Friday, May 22, 2009

Awesome Vocation Story - From Saigon to Kansas City

I'm headed out of town for the weekend, so blogging may be minimal till Monday.

In the meantime, enjoy this vocation story by our associate editor Kevin Kelly. Duc Nguyen is one of our seminarians to be ordained to the priesthood this year for the Diocese of Kansas City - St. Joseph.

Interesting fact - Six percent of all men to be ordained in the U.S. this year are from Vietnam.

Deacon Nguyen keeps his promise

By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — Deacon Duc Nguyen knows he was born in 1968. But he doesn’t know the date.

That’s what happens when a war robs a boy of his childhood.

When he emigrated to the United States in 1982 after two years in a refugee camp in Malaysia, he simply put down “June 1” as his birthday on his visa application. It seemed to the 14-year-old boy as good a birthday as any.

Two days before his 41st birthday, Deacon Nguyen will be ordained a priest of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, fulfilling a promise he made one night on a small boat in the Pacific Ocean.

“We were drifting in the ocean for many days,” Deacon Nguyen said. “I prayed that if I would make it to a free land, I would offer my life in service to the church.”

It would take him another 29 years before he could keep that promise. But he never forgot it.

Without a trace of bitterness in his voice, Deacon Nguyen described a life journey that took him to the priesthood that some might consider harrowing. Deacon Nguyen instead considers himself blessed by God.

He was born to a Catholic family in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, during the year of the Tet Offensive that changed the course of the Vietnam War.

He was just seven years old when Saigon fell to the communist Viet Cong.

His father, Vu Nguyen, was a successful home builder in the former capitol city of South Vietnam. But after the war, there was no work. His family moved to the countryside village where his father tried to scratch out a living as a farmer.

After two years with his family all but starving, Duc’s parents gave their nine-year-old son to a parish priest who housed and fed him for the next three years.
Then one night, Duc’s uncle, Khanh Nguyen, got the boy.

“My uncle organized a boat,” Deacon Nguyen said. “It cost a lot of money to escape from Vietnam, but I went for free. I was the only one in my family to escape. If you got caught, you would go to prison. But I only had to escape once.”

With meager provisions, Duc was crammed into a small boat with men, women and children, and even babes in arms.

The provisions didn’t last long.

“We were caught by pirates,” Duc said. “The pirates took everything you had — food, anything.”

For days, the small boat filled with refugees stayed on the ocean without food. It didn’t bother young Duc.

“I was so seasick, I didn’t think about being hungry,” he said.

At night, with nothing but the ocean and a star-spangled sky above him, Duc remembered to pray with the intensity that the priest who raised him for three years had taught him. He had already learned to trust in God’s providence when there was nothing else to trust.

He still has no idea how long his ocean voyage took. He estimates it was around two weeks. But one day, the people on the boat saw two welcome sights: Malaysia, where they were trying to reach; and a U.S. Navy ship that picked them up, fed them and took them the rest of the way to a refugee camp.

Duc would live in the camp for two years. He still considers himself lucky.
“It was nothing,” he said. “Some people lived in the camp for eight, 10 years.”
Under the sponsorship of Catholic Social Services of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Duc was allowed to emigrate to the United States, without knowing a single word of English.

He spent a year in public high school in Philadelphia learning English. Then he transferred to Bishop Shanahan High School in suburban Downington where he earned his high school diploma.

Deacon Nguyen said he didn’t forget his promise to God, nor the three years he spent living with the priest he felt indebted to for his life, nor the call he was feeling strongly from God to the priesthood.

But a high school diploma was a ticket to a job, and he and his extended family — in both the United States and Vietnam — needed money.

“I was young, and I wanted to help my family,” Deacon Nguyen said. “I thought I should go to work, so I put it off.”

After several years of working and sending money back to his parents who were still in Vietnam, Duc finally entered St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in 1995. He continued his studies for the priesthood nearly through his second year of graduate theology studies when he was forced to put it off again.

“My sister became sick and I felt I had to help,” he said. “So I went to work in a bank for a while.”

By 2006, he decided to finish his seminary studies. But Philadelphia archdiocesan officials suggested he wait another year or two to discern his vocation.
It wouldn’t wait, Deacon Nguyen said.

“I searched around for a diocese who would take me,” he said.

During a visit to Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis, Duc met Matthew Benjamin, a seminarian from the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph who put him in touch with Father Stephen Cook, diocesan vocation director, who introduced him to Bishop Robert W. Finn.

“Bishop Finn was so kind to take me in,” Deacon Nguyen said.

Father Cook placed him at St. Anthony Parish in Kansas City, whose entire history has been one of service to an immigrant church, for an internship, then to Kenrick-Glennon to finish his studies. Deacon Nguyen was ordained to the transitional diaconate in May 2008, then completed his graduate degree in theology the following December. He has been serving at Co-Cathedral Parish in St. Joseph since then.

His life, Deacon Nguyen said, is a gift from God.

“I live in a country of freedom with so much to offer,” he said.

“At first, I felt left out. I didn’t feel like I belong or a part of this society of freedom,” Deacon Nguyen said.

“But I saw at St. Anthony that this is a society of immigrants — Spanish-speaking, Vietnamese,” he said.

His first assignment as a priest will be at St. Therese Parish in Parkville, and he is anxious to begin.

“I’ll be a bit overwhelmed,” he said. “The parish is big. But I am looking forward to working with 3,000 families, the school and the parish.”

After that?

“Whatever God wants from me,” Deacon Nguyen said.

“I am open to receive whatever he hands to me.”

Photo - Deacon Duc Nguyen talks with Vocations Director Father Stephen Cook. Deacon Nguyen will be ordained to the diocesan priesthood on May 30.