Vietnamese priest overcomes government control to follow calling

by KIMBERLEE SABSHIN
Wed, May 13th 2015 04:00 pm
Father Joseph Nguyen, who faced religious persecution in his native land, now helps serve the Vietnamese population in the diocese.
Father Joseph Nguyen, who faced religious persecution in his native land, now helps serve the Vietnamese population in the diocese.

For many priests, ordination and serving God's people can be a long and complicated process. However, for international priests, such as Father Joseph Nguyen, a native of Vietnam, it involved much more of a learning process, including leaving a country where he could not freely practice his faith. This led him on a path to where he now serves as parochial vicar of St. Andrew Parish in Kenmore.

Born in Vũng Tàu, South Vietnam in 1974, Father Nguyen was the second youngest of three boys and one girl. He experienced a great tragedy as a youth when his father passed away in 1987. While he attended high school in Vũng Tàu, no one was able to take him to school to attend classes after his father passed away, so he had to live at his local church with the parish priest, his father's friend.

"When I stayed with him, because the church and the school were very close, I could walk from the church to the school. For that reason, when I was staying there, I think I liked the life of the priesthood, and my vocation has come from there," Father Nguyen said. "Growing up, I graduated from high school. I applied to enter the seminary, but the lawmen did not allow me to enter the seminary."

Father Nguyen said the Vietnamese government did not approve of Father Nguyen joining the seminary, because his father was on the side of South Vietnam and U.S. troops in the war.

"Everything is under the control of the government," he said. "They said my family background was not good, and so they didn't allow me to join the seminary. Even the bishop accepted me already."

Instead, he continued to Saigon, which the communist government renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976, for his college education in 1992. There, he received a degree in economics, and in 1998, he received a scholarship to go to the Philippines for his master's degree. While in the Philippines, he found there was much more room for people to freely pursue their religious faith. Although there are active Catholics in Vietnam with 26 dioceses nationwide, less than 10 percent of the total population is Catholic.

"I changed my mind when I got there. I did not continue with my master's degree that they gave me, the scholarship. I entered the seminary to study about philosophy," Father Nguyen said.

After five years of studying philosophy, his passport expired, so he had to return to Vietnam to renew it. However, once he got back to Vietnam, the government would not allow him to return to the Philippines because he had not continued in the same course of study he originally chose to pursue. However, he had met a Mexican priest while in the Philippines, who referred him to the United States.

"He said he had a friend who was a vocation director in a diocese in the US," Father Nguyen explained. "He was from the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa, and so I arrived in Davenport. I studied there for one year in English, two years in pre-theology and then I studied theology."

Father Nguyen graduated with a master of divinity degree in 2010, the same year he was ordained to the priesthood in Iowa. In 2013, he asked permission to move to the Diocese of Buffalo and minister there, because many people from his hometown had emigrated from Vietnam and live here. "Even the priesthood, we still need to have companionship, friendship," he said. He has been here since January 2014.

When asked about the Vietnamese population in Buffalo, he said about 3,000 Vietnamese are now living in the area, including another active priest, Father Peter Hai Nguyen at Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Buffalo, and a third who has since retired. As parochial vicar of St. Andrew, his duties include saying Mass in Church, providing the Sacraments and saying Mass for the residents in nursing homes. He responds to phone calls whenever needed for confessions, Communion or Anointing of the Sick.

To come to Buffalo, Father Nguyen had to ask permission from Bishop Richard J. Malone. He said, "I think Bishop Malone here is very welcoming, very calm and makes me feel at home while I am serving here. During the time here, I really enjoy serving the people in the Diocese of Buffalo."

Compared to the Diocese of Davenport, Father Nguyen said there is a large difference because there are more people, since Buffalo is a bigger city. Buffalo also has a wider variety of backgrounds and nationalities than his native land; consequently, it can be difficult for Vietnamese to adjust to their life in America. However, Father Nguyen has a strong system of support and more religious freedom here.

"I'm mostly concerned that the Church is under persecution of the government. We don't have religious freedom, and that's a reason many of the Vietnamese priests, we are here in the US, because when we are in Vietnam, we do not have an opportunity to study the language," he said. "Most of us, when we came here, it's kind of difficult to communicate with others. Fortunately, because I have the diocese to sponsor me to study, I am able to understand. A lot of other Vietnamese people, they don't have that chance."

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