Lisa Kochanowski
Assistant Editor/Reporter
July 24, 2023 // Diocese

Father Nguyen’s Path to Priesthood Takes Many Turns

Lisa Kochanowski
Assistant Editor/Reporter

“It’s a good occasion. I feel great to celebrate how for the last 25 years God has been so good to me and accompanied me on my ministry,” said Father Dominic Nguyen, Pastor at St. Patrick Catholic Church, who is celebrating 25 years in the priesthood.

Nguyen’s family lineage includes a great uncle who was a priest, his father who went to seminary but discerned to marry, and his brother who also attended seminary and chose a life of marriage. His journey began at the age of seven.

The priest was a spiritual role model for a young Nguyen, planting a seed of interest along with a family history of being drawn to the priesthood.

Lisa Kochanowski
Father Dominic Nguyen, Pastor at St. Patrick Church is celebrating 25 years in the priesthood.

While his older brother was at the seminary, he had the chance to visit him. Nguyen was a big soccer fan and was in awe of the beautifully manicured soccer field and leather balls available at the seminary. Much different from the plastic ball and dirt-covered area he played in at home. This fascination with soccer planted another seed of interest for Nguyen, and he decided he had to go to the seminary to play on that field.

In 5th grade, he took and passed the entrance exam for minor seminary. He studied there until 9th grade when his community was taken under communist control. Initially, the communists granted the seminary permission to continue working with youth, but a lack of clergy to service the students forced it to close. Nguyen was forced to attend traditional schooling and unofficially met with others in various locations for his theology education.

As communist control in his country continued, the seminary was altered to a police academy, and he was forced into a labor camp to build a canal by hand. Leaders promised him if he made a three-year commitment, he would be able to return to seminary work. They broke their promise, leaving him in the labor camp for three years, one month, and 21 days. Communist leaders next ordered him to work three years in the army with a promise to return to seminary work afterward. This time, Nguyen took a stand and fled the area.

“I decided I wasn’t going and didn’t obey the orders,” recalled Nguyen. “I’m not going to let them trick me again. At that moment I became an illegal citizen.”

He went into hiding and after encouragement from his family, he decided to escape the country if he was going to fulfill his wish of being a priest. The first escape attempt with his brother was unsuccessful because he was not home at the time of the pickup. His brother was put in jail for 18 months and he narrowly escaped incarceration. A second attempt with the help of his cousin was successful and Nguyen spent five days and four nights on a boat with 75 other people. The tight quarters were miserable and on the last day of the voyage the boat broke. Passengers used soldier helmets to bail the water out of the boat, and one brave traveler with marine expertise temporarily patched the vessel that landed on KuKu Island in Indonesia. After 22 days, Nguyen moved to Pulau Island for nine months awaiting approval to come to the United States.

“The Americans accepted me because my dad was in the army,” said Nguyen, along with his status of religious persecution since he was unable to continue his religious formation. “I settled in Arlington, Texas with my uncle.”

With limited skills, a language barrier, and a $2,000 transportation bill to pay off, Nguyen worked two different labor jobs to pay off his debt and send money home to his family. Once his debt obligation was fulfilled, he decided it was time to continue his journey in the priesthood. Since his English was poor, he was rejected by the Diocese of Dallas and the Diocese of Baton Rouge. At this point, he decided to try one more time, and if rejected, he would abandon his ministry campaign and get married.

A chance meeting with a connection to Divine Word Missionary priests and brothers with the Society of the Divine Word inspired him to apply one last time to a congregation. The response was an invitation to join, with a promise to teach him English and eliminate the language barrier. Unfortunately, the day he was to enter formation, he was plagued by paralysis resulting from chemical poisoning by substances used during his labor jobs. Nguyen was hospitalized for three and a half months, and it took a year for him to get back on his feet.

His beginning with the Society of the Divine Word was delayed, but not deterred, and after a year in the novitiate and four years in the formation house, he was ordained a priest on June 6, 1998.

“When I was ordained, I was 40 years old,” said Nguyen. “I have never regretted the decision.”

In the beginning, Nguyen was a Vocation Coordinator for three years and then spent a year working in formation. Realizing his desire for parish work, he went to Memphis, Tennessee, for six years and then to St. Louis, Missouri, for nine years. During that time, he was an associate pastor at a multilingual parish and had two months to become fluent in Spanish to work with the Spanish-speaking population when the priest who had been working with the congregation was moved. Nguyen said it was a challenge to learn the language but a great life lesson for him.

While in Missouri, he was the pastor of a failing church. He was challenged to recondition a dilapidated building that had many needs. On one of his first nights, Nguyen and the associate pastor awoke to a thunderstorm finding themselves running around the rectory and church with buckets to catch the rainwater seeping through holes in the roof. Being mechanically handy out of necessity, he was able to get the buildings rehabilitated and the parish back on track.

His next and current assignment took him to St. Patrick Parish in Fort Wayne where he was again tasked to rehabilitate the facilities, grow the parish community, and get the finances in order. After a great deal of hard work, prayer, organization, cleanup, and perseverance, the parish has been revitalized into a thriving community.

“After a long week working, I hope they get to come here for spiritual nourishment,” said Nguyen of his congregation. Through the word of God and participation in the sacraments, he wants everyone to be filled with hope, peace, and love.

At the age of 64, he plans to continue working as a pastor until the age of 70. Within his community, at 70, he can request removal from administrative duties and continue ministering as a priest in residence. He likes the Fort Wayne area and would like to stay in the area for the next few years.

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