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Epic journey brings Viet Nguyen into the priesthood

Deacon Quoc-Viet Minh Nguyen baptizes his niece the day after his ordination to the transitional diaconate. He will be ordained to the priesthood on June 30 at Church of the Nativity in Leawood.

by Joe Bollig

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Every time Anna Pham would tell her three sons that she was praying for a vocation in the family, the two older boys would point to the youngest sibling — Quoc-Viet Minh Nguyen.

“At that time, I definitely didn’t want to become a priest,” he said.

But a mother’s love and a Father’s calling are hard to resist.

Deacon Viet Nguyen, 27, will be ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann at 10:30 a.m. on June 30 at the Church of the Nativity in Leawood.

He was ordained a deacon by Archbishop Naumann on May 20, 2017, at the Cathedral of St. Peter in Kansas City, Kansas.

Like they used to say in those old Hollywood film trailers, Deacon Viet Nguyen’s vocation was an “epic years in the making.”

It’s not enough to simply say that Deacon Viet Nguyen (as he prefers to be called) was brought up in a Catholic family and received a largely Catholic education.

His experience of the Catholic faith, through his family, is truly epic.

“Whenever someone asks me where my faith came from or how I grew up, I go back to my parents and my grandparents’ generation,” he said.

The first Catholic priest arrived in Vietnam in 1550, and missionary efforts were successful despite official persecution.

The church continued to grow through the tumultuous years, especially under French colonial rule, until the communists began their conquest of Vietnam after World War II.

When the country was divided into the communist north and the non-communist south in 1954, approximately 650,000 Catholic Vietnamese fled to the south. Until that time, most Catholics lived in the north.

Both maternal and paternal grandparents of Deacon Viet Nguyen were part of that exodus. His father’s family went to Nha Trang; his mother’s family, to Vung Tao.

The two halves of Vietnam became separate countries, with the south being supported by the United States. After the United States withdrew its armed forces from the Republic of South Vietnam, the southern nation fought on — finally succumbing with the capture of its capital, Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) on April 30, 1975.

“When Saigon fell, my family — because of their history dealing with communism — knew they couldn’t stay in the country, because of religious freedom,” he said. “They had to leave instantly.”

It was a chaotic, brutal ending of a terrible war. Families were separated and not everyone who tried to leave survived the ordeal.

“My parents told me they left Vietnam with nothing but their family and faith in God, and they never looked back,” said Deacon Viet Nguyen.

As refugees, his parents found sponsors from Kansas City, Missouri. Deacon Viet Nguyen and his brothers were born in the United States.

Bishop Raymond J. Boland of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph gave the Vietnamese community St. Augustine Church at 79th and Paseo, in Kansas City, Missouri. Built in 1948, it was renamed the Church of the Holy Martyrs.

Most Vietnamese-American children went to public schools, but his parents sent their children to Curé of Ars School in Leawood. The family continued to belong to Holy Martyrs as well, however, and helped out in various capacities.

“My parents taught Sunday school . . . [and] my two brothers [and I] helped the Sisters,” he said. “My parents told us that since we were so fortunate to go to Catholic school, we should help the other Vietnamese children, who weren’t as fortunate.

“I remember helping my mother with second grade, helping the children learn prayers and with the testing. I helped the Sisters with office work.”

It was not until years later, at the University of Chicago, that the young “helper” met Father Patrick Marshall, the student Catholic center chaplain.

“He joked around and laughed all the time,” said Deacon Viet Nguyen.

“I’d never seen such a joyful priest,” he said. “That’s when I began to be interested in the priesthood. [I asked] ‘Why is he so happy?’ His joy was contagious.”

Additionally, the experience of helping a college friend in crisis led him to want to spend his life giving others spiritual help.

After graduation in 2012, Viet Nguyen decided to enter the University of St. Mary of the Lake Mundelein Seminary, Chicago. He was a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Chicago until he encountered the persuasive, Irish charm of Archbishop Emeritus James P. Keleher, who taught at Mundelein.

The rest is history.

While he is humbled by his family’s pride in him, in some ways his ordination will honor those who came before him in a special way.

“The Vietnamese left their country with only their families and their faith,” he said.

“As a first-generation being born in this country and ordained, [this] isn’t just for me,” he added. “It’s really for the whole Vietnamese community.

“They gather around it. It affirms that all the pain we went through was for something. . . . Everything we sacrificed . . . was worth it.”

When Deacon Viet Nguyen celebrates his first Mass of thanksgiving, he won’t be at the altar alone.

His father will be there. Paul Nguyen is being ordained a permanent deacon on June 9 (his parents’ wedding anniversary) for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. He will assist his priest-son at that Mass.

About the author

Joe Bollig

Joe has been with The Leaven since 1993. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s degree in journalism. Before entering print journalism he worked in commercial radio. He has worked for the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press and Sun Publications in Overland Park. During his journalistic career he has covered beats including police, fire, business, features, general assignment and religion. While at The Leaven he has been a writer, photographer and videographer. He has won or shared several Catholic Press Association awards, as well as Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara awards for mission coverage. He graduated with a certification in catechesis from a two-year distance learning program offered by the Maryvale Institute for Catechesis, Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at Old Oscott, Great Barr, in Birmingham, England.

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