EASTON – His easy laughter and cheerful inflection punctuate his speech, and the words themselves indicate Philip Cheung’s joy in the Lord and his optimism as he assumes his new responsibilities as campus minister for the students and staff of Ss. Peter & Paul High School.
“I’m anxious to see the kids,” Cheung, 32, said the week before the start of the fall semester. He began the job on July 1, succeeding Vicki Cappa, who recently retired after serving 22 years as campus minister.
“It’s very humbling to be able to take on such an important role and trying my best to fill the shoes of a person who made such an impact on not just the school but the community at large,” he said.
“Education has always been a passion of mine,” he said. “If you were friends with me as a kid, when you came to my house we would either be playing Mass or playing teacher. And look how good God has been. It’s been a wonderful journey God has brought me on.”
The Philadelphia native is becoming acquainted with the rural Eastern Shore school and community. He recently moved into the guest cottage of a school family’s waterfront estate south of Cambridge.
Cheung’s journey to Easton began when his parents emigrated from Hong Kong to Philadelphia, began their family, and sent their two older daughters and Philip to Holy Redeemer Chinese Catholic School and Church in the Chinatown section of Philadelphia.
Although the family wasn’t Christian, Cheung was drawn to the faith.
“It was in Catholic grade school that I first (asked) ‘Who is this Jesus? Who is this God?” he said. “God’s initial tug at my heart was in the first grade during weekly Mass on Wednesdays.” He thought the priests made the bells ring magically, and only learned the truth when he became an altar server in sixth grade. Even so, his faith took root and in eighth grade, Cheung chose baptism and took as his baptismal name St. Francis of Assisi.
“I was once part of no faith and then became part of God’s family in a very different and radical way,” Cheung said. “I was blessed to be able to go to Catholic high school and continued to be very active in the liturgy.” Many mentors encouraged him to consider the priesthood.
Though Cheung did eventually enter seminary, he first pursued the study of neuroscience at Temple University with the hope of going to medical school. During his third semester, in October 2008, his father died unexpectedly at the age of 58.
“Many of my friends questioned me. They said, ‘Why do you still believe in God? You prayed every day for your dad to get better.’ The idea of doubting or losing faith never crossed my mind. The final week leading up to my dad’s passing, I prayed the rosary every night: ‘Please bring my father home. Bring my father home to us.’ He wasn’t Catholic or even Christian, but because I was, my pastor came and prayed with me, and there was really a powerful moment of grace for me. We prayed the Our Father, and as we prayed the final words and said amen, the nurse came in and said, ‘Your father’s heart just stopped beating.” And so, in my mind and in my heart of hearts, I really believe that at the end of our prayer, our Lord brought him home; he brought him home to himself.”
Cheung took a semester off to help his mom, and medical school no longer interested him. Instead, he pursued a master’s degree in psychology at Millersville University of Pennsylvania, and served as an outreach counselor, working with incoming freshmen. After graduation, he was drawn to teaching and for a year and a half was a teacher and dean of students at The Regina Academy at St. John the Baptist in Ottsville, Pa.
He went on to spend a year teaching theology and psychology at Ss. John Neumann and Maria Goretti Catholic High School in South Philadelphia.
“The really big twist” in Cheung’s life came “after many years really praying and thinking.” He entered St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa., to study for the priesthood, serving in multiple parishes.
During the pandemic, he created an evangelistic website called Beloved Son Ministry (belovedsonministry.org).
“At the end of five years, the year before my diaconate ordination, I feel like God has called me to serve Him and His people in a different capacity, at least for now. And that is how I found myself here in Easton, Maryland.” Laughing, he said he’s trying to transition from black clerical garb to button-down shirts and ties.
Cheung admits he’s been “spoiled” by his lifelong proximity to an ethnic Chinese community and grocery stores.
“It’s really a miracle how I ended up here because I had no intention of leaving Philadelphia,” he said. Through correspondence with Principal James Nemeth, theology department chairman Alex Poole, and meetings with staff and especially students, the decision to head south was gradually confirmed to Cheung throughout May and June.
The five-hour round trip to and from Philadelphia even began to feel more like a blessing than a burden. “I don’t like driving, but I felt peace” during the weekly trips. “It must have been the Holy Spirit,” he said.
The new position “does bring some anxiety, but the anxiety isn’t one of fear — it’s one of realizing this is an immense task to continue to lead the students to come to know and love our Lord as Vicki has for 22 years,” Cheung said. “And really to help them and also to help myself and our faculty to truly grow deeper and deeper in love with God. It’s just really humbling, and I’m very grateful for this opportunity.”
Philip Cheung’s students at The Regina Academy gave him a plaque with his favorite lines from Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.”