From refugee to Vatican–and now pastor of Tempe church

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Monsignor Peter Bui greets parishioners after being installed as pastor of Holy Spirit Church in Tempe. (Wrangler News photo by Joyce Coronel)

By Joyce Coronel

In an era in which the word “amazing” has become cliché, the newly installed pastor of Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Tempe has had a life’s journey that captures the true sense of the word.

Monsignor Peter Bui, 44, came to the U.S. as one of thousands of Vietnamese “boat people” in the 1970s. He was 6 years old when he and his parents plus nine siblings piled aboard his dad’s small fishing boat to take their chances on the open seas. Forty-nine people were packed into the craft and at one point, they were confronted by machine-gun-toting pirates who demanded all the refugees’ valuables.

Thirteen years ago, Bui was ordained a Catholic priest. In a trilingual speech to his flock on the day of his installation, he spoke of the call he received from Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted asking if he would be willing to work at the Vatican.

“I did not hesitate to defer to him the decision,” Bui said. “In hockey terms, we call that ‘passing the buck.’”

During his six years serving at Cor Unum, a Vatican humanitarian agency, Bui said he regularly prayed for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. When he first arrived in Rome, he said he was overwhelmed by the responsibilities he’d been given.

“Every day I would stop work and I would pray to the Holy Spirit. And he would help me,” Bui said. “And now lo and behold, I am assigned as pastor of Holy Spirit Parish. I don’t call that a coincidence. I call it a God-incidence.”

Josephine Bierwagen, a young mother who grew up at Holy Spirit Parish, stood outside with her husband and son after the ceremony in which Olmsted made Bui the official pastor.

“I think it’s going to be a real blessing for the Vietnamese community that’s been growing for the past few years,” Bierwagen said. “Now we have somebody who is able to really minister to the three communities that are here—the English, Vietnamese and Hispanic community. I think it’s going to do a lot of good.”

Thomas Bui—no relation—agreed. “We are the Joneses and the Smiths of the Vietnamese,” he laughed. Having a Vietnamese pastor was a huge step toward unity, he noted. There’s a regular Mass every Sunday now in Vietnamese, and that’s crucial for the older members of the community. The only other Catholic worship service in the Valley was limited to a church in North Phoenix—until now.

“We have about 600 Vietnamese here,” he said and having a pastor who understands the elderly and inspires younger generations is key. 

Olmsted said he thinks having Bui as pastor is a sign of the growing diversity of the local Catholic Church. “We’re really blessed to have so many faithful Catholics coming from other countries,” he said.

Bui told his new congregation of his hopes for his new assignment.

“My deep desire for each one of you is that you come to know, love, and imitate our Lord Jesus Christ.”

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