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New book recounts priest’s journey to freedom

fr breadwaterPersuading Father Tien Duong to tell his story was a hard sell. It had all the right ingredients: a Catholic priest who grew up in the hardship of Communist Vietnam and who escaped to the U.S. in a dangerously crowded fishing boat clinging only to his faith.

When local author Deanna Klingel heard the priest recount some of his early perils during a service at her church, St. Jude Catholic Church in Sapphire Valley, she knew this was a book that had to be written.

“He had a wonderful story to tell,” Klingel said. “And I was so inspired by his faith and humility.”

But Father Duong was shy, not the type to share his life story in an open book.

“I told him I wanted to write a book about his experience and he said ‘no, no no,’” she said. “I said, ‘Not only is it an interesting story, it would help people to understand better what had gone on. And that it would serve as an example of faith for young people.’”

Finally, Father Tien agreed to sit down with Klingel and recount his experiences. The result is Bread Upon the Water, published by Rafka Press, a true-life account of Father Tien and his escape to freedom geared toward young readers of all faiths.

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Father Tien was born into a Catholic family of 11 children in Vietnam. From a young age, he was set on being a priest, something that couldn’t happen under the iron grip of Communist control.

It would take two attempts for Father Tien to finally escape Vietnam. The first escape attempt ended when a storm drove the boat he was on into the Mekong delta in southeastern Vietnam. He and his brother pretended to be considerably younger than they actually were and narrowly avoided imprisonment. They were released by authorities and made their way home safely.

Years passed, and Tien decided to try to escape again. This time the boat he escaped on landed in safety in Singapore, though the trip there was harsh. Sixty-one people were crowded into a small fishing boat. Father Tien and the other escapees had little to eat, just rice cooked mainly in seawater.

He then endured illness, privation and hardships in various refuge camps before finally migrating to the U.S. What he never lost, the book recounts, was his faith that God will provide.

Father Tien arrived in the U.S. in 1991. During the years, he learned English, graduated summa cum laude from college and became a Catholic priest. He was ordained on June 2, 2001. Today, he oversees St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Franklin. He previously served at St. Jude in Sapphire Valley and Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church in Highlands.

“He’s very, very bright,” Klingel said, adding that learning English had been a hurdle for Tien. “And when he gets excited, he is a little hard to understand. At St. Francis, he’s also had to learn Spanish. He speaks Spanish with a Vietnamese accent and an English inflection.”

Klingel worked on the book for three years.

“It’s a short book but a long story,” she said.

Klingel’s prior writing mostly has consisted of historical fiction. She started writing fulltime after her children were grown, scribbling down travel stories for her grandchildren. Since then the award-winning author from Sapphire Valley has published several books plus written books that are available online. The switch to nonfiction challenged the writer, pushing her and her craft in new directions.

“With historical fiction, though I have to get the facts right, I have a little leeway. This had to be exact,” she said. “I took copious notes on yellow legal pads. I went through at least a dozen of them.”

Writing Bread Upon the Water presented Klingel another learning curve, too.

“For me personally, the biggest challenge was to make sure I got all the facts correct and that I understood his point of view on different things,” she said. “I didn’t want it to be my point of view. Just when I would think I got it right, I’d read him something and he’d go ‘no, no, no.’”

Klingel said Father Tien doesn’t often talk about his experiences escaping from Communist Vietnam and eventually coming to America.

“He doesn’t talk about it unless you ask him,” Klingel said. “He doesn’t consider himself to be a hero of any sort — but when you read the book, you’ll see he’s a hero for his faith.”


Meet the author

Deanna Klingel, author of Bread Upon the Water, will hold a book signing from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. July 12 at the Albert Carleton Library in Cashiers. The book is a true story of Tien Duong, a Vietnamese Catholic priest in Franklin who escaped communism. There also will be a Vietamese food tasting

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