Missionary priest of Vietnam’s 17th parallel dies at 90

In the summer of 1972, Father Etcharren witnessed the evacuation of people in the face of the advance of the communist troops

Father Jean Baptiste Etcharren, a member of the Société des Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP), died in Vietnam in the morning of September 21. He was 90 years old.

The priest, former superior general of his congregation from July 1998 to July 2010, arrived in Vietnam in 1958 after his ordination.

In 1966, he was sent as parish priest at the Dong Ha border, close to the 17th parallel, the demilitarized zone created in 1954 on the border between North Vietnam and South Vietnam after the Indochina War.

In the summer of 1972, Father Etcharren witnessed the evacuation of people in the face of the advance of the communist Vietcong. He spent tirelessly on helping refugees to resettle further south.

He worked with Catholics and other religions in the country’s central provinces from 1959 to 1975 when fierce fighting took place between US-backed southern Vietnamese troops and communist forces.

Father Etcharren and 82 other MEP missionaries were forced to leave southern Vietnam shortly after communist forces reunited the country in April 1975.

“I love and see Vietnam as my fatherland,” said the missionary in 2018 during the 60th anniversary of his ordination.

He returned to Vietnam in 2010 at the invitation of the archbishop of Hue and joined the mission for which he had been appointed in 1958 and retired there.

Father Etcharren was born on April 15, 1932, in Irouléguy, in the diocese of Bayonne (Basque country). He was the third in a family of five children. His parents, Dominique and Marianne Etcharren, were farmers.

He entered the Seminary of Foreign Missions in Paris in 1950, he was ordained a priest on February 2, 1958 in Paris. He left for the Hue Mission in Vietnam on April 22, 1958. He began by learning Vietnamese in Banam, Cambodia, from May 1958 to June 1959.

He was later appointed vicar in the parish of Notre-Dame de Lavang, which he served from June 1959 to February 1960. From 1960 to 1961, he was in charge of the Maixa post. From 1961 to 1966, he was appointed professor in Hue, first at the College of Providence, then at the minor seminary of the archdiocese of Hue.

From 1966 to 1972, he was appointed parish priest of Dong Ha parish and responsible for the district of the 17th parallel. From 1972, he accompanied refugees from his sector to the Hoa Kanh camp, near Danang.

He was elected regional superior of his congregation at the end of 1974. In September 1975, he had to leave Vietnam following the seizure of power by the communists.

From 1976 to 1983, he was assigned, in France, to the national service for the pastoral care of migrants (Asian sector). From 1983 to 1986, he was appointed in the diocese of Créteil, in the parish of Maison-Alfort and with the chaplaincy of the Vietnamese.

In 1986, during the MEP Assembly, he was elected member of the permanent council. He became vicar general of the MEP company in 1992 (he welcomed the first Vietnamese student priests in 1993), then superior general in 1998.

He was reelected superior general in 2004. In 2010, at the end of his mandate, he returned to Vietnam.

The MEP was formed in 1658 to bring Catholicism to Asia. Many of its members suffered religious persecution in the hands of Vietnamese authorities during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Two bishops and eight priests from the MEP were among 117 Vietnamese martyrs canonized by Saint Pope John Paul II on June 19, 1988.

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