The story of the Redemptorists should begin in the year 1939. In that year bishop Gouen applied to the Holy See for more missionaries to assist the work of the Church in Siam. Bishop Gouen was the Ordinary of the huge mission comprising all of Northeastern Thailand and Laos. The Holy See in turn asked the Redemptorists if they could find someone to accept this task. The Redemptorist Superior General, Father Patrick Murray, looked at the roster of provinces and saw that the St. Louis Province in the United States had many members, big ordination classes and no foreign mission. So, St. Louis was asked, the province answered the call and agreed to come to Siam.
But before the missionaries could set forth, war broke out in the Far East, and the mission could not be carried out. St. Louis, figuring that the Siamese mission was a dead issue, accepted in 1943 a mission on the Amazon River in Brazil. The Province dedicated it's finances and man power to work there.
After the Second World War, as peace and tranquillity descended on The Far East, the commitment given to the Siamese mission by the St. Louis Province was recalled. This second appeal was made by Bishop Claude Beyet, the successor of Bishop Gouen. St. Louis could not offer the excuse of having already accepted a new mission in Brazil, and was pressed to fulfill the former commitment to Siam.
Fr. Francis Fagen, then provincial of the Province, began making preparations by looking for suitable personnel. He had the mistaken notion that missionaries with French names would be most acceptable to the Siamese nation. As a matter of fact, just prior to the world war, Siam had engaged in a war with France, and more French were not at all welcome additions to the church. However, the names of Duhart, Godbout, La Rivere and Kane, did not prove a deterrent to their missionary efforts; and Father Godbout's fluency in French was a positive asset in dealing with the mainly French speaking missionaries in Thailand.
More important than French sounding names, was the character of the first missionaries. Father Clarence Duhart, the first superior of the Mission, was already experienced in different phases of the Apostolate. Upon ordination he had gone to Catholic University in Washington and graduated as a “man of letters of rare latin prepositions”. In 1942 he volunteered to serve as a chaplain in the U.S. Army and spent his overseas service in the Pacific theater of Operations. After his mustering out of the Army, he worked on the home mission band in the United States, preaching missions in many Southern States.
Father Godbout, ordained 8 years before his assignment to Siam, had experience working for Spanish Americans; later he gained experience in parish work and developing new parishes. Finally, like Father Duhart, Father Godbout preached extensively all over the Southern United Stated giving missions in French, English and Spanish. He remained fluent in Spanish and French all his life.
The final two missionaries assigned to the new Siamese mission were Frs. La Riviere and Ed Kane. These two brought with them a youthly enthusiasm, without much experience, but prepared for anything. Father La Riviere was a minor seminary professor. Father Kane went right from the seminary to Siam. They did bring with them, however, an ability to learn languages, something that would be extremely valuable as they set themselves to mastering the difficult Siamese language.
Journey to Thailand
Finally the date of departure for the new mission in Siam (soon to be renamed Thailand) came on March 6, 1948. A “missioning ceremony” was held at the Redemptorist seminary in Oakland, California. Afterwards the four pioneers set sail on a freighter, the “SS.Arkansan”, bound for Bangkok via Yokohama and Saigon. In Yokohama they were joyously received by Father Henry D. Sutton who was a U.S. Navy chaplain stationed there. The confreres still talk about the extraordinary hospitality extended to them by this confrere.
The voyage was a long one, two months and three days to Saigon. They whiled away the days and hours in playing pinochle, reading, and some early attempts at their new language. Pinochle would remain a staple of their early missionary career and 50 years later remains a favorite recreation of the confreres. The voyage was particularly arduous for Father Godbout, who suffered from sea sickness the whole trip.
In Saigon, the confreres found that they would have to find new passage on to their final destination of Bangkok. After two weeks they succeeded transferring their more than 100 trunks, containing practically everything they might need on a day to day basis in Thailand, to a new vessel. The Bishop of Bangkok had advised them to, “bring everything you can”, and they did so: everything from beds to cigars for Father Godbout. At customs in Bangkok the officials asked them to open just one of the trunks for inspection, and picked out the one chuck full of Father Godbout's cigars. The customs officials were satisfied that was the only trunk that would cause any difficulty and graciously left Father Godbout with his treasure.
Arrival in Thailand
Finally their journey ended on May 19, 1948, at the port of Koh Si Chang, off the coast of Sriracha in Thailand. A tug boat brought them up the shallow Chao Phyao River to Bangkok. In Bangkok they were welcomed by Bishop Louis Chorin, the French Bishop of Bangkok. He was the last French Bishop of Bangkok going back some 300 years. He was later succeeded by a Thai Bishop, Msgr. Nittayo. Bishop Chorin welcomed the missionaries warmly, told them he would be delighted if they would make a foundation in his diocese, and remained a good friend up until his death.
Their first days in Bangkok were spent at “The Procure”, the headquarters for the Bangkok Archdiocese. For the most part, those living at the Procure were French speaking Paris Foreign Missionaries. Their English was limited and Father Godbout's French became an indispensable commodity. Their first public Mass was at the Assumption Cathedral in Bangkok where there was an English Mass for foreign residents of the city. The missionaries were comfortable working in their native language, even though it was on a limited basis, and began making friends with Bangkok residents who would remain good friends and supporters of their missionary work. Outstanding among these were Dr. Lert Srichandra and his wife Jeannie, Drs. Prasert and Phong, and Nanet Sririsamphan of “Little Home Bakery” fame.
The time came for them to leave the relatively modern city of Bangkok and travel to the Northeast where they would begin their missionary careers. After a 5 day trip via Ubol Province, they arrived at their destination in Thare, the name of the diocese (then called prefecture Apostolic). There they met for the first time Bishop Chaude Bayet. Bishop Bayet was a giant of a man, with a beard almost as long as himself. He was a man of unfailing good humor, a booming voice, and a rare fluency in the dialect of the Northeast, which most closely resembled Laotian. He also proved to be a loving father-figure to our “greenhorn” missionaries, unfailingly kind and helpful. The mission of Thare at that time included all of Northeastern Thailand and the whole country of Laos. Five years later two separate missions in Laos and three in Northeastern Thailand were established.
Bishop Bayet quietly set the new missionaries to work learning Thai. This would be the basis of their language study; but situated in the Northeast, their day to day language would be the dialect spoken throughout the region, namely Laotian. This would prove a difficulty for succeeding generations of missionaries who would start out studying Thai, only to end up working in the Laotian dialect. Their first professor was a young priest named Lawrence Kien. Father Kien later became the second Thai Bishop of the newly formed diocese of Tharae. Eventually he would consecrate his pupil, Father Duhart, to the Episcopacy.
The first community established by the Redemptorists in Thailand was in a village called Xang Ming (“Glorious Elephant”). By Thai standards, it was a large Catholic Village. It had a relatively large priests' house , built of brick and mortar, and was centrally located. So the community could live together and travel to the five mission stations entrusted to their care on a regular basis. A Priority was given right from the start on community living, that being one of the strengths of our Redemptorist Charism. The confreres soon were walking, biking and riding on horseback to minister to the various Christianities under our care, usually returning on a daily basis to the community. Xang Ming would remain a community for the next 8 years, adding more distant Christianities to our care: Phonsung, Huey Suem, Huey Leb Mue, Viengkuk. Four of our very earliest vocations have come from Xang Ming village, including two Vice Provincials
Holy Redeemer Parish, Bangkok
In 1949, as the missionaries were establishing themselves in Xang Ming, two more missionaries arrived, Fathers Charlie Cotant and John Duyn. Both would distinguish themselves mastering Thai; in Father Duy's case, he also became fluent in the Vietnamese Language.
In this year we also founded a small community in Bangkok. The Bishop of Bangkok, Msgr. Chorin, renewed his request, first made on the arrival of the first missionaries, to establish a parish in his diocese to serve the large English speaking population of Bangkok. Father Godbout had spent his first year in Thailand suffering from diarrhea and found it difficult to apply himself to learning Thai. He did acquire a familiarity with the language but not a fluency and this remained the biggest cross of his missionary career. But God's Providence was at work here, because there was ample work for his zeal in English and he was uniquely suited for beginning this parish and overseeing its early development. Father Cotant joined him in founding the parish and made his language study in Bangkok, studying with private tutors.
Not surprisingly, it took some time for the Fathers to find a permanent settlement in Bangkok. They began by renting a house on Nai Lert Lane not very far from the present site of Holy Redeemer Parish. They converted one room of the house, designed to be a garage, into a chapel and immediately began holding services for the Catholics they introduced themselves to.
This first chapel was appropriately named “Our Lady of the Garage”. Not long after, they moved to Dr. Lert's abandoned clinic on Sathorn Road, holding Sunday services at Mater Dei school for the growing number of parishioners. In those days of the “Cold War”, the Russian Embassy was situated near our house. Forbidding, gates always locked, it seemed like a formidable fortress. One day finding the gates open, Father Godbout pedaled in on his bicycle. Tongue in cheek, he explained that he was doing a census of his parish and wondered if any Catholics lived there. He was quickly given the gate.
Eventually the missionaries got permission and financial assistance from their Mother Province of Redemptorists in St. Louis in the United States to purchase a small piece of property (4 ½ rai, or 1 1/2 acres) that would serve as the permanent site of Holy Redeemer Parish. The small piece of property put severe limitations on plans for later expansion. Much more money would be needed to purchase two additional pieces of land in later years.
For the time, though, it seemed adequate. A large community house was built with room for about 15 confreres, and the famous Holy Redeemer Church was constructed and blessed in the year 1954. The idea for the unique style of this church was suggested by Msgr. Fulton J. Sheen on a visit to Bangkok. “Father”, he said to Fr. Roger Godbout,
“when you get around to building a church, why not build it in the style of Thai Architecture?”
Father Godbout did just that. Put very simply, it looked like a Buddhist temple, with a tiered and slanted roof of multicolored tiles. The doors were framed in gold leaf, and only a cross on the front gave a hint to its actually being a Catholic Church. It was an idea that received opposition from Thai and foreigner alike at that time. But Father Godbout has been proved absolutely right in taking the course he did.
In 1957 Father Godbout procured the services of the Sisters of the Infant Jesus to direct two parish schools he proposed to open in that year. In May, four classrooms were formed by partitions in the then parish hall, and first grade classes were held in the two Holy Redeemer Schools. Two classrooms each were devoted to lessons in Thai and English. In 1998 each school has expanded to bigger campuses and each has an enrollment of about 2,000 pupils from kindergarten through High School ( Mathayom 6 by Thai standards).
Meanwhile our apostolate upcountry was expanding. All of the Christianities in what is now the Diocese of Udonthani were turned over to the care of the Redemptorists by Bishop Bayet. Unbeknownst to us, he was making plans for the division of his huge diocese and had plans for the Redemptorists to take over one of the new missions. Father Duhart, the superior of the mission from its inception, was instructed by our Roman superiors to try to discourage any thinking along these lines. So he was surprised, on coming back from the United States on home leave in 1953, to learn that his superiors had approved his appointment as the new head of the Udonthani mission, formally called the Prefecture Apostolic of Udonthani. Msgr. Duhart (not yet a Bishop, and called a Prefect Apostolic) moved from the community of Viengkuk to take up residence in Udon in 1954. From this date on, the Prefecture of Udon while headed by a Redemptorist and staffed completely by Redemptorists, would develop as a separate entity from the Redemptorist Mission and later Vice Province of Thailand.
The further expansion of our apostolate was made possible by continual additions to our missionary personnel from the United States. From 1950 to 1953 Frs. Smith, Lowery, Martin, Gautreaux and Brother Kevin Power were added to the “workforce”. The priests took their formal language study in the city of Chantaburi, southeast of Bangkok , under the tutelage of Thai priests. Brother Kevin, brought over to help us in our building programs, was given no formal language training but became proficient in the language on his own. In 1960 Brother Kevin returned to the U.S. to study for the priesthood to which he was ordained in 1966. As a lay-brother he left behind him many accomplishments, among them the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary in Viengkuk.
On January 19, 1954 the community of Viengkuk was formed, with Father Charles Cotant as its first superior. This was the first community established within what later became the Diocese of Udon. Frs. Duyn and Gautreaux joined Father Cotant and were pastors of parishes along the Mekong river. Viengkuk was a long established Christianity and gave two of its daughters to the Congregation of the Lovers of the Cross. Srs. Agnes and Lucia were later martyred in the village of Song Khon in 1940 and beatified along with five of their companions on October 22,1989. Like Xang Ming, Viengkuk would give several of her sons to the Redemptorists, most notably Fr. Peter Leng Khothisien who died of cancer in 1992. Father Leng was a nephew of Blessed Sister Lucia.
From Xang Ming to Nongkhai
On January 1, 1957, the Redemptorists gave up the foundation of Xang Ming, further concentrating their forces to build up the Mission of Udon. A new community was formed in Nongkhai with Frs. Duyn, Gautreaux,Lowery (superior) making up the community. They were also joined by a new addition to the mission in Thailand, Brother Cornelius Ryan, who arrived in Thailand in December, 1956. The contribution this man made to the development of the congregation and church in this country is the stuff legends are made of. We will talk about “Brother Corny” later.
Khon Kaen Community
In September, 1958, the members of the Viengkuk Community were assigned to begin work in Khon Kaen. The Viengkuk community was not formally suppressed yet, nor the Khon Kaen community canonically erected. Hence, the trio of Frs. Smith, Gautreaux and Travis were dubbed “The Phantom Community”. Their presence, however, was real enough. Father Travis made initial contact in Ban Noi, a village populated mostly by leprosy patients. Ban Noi has played an important role in the Redemptorist apostolate for the sick, handicapped and poor.
In February, 1959, the community of Khon Kaen was canonically erected with Father Griffith as the superior, and Frs. Morrissy and Thiel helping form a quorum. This expansion to provide pastoral coverage to the southern part of the Udon Mission was made possible by the continued influx of missionaries from the States. Between the years 1955 and 1962, Frs. Bueche, Travis ,Thiele, Morrissy, Bolin, Thiel, Gibbons,Fleming, Wells , Terkovitch, Brennan, Wright and Strass arrived. In addition to these foreign missionaries, our first two Thai Redemptorists, Frs.George Phimphisan and Philip Viraphong Wachrathit, came back from studies and ordination in the United States.
With to local appointments of February, 1959, the Redemptorists took a major step that would insure their growth and effectiveness in the apostolate in Thailand. They began a minor seminary in the coastal town of Sriracha, 100 kilometers east of Bangkok. Previous to this date, the Redemptosists were already accepting candidates for the priesthood and the religious life. Three candidates, including George Phimphisan, had gone to Cebu for their minor seminary training. Boys from up country were sent to the minor seminary at Tharae. But in 1959 we made the decision to gather our vocations in our own seminary and look after their spiritual direction ourselves.
A piece of property right on the shore of the Bay of Thailand, which is an extension of the South China Sea, was rented and a temporary building to house the students was put up. The plan for their schooling was: they would be sent to Assumption School in Sriracha run by the Brothers of St. Gabriel for their secular education; but they would live at the seminary where they could fit into the atmosphere of a seminary. Father Bob Martin was appointed superior of the community and he was assisted by two new arrivals from the U. S., Frs. Gibbons and Fleming. This simple plan of training at Assumption School and living in the seminary reduced the number of priests needed to run the seminary and has served the Redemptorists well for almost 40 years. The seminary began with an enrollment of 16 candidates; now there are now 30 Thai priests and 2 Thai Brothers who passed that way on their journey to the altar and 2 Thai Brothers. In 1963 the seminary was transferred to a new site owned by the Congregation in Sriracha, and the building originally used on the rented site was moved there.
The Decade of the 1960s
This decade saw the spread of the Redemptorist Congregation in Thailand in the mission of Bangkok, Chantaburi, and Udonthani. Many other dioceses were evangelized by the work of the parish missions which were preached right from the beginning in the various dioceses of Thailand; but the major missionary thrust of the Congregation was in Bangkok, Udonthani and Chantaburi.
Missionaries from the States continued to come and our first Thai confreres were returning. American confreres included Frs. Patin, Shea, Maier. With the return of our Thai vocations from the U.S. the number of American Redemptorist missionaries slacked off. Our Thai confreres included Frs. George, Philip, Anonth Collaco, Chai and Leng, in this decade.
The Diocese of Udonthani
As mentioned above, the Prefecture Apostolic of Udonthani was established on December 4, 1953, and Father Clarence Duhart named the ordinary of the mission territory. Not yet ordained to the bishopric, he was referred to as Msgr. Duhart. Msgr. Duhart didn't waste any time establishing himself in Udon, buying several pieces of property for further expansion, not only in Udon but in other populated places in the Mission. He built a modest rectory and chapel in the Ban Chik area of the city. This would be his personal residence for over 20 years.
One of the first important moves he made was to procure the services of the Salesian Fathers and Sisters to run Catholic schools for the city of Udon. By the late 50s a boys' school and a girls' school were operating under the guidance of these zealous religious. From this time on the mission of Udon concentrated on obtaining the cooperation of religious orders and lay missionaries. Impressive statistics will be offered in another place of this history, to detail the extraordinary success of Msgr. Duhart, Bishop George and other mission-aries in this regard. In 1966 the hierarchy was formally established in Thailand, and with it the creation of regular dioceses. Once again Msgr. Duhart was appointed by the Holy See to head the new Udonthani Diocese. With the job came the dignity of being consecrated a Bishop. This ceremony was held in the hall of St. Mary's school. Bishop Duhart's old language teacher, Bishop Kien, was the principal consecrator. The congregation rejoiced at this great honor bestowed on our pioneer.
Along with the churches, schools, rectories, convents, and clinics during this decade, on other important task had to be accomplished: the building of a cathedral suitable for the diocese. Bishop Duhart approached Brother Cornelius (Corny), and requested that he build it, asking,
“How much will it cost?”
He was not prepared for what was to become Corny's standard reply,
“How much have you got”.
Well, what Bishop Duhart had was not enough for what Brother Corny wanted to be the crowning achievement of his life. But the church was built,and indeed fulfilled Corny's dream. It was consecrated in December, 1969. It replaced the former chapel at Ban Chik (seating 100 ). It seats upwards of 1,500 people and we wonder how we were ever able to do without it.
Statistics can best sum up the development of the mission territory of Udonthani at various stages. 1954 marked the estab-lishment of the Prefecture, 1976 marked the first year of Bishop George's term as Ordinary, and 1997 marks the present.
Bishop George Phimphisan C.SS.R.
With the fall of Indochina to the Communists in 1975, the worst fears of the people of Northeastern Thailand seemed to be close to realization. The so called “ Domino Theory” declared that when Indochina fell to the Communists, the other countries of the Thai-Malay Peninsula would fall like a row of dominoes. It didn't happen, but conventional wisdom said that it was time for Thai priests to take over as Bishops in all the dioceses. Bishop Duhart was the first to submit his resignation and within a few months Father George Phimphisan, our first Thai Redemptorist, was appointed to head the Udonthani diocese. There is no time or space here to detail all that Bishop has done both for his diocese and the church in Thailand, but a glance at the statistics above will give you a pretty good idea. Foremost among his accomplishments was the early establishment of minor seminary in the diocese and promotion of diocesan priests, 1 theologian, 5 philosophers and 50 minor seminarians. Nothing bodes as well for the future of this Diocese than its success in establishing a diocesan clergy. The number of religious and clerics has also doubled in 21 years.