By Theresa Carson
On Aug. 5 at Techny, Ill., five men professed the religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and became members of the Society of the Divine Word. They are Quynh Thanh Cao, Edwan "Manie" Manuel, Hoang Quang Nguyen, An Thien Nguyen and Quang Ngoc Pham. In the fall, they will begin classes at Catholic Theological Union as they continue on their way to the priesthood. Part four of five.
In 1990, when Hoang Quang Nguyen SVD was three, his father and one of his sisters left Vietnam. The rest of the family could not go at the time because his mother was pregnant with his younger brother. The years that followed were difficult. His father and sister landed in a refugee camp in Hong Kong, where they lived for five years. It took them a year to get word to his mother.
His oldest sister, who remained in Vietnam, dropped out of school in order to catch and sell oysters with their mother. When Hoang was five, they sold the house that his father had built and moved in with his mother’s parents.
In the mid-1990s, when the British left Hong Kong, his father decided to return to Vietnam and continue the immigration process there. He borrowed money from a relative who had moved to the United States in the 1980s. After two years of silence, the family thought they had been forgotten by the U.S. government.
Then one day, it arrived—an invitation from the U.S. government for an interview in Saigon City. They sold everything and lived in Saigon City for two months while they retrieved lost documentation, such as baptismal records and birth certificates. After years of hard work and patience, they finally received permission to move to the United States.
Faith sustained his family, especially his mother, during those many years of waiting. "I grew up in a highly religious family," said Hoang, who was 12 when his family arrived in the United States.
"I have an uncle who is a diocesan priest in Vietnam, and an aunt is a religious sister," he said. "Even my mother had been a candidate in the convent at one time. My mother taught us how to pray. She prays all the time."
For a month, the Nguyen family lived in a rectory outside of Mobile, Ala., until they found a house to rent. At first his parents took jobs opening and canning oysters. Then, his father found work as a welder, and his mom became a housekeeper at the local Marriott hotel. The transition was challenging for his parents, he said, because their English was limited. But with time the children learned the language and could help with communicating with the world outside their home.
As a teenager, Hoang took a job in a gas station. He attended the University of Southern Alabama for three semesters and eventually his job became a fulltime position and he was promoted to manager. He placed orders, took inventory and trained personnel. He wanted to one day own his own gas station.
"I wanted to be a businessman," Hoang said. "I thought I had everything there [in Alabama]."
Then he traveled to Atlanta to take a U.S. citizenship test and afterwards visited an uncle in Muncie, Ind., who asked if Hoang would work for him in his nail salon. The young man packed up his belongs and moved to Indiana.
That’s where he met Father Simon Hoang SVD, who was a neighbor in Vietnam and his brother’s godfather. Father Simon shared stories about traveling around the United States and going to Bolivia to study Spanish.
"That caught my attention," Hoang said. "I want to travel." He told the priest that he wanted to be like him and to finish his education. Father Simon invited Hoang to visit Divine Word College Seminary in Epworth, Iowa. Three days later, Hoang received phone calls from three vocations directors.
"That transition was new for me—going back to school after so many years," he said. At age 23, he feared he was too old to begin studying for the priesthood, but he was assured that he wasn’t too old.
As a student, Hoang took advantage of Divine Word College’s study abroad program and lived in the Philippines for a year.
"It was difficult at first—the climate and the new environment—but people motivated me to continue," he said.
He was used to Alabama, where he could rely on air conditioners to combat the heat. At Christ the King Seminary in Quezon City, he did not have access to constant cool air. He said he grew used to the heat, but in the process he lost 20 pounds. The kindness and hospitality of the Filipino people helped. "I’m a foreigner," he said. "They treated me like one of their brothers."
He said he can picture himself returning to the Philippines as a missionary priest.
"Because of my experience in the Philippines, I feel this is a call from God for others, to reach out to other people, treat everyone with respect."
For his ministry during the novitiate year, Hoang took Communion to the sick and homebound.
"We all have needs—food, clothing, drink—we need a sense of belonging too, a sense of worthiness, to love and be loved," he said. "Because my needs are being met at the novitiate, I realize that the people to whom I bring Communion also have those needs. I try to make them feel that they are worthy of being loved, belonging, friendship and connection."
He said that the novitiate year helped him to have a deeper connection with God.
"My future is a mystery," he said. "I trust that God will guide me. I am grateful for this opportunity to be here [at novitiate] and join this great congregation. I thank God for this country for accepting us as immigrants—with open arms—and for this calling."