Transitional Deacon Phong Thanh Le will be ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia May 20. (Sarah Webb)

This is the fourth in a series of seven profiles of the men to be ordained new priests for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia on May 20.


It was a difficult decision for pharmacist, Phong Thanh Le to leave behind a successful career and enter St. Charles Seminary in 2016.  He had worked so hard for many years to help support his family which emigrated from Vietnam in 1993 and help them all achieve “the American dream.”

Le is the oldest of his 5 siblings.  He has 2 younger brothers and 2 younger sisters.

As a boy in Vietnam, Le enjoyed playing soccer and camping with schoolmates.  He also enjoyed flying kites, and an uncle taught him how to make his own kites out of bamboo and newspaper.

“After my dad finished reading [the newspapers], he’d put them aside for me,” he said.  Le also made glue for his kites out of sticky rice. “We didn’t have Elmer’s Glue back then.”

Le started learning the English language in sixth grade.

His parents moved the family to the U.S. so their children would have access to higher education and better opportunities.  They settled in Northeast Philadelphia, and the children started their education in Catholic schools.  He attended Northeast Catholic High School, and also took some classes at Little Flower High School for Girls, which offered ESOL courses.

As a teenager in the U.S., Le put aside his boyhood hobbies to get part-time jobs in his spare time which helped his family financially.  He worked a variety of jobs, “at a Bensalem racetrack, a hotel, Dunkin’ Donuts, picking mushrooms, picking blueberries, washing cars, anything to make money to pay for tuition.”

Since his parents didn’t understand English very well, Le also helped them manage the money and pay bills.

After graduating Catholic high school, Le attended Temple University to study pharmacy. When applying to Temple, he was asked why he wanted to be a pharmacist.

“I said, ‘I’m the oldest. I need to support my family financially. Pharmacist is a good career. It would give me the opportunity to help people stay healthy.”

He earned his Doctor of Pharmacy degree from Temple in 2002, and immediately started a 14-year career working at Walgreens Pharmacy, first as a pharmacist, and then promoted to Pharmacy Manager after 5 years.

In 2004, the Le family fully achieved their American dream, building a house in Newtown, Bucks County.  His parents owned a beauty salon business there as well.

“I was a workaholic back then,” he says, though he also started to realize his successful life didn’t make him happy.  “When I got what I wanted, my career, my family doing well, it didn’t make me happy.”

It was after he had worked as a pharmacist for 5 to 7 years that he first started having thoughts about the priesthood.

Le attended Saint Helena Catholic Church in Philadelphia, which has a large Vietnamese community among its parishioners. Le started getting more involved in parish life during his spare time. He participated in choir, a Vietnamese youth program, teaching catechism, and Bible study. He received much encouragement from parishioners for his involvement.  “That’s how my vocation grew,” he said.

It was at the 2008 ordination of another uncle, Fr. Joseph Chau Nguyen, now a pastor in Mississippi, that Le’s parents asked him, “What do you think?”  Though at the time, Le didn’t feel he had a calling.

Eventually, Msgr. Joseph Trinh, pastor of St. Helena parish, gave Le encouragement.

Le’s first visit to St. Charles Seminary was in 2012 with his pastor.  Le says at first, he didn’t think seminary life was for him.  After continuing to pray and discern, he finally made the decision to leave his pharmacy career and enter St. Charles in 2016.

“It took me years to make that final decision,” he says.

As a transitional deacon, Le served at his home parish in Newtown at Saint Andrew Catholic Church.  He says parishioners have been “very supportive, and they encouraged me. Some of them said, ‘Your parents must be so proud of you.’”

For his upcoming ordination and first Masses, Le says his parents have sent invitations to many “friends, relatives, all the people they’ve known over the years.”

The day after his ordination, Le will celebrate two Masses.  First will be a morning Mass in English at Saint Andrew, his Newtown home parish.  Second will be an afternoon Mass in Vietnamese at Saint Helena in Philadelphia, the parish where his vocation grew.