by Lisa M. Hendey
“Thank you, Lord, for the new life you have given me,” prayed a 26-year-old refugee who had finally reached shore after 18 days at sea. “I will dedicate my new life to whatever you have in store for me.”
In many ways, this simple prayer whispered by the young man who would become the Most Rev. Thanh Thai Nguyen, auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Orange, is shared by many parishioners who worship each week in pews across Southern California. Bishop Nguyen’s gratitude for his family’s survival of a harrowing escape from his homeland has been echoed in the hearts and souls of countless Vietnamese Catholic families in the last few decades.
Stepping out in trust, they fled their homes, often with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and made their way across many miles to new surroundings and faith communities throughout the United States, especially in the Diocese of Orange in Southern California. Now, with nearly 100,000 Catholics of Vietnamese ancestry, the diocese is home to the largest population of Vietnamese living outside of Vietnam. As a grateful remembrance of their passage, they continue to pray for the repose of the souls of hundreds of thousands who did not survive the journey.
Their exact paths to the diocese have varied, but many of these faithful men and women came to the region seeking safety from persecution and the freedom to practice their faith and create new, safe homes and lives for themselves and their children. Vietnamese refugees began arriving immediately following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 and have continued to come in the decades since. The ensuing growth of a vibrant Vietnamese Catholic population in some ways mirrors the growth of the Diocese of Orange, which was formally established by St. Paul VI with 44 parishes and more than 300,000 Catholics in 1976.
Between April and September 1975, a wave of more than 130,000 Vietnamese refugees made their way to the United States as a part of Operation New Arrivals. Many of them landed at Camp Pendleton, a major West Coast base of the U.S. Marine Corps located approximately 60 miles south of the Diocese of Orange’s Christ Cathedral campus.
In those early days, the Catholic Church in Orange County was for many Vietnamese families a source of sustenance, support, accompaniment, and accommodation. One early local visitor to Camp Pendleton was the late Msgr. Michael Collins, then pastor of St. Barbara’s Catholic Church in Santa Ana, California. Fr. Collins led his faith community in welcoming and sponsoring many new Vietnamese families and orphaned children into the parish boundaries.
Tom Mueller, a former parishioner of St. Barbara’s, remembers the night when this beloved Irish priest entered his family’s home for dinner and shared with them the story of Tao Cong Nguyen, a 10-year-old boy in need of a home and family. The next day, Mueller and his wife, Kay, welcomed young Tao, eventually legally adopting him into their family. St. Barbara’s, Tao’s elementary school alma mater where he successfully transitioned into fourth grade, is now home to the largest number of Vietnamese Catholics in the diocese. More than 5,000 Vietnamese families now call the parish their spiritual home.
FLEEING PERSECUTION IN SEARCH OF RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
Over the next few decades, Vietnamese Catholics continued to arrive in the diocese.
In 1979, Fr. Sy Nguyen, now pastor of St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church in Yorba Linda, California, fled Vietnam with his family in a small boat. The family was ultimately sponsored by and joined St. Hedwig Catholic Church in Los Alamitos, California. At Mass during a youth retreat the year after he arrived, Fr. Nguyen felt called to his priestly vocation.
“The Holy Spirit spoke to my soul and made me realize that Christ suffered and died for me,” Fr. Sy shared.
This personal realization of the love of God hit the then-high-school sophomore to the core. His heart was opened to a priestly vocation and to the pursuit of God’s plan in his life.
Linh Ngoc Nguyen was born in Saigon, Vietnam, and lived with his family until 1987. “With broken hearts,” Linh remembered, “my parents sent me off with strangers to escape to Cambodia on foot and to Thailand on a small boat, not knowing what the future would hold.”
After seven months in a refugee camp in Thailand, Linh arrived in Santa Ana and became active in the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement where he now serves as a youth leader.
In recounting his own family’s story of leaving Vietnam, Bishop Nguyen underscores a message of God’s providence and love.
The second eldest in a Catholic family of 11 children, Bishop Nguyen entered a diocesan seminary in Vietnam at the age of 13. Within a few years of his profession of his first vows, Bishop Nguyen and his fellow seminarians were forcibly expelled from the seminary by the government, placed into hard labor camps, and eventually forced to seek refuge with their families.
In July 1979, at age 26, Bishop Nguyen and 25 family members and close friends filled a small fishing boat and escaped with the clothes on their backs and a few meager provisions. Almost immediately, their tiny vessel was tossed by a tropical storm. On the fourth day of their journey, their engine failed. They began to drift aimlessly on the open sea. On the eighth day, the travelers ran out of food and water.
“A blessing was received from on high,” Bishop Nguyen recounted. “It rained three times during our journey so each person on the boat was able to have a cup of water so that they could survive.” By their 17th day adrift, the travelers were resigned to their fates and physically exhausted.
“My father put the steering wheel into a fixed position and let it go,” Bishop Nguyen remembered.
But even fearing death, the family remained committed to morning and evening prayer and their daily Rosary. On their 18th day at sea, the travelers spotted land and ultimately summoned the strength to begin rowing. Upon stepping ashore in the Philippines, the young man who would go on to become a spiritual shepherd for so many offered the remainder of his life to God.
UNIQUE GIFTS AND CHARISMS
In speaking with many throughout the Diocese of Orange about the contributions of Vietnamese Catholics, a few themes recur. Passionate Marian devotion prevails in Vietnamese Catholic culture. This love for our Blessed Mother has motivated the private funding and creation of a shrine dedicated to Our Lady of La Vang on the 34-acre campus of Christ Cathedral.
While the patroness of Vietnam has specific meaning for the Vietnamese refugees, Bishop Nguyen sees this new devotional site, which will also feature a special Rosary garden, as not only a place for Vietnamese families to thank and honor Our Lady for their protection, but also as a spark for increased Marian devotion among all of the faithful of the diocese.
A commitment to their faith and active participation in their parishes is a hallmark for Vietnamese families.
Linh Ngoc Nguyen points to family prayer and the passing along of the faith to the next generations as common denominators in the homes of the faithful Vietnamese in Orange.
“They actively join parish groups and committees to keep them closer to God.” Linh cites the Sacred Heart League, the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement, Cursillo, and other charismatic movements as ways in which Vietnamese are not only practicing but also intentionally nurturing and discipling others in the Catholic faith. Vietnamese families have been blessed with many vocations. Some of these have been fostered and encouraged under the spiritual direction of Fr. John Francis Vu, SJ, who himself fled Vietnam on a fishing vessel in 1979 and who now serves as chaplain for an active and engaged flock of young Catholics at the University Catholic Community at the University of California, Irvine.
In just over a decade, 18 students (14 men and four women) from Fr. Vu’s University Catholic Community congregation have dedicated themselves to the priesthood and religious life. More than 50 Vietnamese priests now serve throughout the Diocese of Orange.
Tom Mueller, Tao’s adoptive father who has seen his son grow and become a successful businessman in Orange County, reminds us of the many lessons we can learn from Vietnamese Catholics.
“Many Vietnamese Catholics have shrines in their homes which serve as a regular place for prayer, including prayer for deceased relatives,” Mueller said. “The young of their families are encouraged to be involved with service in the home and in the church as altar servers and youth choir members. Families also encourage their children to attend faith formation classes leading to Confirmation and to attend church regularly. Vietnamese parents and grandparents often attend daily Mass, giving good example to young people.”
Active participation in their parishes by Vietnamese Catholics shows their desire to truly live their faith and to see it blossom in their homes.
Since their appointment as auxiliary bishop of Orange, Bishop Nguyen and other Catholic leaders in the Diocese of Orange recognize that some of the faith-related challenges facing Vietnamese Catholics are the same issues with which the universal Church grapples.
Will entrenched parish leaders and ministry volunteers make way for rising youth and young adults with a desire to serve in increased capacities? Will we be able to encourage a generation with declining religious affiliation to attend Mass and live their Catholic faith? Will our families continue to remain centered around Jesus Christ, the Church, and vocational callings?
The young are encouraged to be involved
“I believe the challenges that Vietnamese Catholics face here would be somewhat like the ‘growing pain’other ethnic communities have experienced before us. The generation gap in culture forces questions of identity as Vietnamese and Catholic. The lure of secular successes may lead to neglect of the faith. Some of this ‘growing pain’ is unavoidable,” Fr. Sy Nguyen of St. Hedwig said.
“But to help it not just to be pain but growing pain, we need bishops and priests and lay leaders who are sensitive to this reality, but who also remain steadfast in their confidence that Christ is with his Church and continues to save his people to the end of time. The conviction that must be in the Catholic Church is that constant presence of the Savior in the midst of a constantly changing world.”
For encouragement that such conviction exists, simply join Fr. Vu and his University Catholic Community flock at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton any Sunday for a Mass where Vietnamese students worship in fully packed pews alongside their peers from other cultural backgrounds. Then take heed of some final encouragement offered by youth leader Linh Ngoc Nguyen, courtesy of Hebrews 10:24:
We must consider how to rouse one another to love and good works.
– Hebrews 10:24