When a group of Vietnamese seminarians and brothers of different religious communities asked for Father Joseph Diep's help in finding different seminaries or orders, he obliged and showed them around.
Several found new homes as a result. However, the others concluded that a completely new community was needed and that Father Diep should lead it. He responded with an emphatic, "No."
"I told them, 'You're crazy. I'm an old man!'" Father Diep said, with a laugh.
All kidding aside, he was 71 at the time, and he's 72 now. Also, he never had the desire, let alone the idea, to start a religious community. Not after coming to the United States following the fall of Saigon in 1975, not as a student at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary from 1976-81, not after being ordained in 1982.
"I told them, 'I never think about that,'" he said. "It was never in my mind."
Yet, the seminarians and brothers persisted. He kept saying, "No," even after his friends of 40 years, Nhan and Russell Wallen, offered to give him their old home and 20 acres off Interstate 44 just north of St. Clair if he started a community.
"I told them, 'If I founded the community, of course, I'd want it, but I don't think God wants me to do that,'" said Father Diep, who, looking back, figures it was God's plan all along. How else to explain the seminarians' and brothers' persistence, the Wallens' generosity and his survival from stage 4 cancer .
"God gave me my health, so He has a plan for me," Father Diep reasoned.
Meetings with Archbishop Robert J. Carlson confirmed that The Congregation Messengers of Fatima, under Father Diep leadership, was God's plan. By the time he met with the archbishop early this year, Father Diep had softened in regard to a new community, telling him, "If you give me permission, I might do it."
Their meetings checked off all of the community formation boxes.
Name? Fatima. Check. Father Diep has a devotion to Our Lady of Fatima, and the 100th anniversary of her apparitions were this year.
Charism? Working with the rural poor. Check. Father Diep worked with the poor in Vietnam with his previous community.
Finances? The Wallens and benefactors in the U.S. and Vietnam. Check. Father Diep met the Wallens in 1976 through the Vietnamese Catholic community in St. Louis. A Vietnam War veteran, Russell Wallen met his bride in Saigon, then they moved to St. Louis in the early-'70s. Nhan Wallen also has a strong devotion to Our Lady of Fatima.
"We believe Mary has blessed everything we do," she said, adding that Father Diep helped the Wallen's five children to become "very strong Catholics."
Father Diep knows a thing or two about fundraising, too, having spent 10 years as development director of a previous community.
God aligned the stars, and Archbishop Carlson granted permission to start the community in a letter dated June 12, which God-cidentally and unbeknownst to the archbishop is a most meaningful date to Father Diep.
"It's the Feast Day of St. Anthony of Padua," he said, with a smile. "I have a strong devotion to St. Anthony of Padua."
And if that wasn't enough, Father Diep received the archbishop's letter on June 13, which was the 100th anniversary of the second apparition of Fatima.
Archbishop Carlson presided at the congregation's inauguration and opening Mass in mid-October. More than 700 people attended, including priests, brothers, sisters and members of the vibrant Vietnamese Catholic community in the archdiocese, plus benefactors and friends from around the country and nearby parishes.
The community's first event for people in need will be a Christmas dinner at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 19, at the Knights of Columbus facility in St. Clair. The Fatima community will host a dinner for the rural poor on the third Tuesday of each month, then will have a weekend called "Fatima Days" June 14-16.
Currently, just two brothers live with Father Diep in the community, though he expects seven in total by the time all is said and done. Though he initially dismissed the idea of starting the community, God kept leading him down that path.
"The only way this happened is that God wanted it," Father Diep said.
>> Inauguration of a religious community
In October, the Congregation Messengers of Fatima were inaugurated in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, given permission to gather companions in hope of one day forming a new religious community.
Father Joseph Diep, a member of the Society of Charity and Social Services, earlier moved to Franklin County, near St. Clair to gather members of the Christian faithful to begin living out the proposed charism of the congregation. A period of three to five years is envisioned as a time to discern with the hope of one day forming the new religious institute dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima.
The proposed charism of the religious institute is the promotion of the messages of Our Lady of Fatima and service to the poor and marginalized. Archbishop Robert J. Carlson will review the progress of the group and evaluate whether it is time to take canonical steps toward the formation of the new religious institute. The next step after the discernment is status as a public association of the faithful.
Their work of serving people in poverty is expected to include collecting items for families in need, visiting people living alone or in nursing homes and cooperating with local hospice centers.
— Joe Kenny
>> Sharing God's gifts
What: Christmas dinner
Who: People in need
When: 5 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 19
Where: Knights of Columbus Hall in St. Clair
Why: For the Congregation Messengers of Fatima to share the good news as they serve the rural poor