By Theresa Carson
On Aug. 6, nine young men professed religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience at Techny, Ill., and became members of the Society of the Divine Word. They are Derek Nguyen, Zachary Smith, Carl Gales, Theodore Nguyen, Hoc Mai, Luke Henkel, Luis Panuco-Carmona, Hai Pham and Jorge Zetino. Three of them have chosen the path of the brotherhood and will pursue higher education in the fall. The remaining six will enroll at Catholic Theological Union as seminarians preparing for the priesthood.
Christmas festivities at Derek Nguyen’s house start the same way every year. His mother, who left Vietnam with Derek’s father and eldest sister, begins by telling the story of Derek’s birth. The family was living in a Malaysian refugee camp at the time, awaiting word from relatives in the United States.
"When I was born, I was declared dead," said the gregarious 28-year-old Divine Word Missionary with a personality that proves otherwise.
During his mother’s pregnancy with him, she was malnourished. Shortly after Derek was born, he began coughing up blood. His mother prayed and promised that if her only son lived that she would dedicate his life to Mother Mary and the priesthood.
As it happened, a man at the refugee camp had recently been released after serving his term in prison. He felt sorry for the young mother and her ailing newborn and donated blood. "I have the blood of a criminal," declared Derek with a charming and disarming smile.
When his mother retells the story, "she begins to cry and then my father, then my older sister and her husband—on command—and finally my younger sisters and me," said Derek, who has two younger sisters. "If I don’t cry, I won’t get any presents."
The Nguyen family moved to the United States when Derek was three years old. On the journey, he remembers only being on the plane and eating a pat of butter, but the memories of his family’s life in Vietnam and their existence at a refugee camp in Malaysia are well ingrained in his mind because of the retelling of the stories.
In a way, he said, he comes from a multi-cultural family—all of Vietnamese descent but born in Vietnam, Malaysia and the United States.
At first, his family lived with other families in Garden Grove, Calif., until they were able to move into their own home. Despite trials, they remained grounded in their Catholic faith.
"My parents are very religious," Derek said. "We’d go to church on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. I hated it, but now I feel blessed. The only way for me to be happy is to receive the Eucharist every morning."
During those times of prayerfulness, Derek felt the call to the priesthood. As a senior in high school, he visited Divine Word College, the Society of the Divine Word seminary in Epworth, Iowa. He enrolled and in 2015, he graduated from the college with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.
His devotion to God did not go unnoticed. Two family friends, who are now ages 18 and 20, asked him to be their Confirmation sponsor, or padrino.
"I write to them weekly to help them know God’s love and encourage them to become a loving image of God’s love. I share my prayer life and books, so they can experience what I experience," he said of his hand-written letters.
"I wish I had a [carrier] pigeon," he joked.
Conversely, Derek receives the same type of love and encouragement from the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters. During this past year, Derek’s novitiate directors assigned him to minister to the sisters at their motherhouse in Northfield, Ill. He spent one day a week with the retired sisters—listening to their stories of the missions, talking and playing bingo.
"Part of the ministry was simply being there, being present, listening and help them accordingly," he said. "All of the sisters’ minds worked very fast. As long as they’re happy, I’m happy."
He admits that along with listening, he did a good deal of talking. "The only time I become introverted is when I’m with my mom—I listen like it’s a silent retreats. In my family, I’m the quietest, except for my dad. At the novitiate, I’m probably the loudest. It’s my only chance to talk," he joked.
"Bring God to people through words and action—that’s my sense of true happiness because that’s when God is at work," he continued. "That’s my greatest happiness."
This fall, Derek will continue his studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago on his way to becoming a priest.