Since October 2017 when Bishop Thanh Thai Nguyen was named an auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Orange, he has been known for his service to the local Vietnamese-American community, the largest population of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam.
Bishop Nguyen leads fundraising efforts to build the anxiously awaited shrine to Our Lady of La Vang and joins Bishop Timothy Freyer in assisting Bishop Kevin Vann in ministering to the 1.3 million Catholics in Orange County.
Yet Bishop Nguyen – who escaped war-torn Vietnam by boat and later was ordained to the priesthood by the La Salette Missionaries – goes out of his way to serve another, often-overlooked local population.
Without fanfare, he can be found ministering to prisoners as he visits local jails and Juvenile Hall or feeding the homeless in the Santa Ana Civic Center.
“When I come to see Jesus face-to-face, He is not going to ask me how many churches I built or Masses I’ve celebrated,” Bishop Nguyen explains. “He will want to know if I fed the hungry or provided drink to the thirsty. Having received the gift of the priesthood, I am committed to sacramentally reach out to the needy and to serve the poor.”
At the same time, Bishop Nguyen has a self-deprecating sense of humor and once allowed himself to be dressed as Elvis during a youth retreat.
He shares that he was considering retirement when he was named auxiliary bishop in Orange County. “God has a miraculous way – He brought me to Orange County and its large Vietnamese community, people who share my roots,” he says. “It’s God’s plan for my ministry to be productive, successful and rewarding.”
One of 11 children, he was born on April 7, 1953, in Nha Trang, Vietnam. He and members of his family escaped in a 28-foot boat in 1979, spending 18 days at sea before landing on the Philippines. “On the eighth day we ran out of food and water,” Bishop Nguyen recalls. “Three times it rained and each time we saved one cup of rainwater.” On the final day, the family rowed from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. to reach the shore. “Four days later, I entered the seminary,” having vowed while at sea to dedicate his life to the Lord.
The family lived in a refugee camp for 10 months before moving to the United States in 1980.
In the early 1990s, Bishop Nguyen held two pastoral assignments in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, first as parochial vicar at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Smyrna, and then at St. Ann Parish in Marietta. He came to the Diocese of St. Augustine in 1996 and he was incardinated a priest of the diocese in 1999. He served as parochial vicar and administrator at Christ the King Parish, Jacksonville, then was appointed pastor. He served as pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Jacksonville, the largest parish in the diocese with 4,000 families. While there, he built a strong, faith-filled community, adding a youth Mass and building a social/youth hall and fostering more vocations to the priesthood and religious life than any other parish in the diocese.
Bishop Nguyen is excited to work with Bishop Kevin Vann on the diocese’s new strategic plan for evangelization, leadership, and stewardship. “I can’t wait to get started,” he says. “Bishop Vann has a great vision for Christ Cathedral as an ideal community with all the activities that set a good example for all parishes to emulate.” He believes the cathedral, with the Our Lady of La Vang shrine and the Tower of Hope, will serve as a landmark for Pope Francis’ new evangelization efforts.
Bishop Nguyen says his maternal grandmother was instrumental in bringing him into religious life and for his dedication to serving the poor and needy. “One time we were eating lunch and a beggar came to the door with a bag on his back,” he recalls. “My grandmother said, ‘why don’t you sit down and eat with us?’ The beggar was amazed. Before he left, she told me to give him one cup of rice and one Vietnamese dollar.
“That act stayed with me as I studied in seminary,” he concludes.
In addition, Bishop Nguyen admires the work of Fr. Richard Ho Lung, founder of the Missionaries of the Poor in Jamaica, a former Jesuit who keenly felt the call to respond to the desperate poverty he saw in Kingston.
When he traveled to Kingston to serve with the missionaries, Bishop Nguyen says, he noticed that the poor and the people who serve them were happy. “They have nothing, so they rely on God,” he muses. “When you serve the poor, you receive an inner joy you can’t get in any other ministry. The joy I receive from serving the poor is precious.”
When he finally retires, Bishop Nguyen says, he wants to travel to Vietnam for several months a year to help serve the poor with the Vietnamese Sisters of the Good Shepherd, who feed, clothe, and educate children whose parents can’t afford to send them to school. Right now he is content to send the sisters donations for their efforts.