By Theresa Carson
When Father Thien Duc Nguyen was a youth in Vietnam, his great-great uncle chose him as his caretaker. The elderly priest, who became blind later in life, was a diocesan priest and the most honored member of Father Nguyen’s village.
In 1954, nearly 30 years before Father Thien Duc Nguyen was born, the Communists took control of North Vietnam. They gave Catholics an ultimatum: abandon their religion or leave their villages. Father Nguyen’s great-great uncle led the villagers from the north to the south and into the Highlands of Vietnam. The journey was dangerous and arduous as they cut through jungle, built homes and kept a watchful eye for the jungle’s predators.
Father Nguyen’s father, who was ten years old when this all-Catholic village was established, has that same tenacity and courage as his great uncle, the missionary priest. He served as a communications officer, decoding military messages for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.
When the U.S. military left Vietnam, they wanted him to go with them. In fact, he was on a helicopter on that fateful day in April 1975, but at literally the last minute, he changed his mind and jumped off the helicopter, deciding to stay in Vietnam and search for his wife and eldest child. Perhaps that’s where Father Nguyen inherited his sense of duty.
His parents were reunited and Father Nguyen was born the fourth of his parents’ five children in 1982. The young Thien Duc Nguyen took over household duties for his great-great uncle after the youth’s older sister entered a convent and professed vows as a Franciscan Missionary of Mary. He cleaned house, cooked, read to his uncle and served at Mass.
Father Nguyen’s devotion did not surprise his family. He had been an acolyte since his First Communion at age 9. "I spent more time at church than at my house," he recalled. He studied with friends at the church and often slept there.
As a teenager, Father Nguyen cared for his uncle for three years and learned a great deal about the priesthood, he said. "People always sought his wisdom, and he lived a simple life," he said. "He gave money to the poor and the parish. He said Mass every day. And each night he said the Rosary. He set a good example for me."
When the respected priest died, the villagers honored him by burying him next to the church. To follow his own vocation calling, Father Nguyen left his village for Saigon, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Education from the University of Social Sciences of Humanity. "With this diploma, I can help children in a parish or, if allowed, I can open a school," he said.
Father Nguyen lived with Divine Word Missionaries while attending college. After completing novitiate and his studies in philosophy, he had a unique opportunity, a special SVD program that is an exchange among several countries: Germany, Australia, the Philippines, Taiwan, the United States and Vietnam.
In 2007, Father Nguyen professed vows in Nhatrang, Vietnam. A year later, he became one of only two Vietnamese candidates chosen to study the English language in the United States. He studied at Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa, and then at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He fulfilled his clinical pastoral education at the prestigious National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Mary., and his ministry practicum as a volunteer chaplain at the Methodist Hospital of Chicago.
For his Cross-Cultural Training Program, he served parishes in West Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains, some of the most economically disenfranchised counties in the United States. He liked driving the windy mountain roads, even during the winter.
While there, he taught Confirmation and RCIA classes, prepared meals, did yard work, delivered reflections at Mass, helped in the parish food pantry and served as a volunteer at a local senior center in places like Gassaway and Maysel.
In Webster Springs, he regularly volunteered at Table of Plenty, an ecumenical ministry that provides meals for 350 to 400 people in need. He developed skills in carpentry, construction and basic survival, such as chopping wood.
"It struck me many times that what I learned from West Virginia will help me do ministry in the future," he said with affection.
During this past year, Father Nguyen served as a deacon at St. Henry, a Vietnamese-Filipino-American parish on Chicago’s Northside. He will return to Appalachia for his first assignment as a priest.
"When I look back at my life—growing up, joining the SVD and continuing as an SVD—I see a lot of grace," he said. "I have to thank many people who influenced me. I am especially grateful to God."