From Vietnam refugee to NY clergy

Immaculate Conception Church celebrates a parochial vicar there nearly 40 years

Father Francis Buu (center) surrounded by other parish clergy at a December 28 mass celebrating his 40th anniversary of priestly ordination. (Photos by Kim Ramsay)

Father Francis Buu (center) surrounded by other parish clergy at a December 28 mass celebrating his 40th anniversary of priestly ordination. (Photos by Lisa Ramsay)

By Sabina Mollot

When Francis Xavier Buu was a child growing up in South Vietnam, he knew he wanted to become a priest, and against all odds, including his country’s economy collapsing in 1975, and his becoming a refugee not long after he’d become ordained, he still had his dream of working in the Catholic church come true.

On December 28, 2014, Buu, now a parochial vicar, celebrated his 40th anniversary of priestly ordination, 39 of those years at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church.

Over 100 people, mainly friends and family, were in attendance at a dinner, held that day while a crowd of over 400 people, mainly parishioners, attended a celebratory mass, also that Sunday, in his honor.

In a twist of irony, Reverend Buu, whose heavily accented English can still be tough to understand to those who don’t know him well, is well known throughout the parish community for the personal service he offers, usually through one-on-one communion or counsel.

Immaculate Conception’s pastor, Reverend Monsignor Kevin Nelan, noted that Buu comprehends English as well as anyone born in the United States. However, he’s always had trouble speaking it.

“It was a great challenge,” said Nelan, of finding the best way to put Buu’s skills to use since, despite his intelligence, the language barrier just made certain services expected of a vicar impossible. “He can’t teach a class or give a homily.” But, Nelan added, “For most people who know Father Buu, it’s not so much about what he communicates verbally, but what he communicates emotionally.”

Nelan noted how in the past few years, Buu has become the go-to person at the church to give communion and perform other services for homebound parishioners and patients at hospitals or nursing homes. He typically makes 20-30 of these visits each month, and has developed a reputation for responding to requests so quickly that a running joke is that he’s often waiting for the hospital patients before they’re signed in.

Additionally, when he’s in charge of confession, there’s always a line.

“He’s a good confessor in that some of the people might not realize he understands exactly what they’re saying,” said Nelan.

Additionally, Buu, whose main job is to assist Nelan, does lead some of the sermons at the church during the workweek.

Father Francis Buu

Father Francis Buu

Despite being painfully shy, Buu agreed to do an interview with Town & Village this week, during which he acknowledged that communication has definitely been the hardest part of the job. In contrast, he finds leading services in front of a packed church far less intimidating.

“That’s easy,” he said.

For Buu, a typical day starts with exercise (he favors an elliptical for cardio) and naturally, prayer. “I don’t listen to music or watch TV; I pray,” he said. The work day can end at any time, sometimes as late as midnight, depending on what’s needed. On weekdays, this includes conducting mass once a day.
On his own time, Buu likes to read, usually Catholic books.

When speaking with residents at the church who come to him for counsel, he’s found that they do so with the usual worries about family and finances, which in recent years, often include concerns of getting priced out of the neighborhood.
“The rents are really high,” he said, while gesturing from where he was sitting at a rectory office to across the street at Stuyvesant Town.

As for his journey into spiritual leadership, it began when he was a young child, Buu, now 69 years old, said. That’s when he began studying at seminary. “It’s not like here,” he said in explanation of how young he was when he began studying. “I wanted to serve people — always.”

Father Buu at a reception in his honor

Father Buu at a reception in his honor

By December, 1974, Buu was ordained. Then several months later, in April, 1975, Vietnam’s economy collapsed, and people from families like his (his father was a retired policemen) were being rounded up and sent to prison camps.

He fled to the sea where he got on a fishing boat that took him to Guam. This was not a planned trip; Buu had no paperwork or anything except for the clothes on his back. He was in Guam for a month, and along with thousands of other people from Vietnam, Buu was given immigration services to be resettled in the United States. Though he didn’t speak any English at all at the time, Buu, who wanted to continue his Catholic studies, wound up in New York at Immaculate Conception, where he’s remained ever since. While it’s far more common for pastoral staffers to bounce around every few years as directed by the Archdiocese, there is another ICC clergy member who’s been around even longer than Buu. Monsignor Desmond Vella has been at the church since 1962.

Meanwhile, in other parish-related news, a new parish center for Immaculate Conception is opening at the old St. Emeric’s space on East 12th Street and Avenue D which will provide additional worship and classroom space as well as enable ICC to hold more than one event at a time.

Nelan said that he’s hopeful the church’s school, which currently has around 250 students, will see its population grow next year as a result of the city’s universal Pre-K initiative. Attendance at the school, over the past decade, had dwindled by around 75 percent, mainly as a result of neighborhood residents moving away due to higher rents. Church attendance, however, hasn’t seen the same steep drop of attendance due to ICC getting an influx of parishioners from Mary Help of Christians after it closed, as well as newer residents of Stuy Town, especially college students.

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