War torn Vietnam made him an instrument of peace

By Dolores Madlener | Staff writer
Sunday, December 28, 2014

Father Paul Cao, pastor of St. Celestine Parish in Elmwood Park, is photographed in the church on Dec. 21. (Brian J. Morowczynski / Catholic New World)

He is: Father Paul Duy Cao, pastor of  St. Celestine, Elmwood Park since July, 2013. Former associate pastor St. William and St. Edward parishes. Former formation director at St. Joseph College Seminary for seven years. Ordained in 2001.

Growing up: He was born in South Vietnam in 1973; Saigon fell in 1975. “My town was Vung Tau, a tourist city, close to the beach, with beautiful weather like Florida. I’m the youngest of seven children. Before 1975 my father was a policeman. After the communists took over, he spent six months in a concentration camp. Afterwards we bought land and our family became farmers. My mother worked in a clinic as a midwife before 1975, later she helped on the farm, too.

“We lived close to church and even after the communists came our Vietnamese pastor was allowed to say Mass for us. But it was very strict. I was lucky, in high school the communists put me in a class to learn English. They made my sister learn Russian, and she never used it. The rest of our classes were in Vietnamese. I went to school in the morning from 7 to 11 a.m., went home, had lunch and about 1 p.m. started with my farm chores.”

Leaving Vietnam: “Living was very difficult. At one point I tried escaping by boat with my sister, but we failed. My three brothers were able to escape, floating in the ocean for three weeks in a boat, very scared. They made it to Malaysia. Then after a few months some Americans sponsored them, and they came to the United States. They went to school and got good jobs. My oldest brother is an electrical engineer, the other a technician. Ten years later, when I was 18, they sponsored the whole family. Five more years and my father became a citizen here and sponsored my married sister and her family. That was seven years ago. One brother lives in California with his family, another in North Carolina with his  family, and the rest live in Chicago. My parents are retired.”

Hint of vocation: “When I was young my father took me to morning Mass almost every day. I liked serving Mass. When I was 10 I did a make-believe wedding Mass for my friends, memorizing everything including the Gospel. A neighbor woman saw me and started calling me ‘Father Duy.’ I was involved with the church, youth ministry, catechist, even at a young age. Before I left Vietnam in 1992, my pastor said he’d pray for me because he knew I always thought about priesthood. Here in Chicago, at age 18, I joined a Vietnamese youth group at St. Thomas of Canterbury Parish and went to Truman College for two years. During weekends when I was going to St. Joseph’s College Seminary, I helped with the Vietnamese community at the parish.”

Prayer life: ”Every morning after Mass I spend time before the Blessed Sacrament before I do anything else. You need prayer to be focused. As a pastor I need a lot of prayers! I’ve always liked working with people, but as a pastor I’ve learned listening to people is most important. I try to make a yearly retreat – sometimes to Stritch Retreat House at Mundelein or the Franciscan’s Serra Retreat House in Malibu, Cal.

Chicago: What does he like best? “Chicago’s ethnic diversity. I know it’s not the winter weather! It’s a beautiful city. In the summer I take visitors to see the cathedral and we walk along the Magnificent Mile. I feel fortunate to be in this country. Sometimes people take freedom for granted, or abuse it. If you come from a communist country you really appreciate freedom. When I came here I thanked God for the opportunity to work hard and study.”

Leisure: “I like the Chicago Bears – they do their best. Normally I get together with four or five Vietnamese priests for lunch on Argyle Street. Sometimes I have them over to the rectory and cook for them. We talk about our ministry and have fun. Sometimes I go to the movies, to the gym, and in summer ride a bike along the lakefront.”

Favorite saint: “St. Paul. I have his words ‘Love is patient, love is kind…’ framed in my office. I like St. Francis and the song “Make Me a Channel of your Peace.”


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