The Very Rev. Than Ngoc Vu had a serious title but an oftentimes whimsical approach to his ministry. He was the sort of priest who once wore a shamrock hat and matching glasses atop his robes while finishing a service on St. Patrick’s Day.
He would also invite parishioners up to the altar while giving the wine and bread during the offertory of the Mass. And throughout the Mass, he would let kids cluster around the altar on the floor.
“He didn’t want to feel special because he was on the altar,” said Toni Kirby, a trustee at St. Aloysius Catholic Church, where Vu preached until his death.
Vu, a pastor of 30 years in the Diocese of Baton Rouge, died early Wednesday morning at the age of 56 after a long battle with cancer.
By the time of his death, he had preached at churches across the Baton Rouge area, including Christ the King Catholic Church on LSU’s campus — and in his role as vicar general, he was also Bishop Robert Muench’s closest adviser, church officials said.
“It’s a tremendous loss,” said the Rev. Paul Counce, pastor at St. Joseph Cathedral. “He was not only a priest, but a very well-liked one who worked until he simply could not any longer.”
Vu was born in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, on May 4, 1958, according to a diocese news release — just weeks after his father passed away, according to a 2009 story in the Catholic Commentator. Most of his family fled Vietnam in 1975 amid the turmoil of the war’s end, and arrived in the U.S. when Vu was a teenager. Though they initially landed in Niceville, Florida, his family was recruited to the Baton Rouge area when a church official learned of Vu’s interest in joining the seminary, said Kathy Screen, a friend of Vu’s for 25 years and St. Aloysius’ director of spiritual growth.
Vu later joked that as a youngster he ignored several signs pointing him to the priesthood.
As a 9-year-old, he changed churches just to avoid a pastor who told him he should join the ministry, according to the Commentator. And when he won a Cub Scout contest, his prize turned out to be a book titled “I Want to Be a Priest” — but he disposed of the book quickly.
Things changed when Vu was 16, and his cousin was home from seminary and told Vu about how much fun it was — and the promise of fun alone propelled Vu to join, he later recounted in a video for the diocese.
“God got me where he wanted me to be, then just poked me,” Vu said in the 2009 article. “While I still had fun, all of a sudden I had fallen in love with the spiritual life of the seminary.”
After seminary, Vu worked in New Orleans so he could shed the “Shakespearean English” he learned from seminary and “adjust to the vernacular of the Big Easy,” the Rev. Jamin David, an Albany priest, remembers him saying.
Vu ultimately spent 30 years at Baton Rouge area churches. Those included St. Jean Vianney Catholic Church in Baton Rouge, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Denham Springs, St. Theresa Catholic Church in Gonzales, St. Patrick Catholic Church in Baton Rouge, St. Aloysius Church and Christ the King Catholic Church on LSU’s campus.
Priests and parishioners praised Vu’s quick wit and lighthearted style, even as he preached a more serious message. On Sundays, he was well-known for preaching the gospels entirely from memory, and also had a knack for making minor moments of life experience extremely relatable, said Judy Giorlando, a St. Aloysius parishioner.
“He was able to make God real to us as people of the parish,” Giorlando added. “He had immense reverence and he was able to share that with us so that we could see that God loved all of us.”
But Counce also praised Vu’s relentless work ethic — he officiated a wedding ceremony a month before his death, even though his battle with cancer had grown extremely difficult.
“His biggest contribution in the parish was simply animating the community … wherever he was,” Counce said. “People loved being his flock and having him as their pastor.”
A service will be held at Christ the King Catholic Church in Baton Rouge at 7:30 p.m. Friday with visitation to follow. Visitation continues on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. at St. Aloysius Church, with the funeral Mass to follow, celebrated by Bishop Muench.
Follow Daniel Bethencourt on Twitter: @_dbethencourt.