975 was due to the capture of Saigon by North Vietnamese troops. Bishop Thomas J. Welsh, founding bishop of the diocese in August 1974, was "100 percent supportive," said Deacon Resendes. Describing the diocese’s refugee resettlement work as an example of "Catholic action in operation," the bishop said the program’s success was due to the "goodness of the people responding to an obvious need." When the program he emphasized that all refugees be accepted, regardless of their religious affiliation. The program’s goals were to promote self-sufficiency through employment, education and social adjustment into the community. Deacon Resendes was ordained to the permanent diaconate in October 1974. The diocesan Immigrant and Refugee Office opened in November, under Msgr. Richard Burke, who was then chancellor. At first, the office helped Cuban and Chinese immigrants. "The primary work was verifying a sponsor’s ability to take over the responsibility of caring for the refugee(s), Deacon Resendes said. After receiving McCarthy’s call the following April, Deacon Rescendes got a call a week later from Bishop Welsh. "Msgr. (R. Roy) Cosby was bringing in American men evacuated from Saigon, who had been with the embassy or the military there, and wanted to help," because they knew how desperate the refugee situation was, said Deacon Resendes. Deacon Resendes also served in Vietnam as director of the counter-intelligence department for MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam). His final assignment was as foreign liaison for the Department of the Army. He retired as an Army colonel. Meeting on a Saturday morning, Deacon Resendes asked the men who had just returned from Vietnam to be available to speak at organizations and parishes to promote sponsorship for the Vietnamese refugees. A 13-minute talk and slide presentation was developed for the purpose. Deacon Resendes said the abundant response of diocesan Catholics was due in part to many people in the area having lived in Vietnam, serving in the military or with a U.S. government agency. In running the program, Deacon Resendes’ first worked out of the basement of his home, next door to Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Arlington, where he was assigned as a director of religious education (DRE.), he then moved to the Catholic Charities office at Falls Church. Later, as the program became bigger, the office transferred to the Chancery. One of Deacon Rescendes’ associates in the program was Professor Long Ba Pho, former rector of studies at Dalat University in Vietnam. After coming to the United States, he was chairman of the Catholic Vietnamese Community of the Arlington Diocese and marketing professor at American University. Pho’s daughter, Helen, who was 5 years old at the time, was pictured with Bishop Welsh on the cover of the HERALD’s first issue, January 8, 1976. In early 1976, the diocese had more Vietnamese refugees than any other in the country except Los Angeles. Deacon Rescendes estimated that during his time as director of Migration and Refugee Services, 15,000 refugees were aided through the diocesan program. He pointed out that refugees accepted any employment, no matter how menial. "Some Vietnamese refugees who were business and professional people in Vietnam were now working as gas station attendants in the diocese," he said. Even though the recently-established Arlington Diocese had limited financial resources, sponsors were reimbursed within seven days, said Deacon Rescendes. "Thousands of receipts a week went through the finance office, directed by [the late] Jack Connell," he said. Deacon Resendes and Dr. Pho collaborated to establish a church for Vietnamese refugees in the diocese. They originally used an old Baptist Church. "Msgr. Burke and I went to a refugee camp in Pennsylvania to recruit Vietnamese priests," said Deacon Resendes. "Many of the Vietnamese refugees were Catholic." Two Vietnamese priests were located. One of those is Father Tran Dinh Nhi, parochial vicar at Holy Family Parish in Dale City. The other priest was his cousin, the late Father Nhat Duy Tran, founding pastor of Holy Martyrs of Vietnam Parish in Arlington. They began with offering one Mass celebrated in Vietnamese at St. James Parish in Falls Church on Sundays at 2 p.m., attended by about 1,000 people. In 1979, the Holy Martyrs of Vietnam Parish was founded, the result of a huge fundraising effort by the Vietnamese people, Deacon Resendes said. Deacon Resendes describes his work with the refugee office as "providential" and gave some examples. Many refugees were single parents, so a day care center funded by the USCC was begun in a Baptist Church in Arlington. Their first clients were 25 Vietnamese children. One week before Christmas 1975, four Vietnamese nuns showed up at Deacon Resendes’ office looking for work in the diocese. They just happened to have done childcare work in their native country. "The next problem was transportation," he said. "We got a bus through USCC, and then we needed a driver. One of the nuns got her driver’s license through training." A low cost commissary (called at one time Indochina Cooperative Services) for the Vietnamese was located in a diocesan building, from 1976-81. It was operated by a volunteer couple who on weekends drove the bus to New York to stock up at food outlets. "I had some beautiful people working for me," said Deacon Resendes. "I was then doing graduate work at Catholic University," and was able to recruit some fellow students to assist, he said. Some of those who volunteered stayed on and became staff, such as John Yarling, who was there six years, four of them as director. He went on to become director of resettlement for the Archdiocese of San Francisco. One of Deacon Resendes key co-workers was also Minh Van Dang of St. Leo Parish, senior case manager for Migration and Refugee Services. He had a prominent position in Vietnam and knew a number of the refugees. "I appreciated the efforts that the pastors gave me in supporting our sponsorship program," said Deacon Resendes. "I cannot recall one parish who didn’t sponsor at least one family." Bishop Anthony Justs was "then the pastor at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Alexandria and was very supportive. " The diocesan program, operated with civic organizations and other Christian churches, was used as a model by both Voice of America and the U.S. Information Service. After his service with the Immigration and Refugee Services, Deacon Resendes went to Catholic Charities as executive deputy director from 1978-79. Then Bishop Welsh sent him to Rome for a year to obtain his Ph.D. in philosophy. Upon returning, he was the first director of the diocese’s permanent diaconate program, and then vice president and treasurer of the Notre Dame Pontifical Institute (now the Notre Dame Graduate School). Deacon Resendes served in the missionary Diocese of Gallup, N. M., at one time holding four simultaneous positions: administrator of St. Jerome’s Navaho Mission, retreat director of Sacred Heart Retreat Center, vice chancellor and DRE for the diocese. While there, he developed spinal stenosis which restricted him from walking and driving. He currently does some writing for the Voice of the Southwest , the Diocese of Gallup’s newspaper.

Copyright ?2001 Arlington Catholic Herald.  All rights reserved.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2001