By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
Duc Nguyen, a 1988 graduate of Bishop Shanahan High School in Downingtown, was ordained priest after a May 30 ceremony at Kansas City, Missouri’s Immaculate Conception Cathedral.
It’s been a long journey. It started in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam, continued in Malaysia, then in suburban Philadelphia and finally, Kansas City.
Father Nguyen was born in Saigon about 41 years ago, at the height of the Vietnam War. He’s not sure of the date; he simply uses June 1, the date of his visa application to come to the U.S. It’s a nice touch because that visa meant a new life.
Times were rough in Vietnam toward the end of the war and its aftermath. His father, once a prosperous builder, was reduced to subsistence farming and Duc was placed in the care of a kindly priest at age 9. It was under his tutelage that the first seeds of a future vocation were planted. “I started to think about it in the fourth or fifth grade,” he recalls.
But after three years in the care of the priest, his life took a dramatic twist. One of his uncles had built a boat to escape the turmoil of Vietnam, and he offered to take his nephew along.
It was a dangerous venture. If apprehended by authorities they would be imprisoned. If there was a storm the overloaded boat could sink. As it was, they were not long at sea when pirates boarded the little craft and took all their possessions and food. They drifted for days until finally they landed in Malaysia, where they were promptly interned in a refugee camp.
After two years of internment, Nguyen obtained his visa, and thanks to sponsorship by Catholic Social Services he came to Philadelphia, and then to West Chester, where he had family.
By this time he was 14 and didn’t know a word of English. After an initial two years at West Chester’s Henderson High School, he switched to Bishop Shanahan, where, all things considered, he was quite active – cross country, school newspaper, business service club, chorus and liturgical committee.
In his yearbook entry he thanks his legal guardians, Mr. and Mrs. (Francis) Dwyer and prophetically says, “The past lays the foundation for the future,” and thoroughly Americanized adds, “Pink Floyd number one rules!”
After Shanahan he continued on to Indiana University of Pennsylvania for a degree in business administration.
But that childhood dream of the priesthood had never really died. He thought about it while drifting in that little boat in the South China sea; he thought about it in his interment camp; he thought about it while at Shanahan and in college. Finally, in 1995, he felt ready and entered St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
But after three years, faced with doubts and a desire to assist his family financially, he left St. Charles. He lived in St. Francis de Sales Parish in University City and worked as a bank teller.
But the call was insistent. In 2006 he resumed his seminary formation, this time studying for the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese, and he’s just completed his studies at Holy Family Seminary, Cromwell, Conn.
With ordination at the hands of Bishop Robert W. Finn, he will take up ministry at St. Therese Parish, Kansas City.
Like that little boat adrift in the South China Sea, he’s found his harbor.
“I’m excited but nervous,” Father Nguyen said. “I’ve wanted to become a priest, to have a closer union with Christ and to be able to administer the sacraments to God’s people. God brought me here through His providence.”
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.