Portland, Ore. — Phu Nguyen, a University of Portland sophomore, is descended from a saint.
Phu's great-great-great-grandfather died for abiding by his faith. The Vatican considers the torture endured by the renowned Vietnamese martyrs among the worst in the history of Christianity.
St. Matthew Nguyen Van Phuong was born in Vietnam in 1801. After his parents died, he was raised by the local priest in Quang-Binh, in the central part of the Southeast Asian nation.
Matthew married and became a devoted layman. One of his tasks was finding homes where a priest could say Mass out of sight from government officials. In a country already marked by two centuries of bloody persecution of Catholics, this took pluck.
Before Mass one day during Advent, 1860, rumors emerged that authorities were coming for Matthew. He and the priest went into hiding for five months, but guards hunted them down. Captors etched a cross on the ground and demanded that the priest and layman tread on it as a sign of renouncing Christ. Where many gave in, they refused. They were beheaded on the spot, joining tens of thousands of martyred Vietnamese Christians.
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"I think it's a powerful reminder of the faith that I have," says Phu, who grew up with a statue of his holy ancestor in his family home in Portland. "It shows the love and sacrifice that my faith asks of me."
Jesuit and Dominican missionaries had brought Christianity to Vietnam in the 17th century. Eventually, the Europeans and their faith were seen as a danger to Vietnamese culture. Local officials saw to it that Christians had limbs hacked off joint by joint and had flesh torn asunder with red-hot tongs. Believers' faces were branded with the words "ta dao," "sinister religion." The persecutions continued off and on for 250 years.
Phu has sought to understand the crackdowns that took the life of his ancestor and so many others. It was not random violence, he has concluded. "The Vietnamese officials were just scared," he said. "They were being colonized by the French and being Catholic was seen as going along with the French."
In 1988, Pope John Paul II canonized 117 martyrs, who represent as many as 300,000 Vietnamese Catholics who perished. Some died in communist purges of the 20th century. Their collective feast day is Nov. 24.
Trouble returned for the descendants of Matthew Nguyen Van Phuong in the middle of the 20th century. During the Vietnam War, Phu's father joined American troops in fighting communist forces. In 1975, at war's end, he was separated from his family and sent to a re-education camp. Even after his release in 1981, Huynh Thanh Nguyen's household was placed in what he calls the official "black book." That meant communist authorities made life hard in dozens of small ways, including a block on education for the Nguyen children.
The family moved to Portland from Quang-Binh in the early 1990s. One of six siblings, Phu is the only one born in the U.S. and is an academic star.
Valedictorian at Madison High School, he is now a biology major and plans to attend medical school, inspired by the physician who has helped his father manage heart disease.
In high school, the story of his famous grandfather came up only once, when he told it in geography class. "Only the teacher was interested," he says.
Phu decided to express his faith not in what he said, but in the way he lived. So he did good deeds, avoided vice and respected everyone he met as a beloved child of God.
Each May, the Nguyens of Portland celebrate their saint-ancestor. In the chapel of a former all-girls school that is now headquarters of Portland's Southeast Asian Vicariate, relatives and friends convene for Mass, an emotional talk by Phu's father and a festive meal. Children learn that they are heirs to holiness. This year's celebration is set for May 17.
Prominent near the altar is a statue of a placid St. Matthew Nguyen Van Phuong, with incense burning nearby. Phu and his siblings help his parents arrange details, from finding a book of matches to taking photos.
When a sibling gets wed, the family always gives the couple a statue of St. Matthew for the new household.
"His story is magnificent," Phu says.
The Nguyen family genealogy is shaped like a wheel, with St. Matthew as the hub. Phu is on the very edge of the circle.
Most of the saint's descendants have remained in Vietnam, where the state keeps a close, fierce eye on Catholicism. "There is not much religious freedom," Phu explains. "They can practice, but it doesn't take much for an official to snap his finger and take down a church."