Story by Reagan Scott
ASHLAND (SNR) - Father Thomas Au, currently pastor at St. Mary Church in Ashland, will be on loan from the diocese to serve as chaplain at St. Martin de Porres Hospital in Chiayi, Taiwan, effective July 3.
Father Au will help serve the Sisters of Our Lady of China who run the hospital, a nursing home and nursing school in the local diocese.
Father Randall Langhorst, vicar for clergy of the diocese, explained the process of loaning priests from the diocese. In most cases, someone will approach the bishop with a need for a priest.
“It has to have the agreement of both bishops involved,” Father Langhorst said. “The bishop gives permission for a priest to work outside the diocese and sets specific parameters.”
The parameters for Father Au’s service include a year of ministry in Taiwan, with a possible extension of two years.
Father Au’s new assignment was years in the making. Father Au became Catholic in Hong Kong, where he grew up. He came to study at the University of Nebraska and was active at the Newman Center.
“It was there that my faith matured and led me to consider the priesthood,” Father Au said. He was ordained a priest of the a Lincoln Diocese in 1979.
Then in 2008, “I read an article about an American sister working in Taiwan,” Father Au said. “I wrote Sister Mary Paul and said, ‘Surprised to read about you, an American working in Taiwan, while I, from Hong Kong, am a priest in America.’ From then we kept in touch with each other,” Father Au said.
The article told the story of Sister Mary Paul, who had grown up wanting to be a missionary in China. In college, she met two members of the Sisters of Our Lady of China who invited her to become a lay missionary in Taiwan. She left for Taiwan in 1957 and soon after, became the first, and only, American member of the order.
In 2010, Bishop Bruskewitz sent Father Au to Taiwan to learn Mandarin, as he had learned Cantonese growing up in Hong Kong. In Taiwan, Father Au visited Sister Mary Paul, and her order, the Sisters of Our Lady of China and the two stayed in touch after that.
“In 2015, Sister told me that their chaplain was retiring at the age of 85 and they have no replacement. They asked if I would go there to work with them,” Father Au said. “After two years of conversation, Bishop Conley consented to the mission.”
As chaplain at St. Martin de Porres Hospital in Taiwan, Father Au will be responsible for taking care of the spiritual and sacramental needs of the hospital, overseeing pastoral care of the department and will be on call “24/7.”
St. Martin de Porres Hospital, founded by the Sisters of Our Lady of China, is the only Catholic hospital in the Diocese of Chiayi where Catholics comprise only one percent of the population.
The college that the order founded, the Chung Jen College of Nursing, Health Science and Management, serves more than 2,000 students. Their hospital also includes a 300-bed nursing home.
Besides these two visible institutions, the sisters are most involved with mobile home nursing care and rural health services for the poor in remote villages where they provide primary health care.
Before Father Au leaves for Taiwan in August, he will spend the summer traveling to eight different parishes in the diocese as part of the mission appeal to raise money for the sisters and to help them cover his expenses while he is there.
“Our diocese is very generous in the Mission Co-op Appeal each year,” Father Au said. He believes that this is just a part of how supportive of missions the diocese is. “Our bishops have been very mission-minded,” Father Au said.
As he prepares to leave, Father Au is already at work preparing for his work in Taiwan. He is already writing his Sunday sermons for the next six months and translating them into Chinese. He said that as any priest that preaches a sermon in a different language already knows, he might encounter a few problems with the language.
“Chinese dialects are in tones,” Father Au said. “Every tone changes the whole word.” He knows that there will be a steep learning curve in the hospital because the Chinese terms for organs and sicknesses will be so different from what he learned growing up.
Father Au will also miss his brother priests as he serves abroad.
“The fraternity in our diocese is so supportive, so I will miss that,” Father Au said, but Father Langhorst stressed that the priests in the diocese want what’s best for Father Au.
“We are encouraging him and sharing vicariously through him,” he said. He knows how much good Father Au will be doing in Taiwan and said, “I believe that the good you offer will come back to you somehow.”
Father Au knows that this assignment will allow him the opportunity to grow both as a person and a priest while continuing the mission work that the diocese so strongly supports.
“This is the way we really live as a Church,” Father Au said. “This is how we live as a family of God’s people.”