Father Thanh Thai Nguyen, a priest of the Diocese of St. Augustine and a native of Vietnam, was appointed auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Orange on Friday.
“I thank God for giving me the gift of life, protecting me in my faith journey especially from Vietnam to the Philippines to the United States, gracing me with the gift of priesthood and leading me to you, your new auxiliary bishop,” Nguyen said Oct. 6 in Orange, Calif.
Nguyen was born in Nha Trang, Vietnam, in 1953, the second eldest of a family of 11 children. At the age of 13, he entered the St. Joseph Congregation in Nha Trang, and took his first vows in 1974. He studied at St. Joseph Seminary and Da Lat University. When the communist North Vietnamese consolidated control of South Vietnam in 1975, they abolished the St. Joseph Congregation. Nguyen and his family fled Vietnam by boat in 1979.
“It was a small boat — six feet wide and 28 feet long for 26 people,” Nguyen explained. It took them 18 days to reach the Philippines. “We experienced hunger and thirst, With God's grace, it rained three times, and each time we had enough water for one cup each. In the midst of this life struggle, we were faithful to morning and evening prayer — saying the rosary most of the time.”
Nguyen and his family lived in a refugee camp for 18 months before moving to the US. He studied at Hartford State Technical College in Hartford, Conn., and taught for three years as a math and science teacher in public schools. In 1984 he joined the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette, and studied at Merrimack College and the Weston School of Theology. He gave solemn vows in 1990, and was ordained a priest of the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette the following year. He served as vicar at parishes in Georgia and Florida.
In 1999 Nguyen was incardinated into the Diocese of St. Augustine. He served as a parochial vicar, and was named pastor of Christ the King parish in Jacksonville in 2001. “Through Father Nguyen's leadership and initiative, he brought harmony to the Vietnamese community by celebrating a Sunday Mass in Vietnamese and building a Vietnamese Center where cultural traditions among the youth and the elderly are preserved,” according to the St. Augustine diocese.
Nguyen, 64, has been pastor of St. Joseph parish in Jacksonville since 2014. With 4,000 families, the parish is the largest in the diocese. “Father Thanh has not only promoted unity in the parish, but he has fostered more vocations to the priesthood and religious life than any other parish in the diocese,” said Bishop Felipe de Jesus Estévez of St. Augustine.
Fr. Nguyen said, “I thank God for the gift of the priesthood. I love parish life and ministry. I've found it both challenging and rewarding,” adding that it is “an awesome responsibility to be Christ-like to the people entrusted to me as their spiritual leader.” “I find joy in the celebration of Mass. Joy in sharing the Word of Life and the Bread of Life. There is joy in my heart when I witness the love united in marriage, and in pouring saving waters on the heads of little ones. My joy is in conveying to sinners God's forgiveness and in praying with the dying as they prepare to meet their Lord and Savior.”
After thanking God, Nguyen said, “I thank my parents who gave me life and passed the Catholic Faith on to me. When I was young, they were sure that I had a vocation to the priesthood. They were so happy to attend my ordination. May they rest in peace.” As auxiliary bishop in Orange, Nguyen will assist Bishop Kevin Vann alongside Bishop Timothy Freyer. He will lead the diocese's large Vietnamese community. Bishop Dominic Mai Luong, another auxiliary bishop of Orange and a fellow native of Vietnam, retired in 2015 when he reached the age of 75.