Marcel Van

Joachim Nguyen Tan Van was born on 15th. March, 1928 in a largely Catholic village of Ngam Giao in Tonkin in the north of Vietnam. He died in a Communist prison in North Vietnam on July 10th 1959. He was 31 years of age.

His family was deeply Catholic; his mother, in particular, was well versed in the tenets of her religion and was assiduous in the spiritual upbringing of her young son, in whom there developed a precocious spirituality and an ardent desire to practise his religion. He loved joining in the family devotions, and there grew in him a love for the Rosary and a close attachment to Mary, his heavenly mother. Van recalled this moment in his life in idyllic terms.

 At the age of 6, Van made his first communion with great fervour, and shortly afterwards he was confirmed.  A nascent but ill-defined wish to join the religious life was growing in his young soul, and at the age of 7 he went to live at the presbytery of Huu-Bang, which served as a pre-junior seminary. Although Van was only 7 years of age and quite small for his age, Father Joseph Nha admitted him to the group of aspirants for the priesthood. Under the guidance of the parish priest, these young men were instructed by the older youths, who were known as catechists. The latter were often former students for the priesthood.
At first, Van’s cup of happiness was brimming over. His journey to the priesthood was underway. He was a good student: extremely devout, ready to please, assiduous in the performance of his duties and regarded benevolently by the parish priest, who often used his “Benjamin’s ” behaviour as an example for the other students to copy. Unfortunately,  the “ideal” student became the object of intense jealousy amongst the older students and catechists, whose extremely lax, even reprehensible behaviour was brought into relief by Van’s earnest and devout example. Van stayed at Huu-Bang until Christmas 1941, and during these tumultuous years he was exposed to bad example, subjected to diabolical physical and mental cruelty and frustrated at every turn in his efforts to prepare himself for the priesthood he so ardently and increasingly wished for. He turned to Mary, his sole consolation. Not all opposed him. The younger boys,  influenced by his good example, responded to his sollicitude and kindness.
Father Boucher with Brother Marcel on the occasion of his first profession at Hanoi, Sept. 8th.1946

Father Boucher with Brother Marcel on the occasion of his first profession at Hanoi, September 8th 1946.

The biggest hardship for Van  was the recognition that the environment at Huu-Bang was not conducive to the accomplishment of his vocation to the priesthood. He ran away on more than one occasion, in an effort to find a place more compatible with his ambition.

 Life was made more difficult when 2 cyclonic storms created havoc in the countryside , with a consequent shortage of food. To make matters worse, Van learned that floods had destroyed the rice harvest in his family’s paddy field. The family, once comfortably off, was reduced to poverty and hardship. The situation was worsened by the behaviour of his father, who had taken to drink and gambling; behaviour which was initially prompted by the sudden onset of blindness in his oldest son, Liet
Van was at home for Christmas 1940. But it was not a happy homecoming. Oppressed and frustrated, he had absconded from the presbytery of Huu-Bang and he was feeling desolate and alone. This feeling was compounded by the scorn and opprobrium of his family, orchestrated, it seemed, by his beloved little sister. Even his dear mother seemed to have turned against him. But, at midnight Mass, he received an interior enlightenment, which enabled him to see clearly that his sufferings were a gift from God, and that his mission was ” to change suffering into joy.”
He agreed to return to Huu-Bang after 9 months absence, and, after a period of prayer and intercession, he determined to encourage the younger boys to resist the bad behaviour of their older companions and catechists. With five young companions he formed the ” Angels of the Resistance”. They voted to elect their leader, and Van was five votes to one. The others decided that his vote was null and void! At this time, reinforcing the quest for purity, Van confided the preservation of his own purity in a vow to Our Lady:  ” O Mother, I am making a vow to preserve my virginity, like you, all my life”.
Not all of Van’s organisational skills were successful. The embryonic workers collective he formed to buy chickens to buy wool in order to make warm clothing for the poorer boys was aborted when their older companions stole the chickens to make soup for their girl friends!
Van with his younger sister Anne Marie Te on the occasion of his final profession at Dalat in September 1952.

Van with his younger sister Anne Marie Te on the occasion of his final profession at Dalat in September 1952.

But life did improve. At the beginning of 1942, he joined the junior seminary of the Dominicans at Langson. His initial distrust of these French Dominicans (after all, the French were the cruel colonisers of his country)  was soon dispelled by their kindness and Van flourished in the fertile soil of Langson. In fact, happy memories of this period remained with him throughout his life. He joined the Cadets of Our Lady, and their jaunts in the countryside and evenings around the camp fire prompted in the ” Squirrel”  a profound sense of the mystical presence of God in these natural surroundings. But, this tranquility was short-lived. The seminary was requisitioned by the Japanese army and had to close.
Under the auspices of Father Dreyer Dufer, a French Dominican missionary,Van, together with four companions, was enrolled  in the Dominican presbytery/junior seminary at Quang-Uyen, a town close to the Chinese border. Here, Van tried to live in ever closer intimacy with God; an intimacy  which was facilitated by Van’s first encounter with “The Story of a Soul”.  This precipitated an intimate relationship with Therese of Lisieux, during which she became his teacher, confidante, constant companion and “big sister”. One of Therese’s tasks was to inform Van that it was God’s will that he would not become a priest, but that it was his vocation to become a “hidden apostle of Love”, a vital source of support for missionary apostles. He was to become the “heart of priests.”
Van had become the spokesperson for the other boys, and, during a heated conversation with the parish priest, in the course of which Van, with more courage than diplomacy, stuck to his guns, he was premptorily expelled!  To be expelled was a grave matter amongst the Catholic community and poor Van was deeply distraught.
Eventually, on October 16th 1944, he was admitted to the Redemptorist monastery in Hanoi as a postulant lay brother. He was 16.  He took the habit and received the name of Brother Marcel. All did not go smoothly!!  Surprise!Surprise! Some thought he was too small to do the necessary work. Even the superior joked that the date of birth on his baptism certificate meant he had been baptised 4 years before he was born!
However, it was at this time that an extraordinary closeness developed with Jesus, in which a dialogue between them began. It marked the beginning of an almost continuous intimacy with Our Lord, who taught Marcel, speaking as a father would to a child. These “conversations” were recorded by Brother Marcel at the request of Our Lord and with the permission of his novice master, Father Antonio Boucher, who was to continue as his spiritual director until 1955. After his profession, Brother Marcel worked as the tailor for the community, and he was later appointed sacristan
Last known photograph of Van back in North Vietnam

Van in North Vietnam before his arrest

In February 1950, Brother Marcel  was sent to the monastery at Saigon, where his obedience to the Rule edified his confreres, even though he suffered interiorly, due to difficulties in his relationship with the superior of the monastery. After two years, Marcel was moved to Dalat, because the superiors thought that the higher altitude and more temperate climate would allay their concerns about Marcel’s health. Here he made his final profession on September 8th 1952.

In July 1954, North Vietnam was taken over by the Communists. There was a mass exodus of Catholics to the South, including Brother Marcel’s family. Brother Marcel pleaded with his superiors to be allowed to return to the North. He felt that there should be someone to love God amongst the Communists. His superior, albeit with a certain reluctance, granted his request.
Brother Marcel was arrested in Hanoi on a trumped up charge on May 7th, 1955. Unable to get a confession from Marcel, they sent him to the Central Prison in Hanoi. Here he received visits from two Redemptorist confreres. At this time he wrote to his sister: ” In prison, as in the love of Jesus, nothing can deprive me of the weapon of Love”. His refusal to confess to any crime resulted in a sentence of 15 years imprisonment.
In August 1957, Brother Marcel was transferred to Camp No.2 at Yen Binh, 150 kilometres north west of Hanoi. He could receive no visitors. Whilst trying to escape, dressed as a woman in order to get consecrated hosts for his fellow Catholic inmates, Marcel was captured, put in irons and placed in solitary confinement.He stayed there several months.  During this time of incarceration his faith shone through like a beacon, and his charity and devotion to his fellow prisoners was consistent  with his vocation as ” the hidden apostle of Love.”  He died of consumption and exhaustion, alone, but never alone, on July 10th 1959.


Vietnam: Key places in Van's life.

Vietnam: Key places in Van’s life.

Ngam Giao1928-1935.
Van was born in this small, mainly Catholic village on March 15th, 1928.
Huu Bang1935-1942.
Van spent seven turbulent years at the presbytery at Huu Bang.
LangsonJanuary 1942-Summer 1942.
Van spent these months with the French Dominicans. He was very happy here.
Quang Uyen.  Summer 1942- 1943.
The Langson monastery being requisitioned by the Japanese, Van joined the Dominican presbytery at Quang Uyen. Here he encountered Saint Therese for the first time. He was expelled by the parish priest in June 1943.
Hanoi.  1944-1950.
Van was admitted as a postulant at the Redemptorist monastery at Hanoi, where he met Father Boucher who became his spiritual director when Brother Marcel began his novitiate. He served as a tailor and sacristan in the community.
Saigon.  1950-1952.
He spent two difficult years at the Saigon monastery, mainly prompted by the difficult relationship with his Superior.
Dalat.  1952-1954.
The Superiors thought the climate at Dalat would be better for Brother Marcel due to concerns about his health. Here he made his final profession.
Hanoi.  1954-1956.
He was arrested by the Communists on May 7th, 1955. He was found guilty of the fabricated charges and condemned to fifteen years imprisonment.
Yen Minh.  1959.
After months in prison, including time in chains in solitary confinement. he died  at midday, July 10th, 1959.