Fr Francis Tran, parish priest at St John the Evangelist Catholic Parish Dapto, was today awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for service to the Catholic Church in Australia and the community.
Fr Francis said his receipt of the Australia Day honour is something that took him “completely by surprise”, but for the various communities he has served, this award is a just recognition for an amazing life of humble service dedicated to the formation of nurturing communities.
Fr Francis has had a tremendous impact on numerous parishes and communities in the Catholic Diocese of Wollongong, having spent time in Nowra, Fairy Meadow, Wollongong, Mittagong, Moss Vale, Vincentia, Milton-Ulladulla, Helensburgh and Dapto throughout his 22 years as a priest.
Bishop Peter Ingham describes Fr Francis as a much-loved priest who never tires of working to build community. “The Office of the Bishop has received an unprecedented number of letters of commendation from members of the parish and school communities where Fr Francis has ministered over the years, and I have seen first-hand the way Fr Francis builds up and truly loves the people he serves,” Bishop Peter said.
When asked why he was so surprised by his receipt of the Australia Day honour, Fr Francis said, “Because I live a very simple life. I am a normal human being. I never do big things. I just live a normal life amongst the community as a working man.”
Fleeing Communist Vietnam at a time of serious persecution for members of the Church, he came by boat to Australia in 1987 and was welcomed to the hostel in Villawood for refugees (now Villawood Immigration Detention Centre). Fr Francis said, “I worked in factories and farms for nearly three years doing manual labour—two jobs a day, working and working. I felt called to be a priest, but I had no English, so I stopped working and studied English for six months at Liverpool TAFE. It was hard. It had been many years since I had been to school. But I learnt it, entered the seminary and was ordained in 1995 at Fairy Meadow.”
Even before joining the seminary, Fr Francis had a strong desire to learn and adapt as he tried to embrace his new home. “I read a lot about Australian history. If you don’t know the history, you don’t know the people. I always heard Australians say, ‘You can take the boy out of the village, but you can’t take the village out of the boy.’ That’s true in many ways, but it was important to me to become very involved with the Australian Community—learning and growing—so I could serve people and build up communities where people feel like they belong.”
Parishioners attest to Fr Francis as being a man who rolls-up his sleeves and gets his hands dirty, especially on projects that bring people together. Fr Francis is dedicated to building facilities that allow people to come together. Working alongside parishioners, he has become quite a “handyman”, building pergolas, gardens, fish ponds, barbeque areas and spaces for hospitality and welcome. “I want the parish and my house to be a place where people of all ages can come together, and they do in big numbers,” Fr Francis said.
It is this desire to bring people together in genuine friendship that was central to his OAM recognition. Fr Francis describes himself as “humbled by the award” but he accepted it as something that recognises the way he lives his life. Fr Francis said, “I love the community. In whatever I do I think of the community. Even if I’m mentally and physically tired, I keep on working as I want to offer the community something and make people feel they belong and that they have a brighter tomorrow.
“In Australian culture today, it is very easy for people to become isolated and disconnected. In my role here, I’m trying to get it back the old way of life—a community life. I want people to know each other, to be friendly with each other, to see the value of family, and so I try to create spaces and opportunities to bring people together—a cup of coffee after Mass, dinners here, sports nights, gathering for celebrations, watching footy together. I want people to know and love each other. Worshipping God in the Church will not make sense if we don’t have a true sense of community and of belonging.”
It is Fr Francis’ ordinariness that has seen him able to build such vibrant communities through his actions and in the way he preaches. Daniel, a parishioner from Helensburgh said, “I remember his first homily at our parish. He said, ‘I don’t have much up here [pointing to his head], but I have broad shoulders.’ In that moment, he won everyone over.”
Fr Francis said, “My priority for the community is to create a good, healthy, happy community that people will bring God into their presence. I try to share my faith in Jesus by being like Jesus. He loves everybody and he sees the value of every single person—good or bad alike. I am, as a priest, a representative of Jesus in the community, and I am called to do exactly what he did—to be his hands and feet. I am not a perfect person, but I try the best I can. I see myself as just one member of the community. I am there to talk to people as a friend. I meet people as a friend, I try to bring them into the community and to help that community be a family who know God’s love.”
In receiving the award, Fr Francis reflected that while his life had not always been easy, he was full of gratitude for so many things. “God has given me time, talent and opportunity to make my life useful for people. I’m grateful to the Church for my faith and the opportunity to serve others. I feel so grateful to be accepted by this country which has adopted me. I know the life of the Gospel is what I have to live. It’s not about how I preach, but how I live and act. It’s about giving your all for others like Jesus did. That’s how life becomes meaningful.”
The chancellor of the Diocese of Wollongong, Mr William Walker, described Fr Francis as, “A truly humble man of the people, an example for many to follow and the award as a just recognition for Fr Francis’ outstanding and meritorious service to the Church and wider community.”