Bishop ordained to be a ‘bearer of light’ to O.C.’s Vietnamese Catholics

The Rev. Kevin Vann, bishop of Orange, lays his hands on the head of the Rev. Thomas Thanh Nguyen during Nguyen's ordination as auxiliary bishop in the diocese, home to an estimated 70,000 Vietnamese American Catholics.
(Scott Smeltzer / Daily Pilot)

In a multicultural ceremony held in four languages — English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Korean — the Diocese of Orange ordained the Rev. Thomas Thanh Thai Nguyen as bishop last week, making him the second Vietnamese American in U.S. history to hold the post.

Nguyen will serve as auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Orange, home to an estimated 70,000 Vietnamese American Catholics, the largest such community in the country.

“You, in another way, daily, will be a bearer of light to those in need of guidance and hope, who are surrounded by darkness at times, who are trying to find their way back to God,” said the Rev. Kevin Vann, bishop of Orange, drawing a parallel between the star of Bethlehem, which according to the Bible led to the baby Jesus, and the stars that guided Vietnamese refugees to safety in their escape from persecution during the Vietnam War.


Nguyen himself was a war refugee.

He was born in Nha Trang, Vietnam, where he entered the seminary at 13. But his studies were cut short in 1975, when the Communist government took over and forced Nguyen and his fellow seminarians into a labor camp. Four years later, Nguyen and his extended family escaped Vietnam by motorboat.

They spent 18 days at sea, where they were hit by a tropical storm that left them without food or water for several days, before arriving to safety in the Philippines.

The family spent 10 months in a refugee camp before relocating to the United States, where Nguyen completed his seminary training. He then served as a priest in Georgia and Florida, where his work focused on the Vietnamese Catholic community.

For many Vietnamese Catholics, Nguyen’s history is seen as an asset that will help him minister to the community.

“He has that connection to many of the stories in the Vietnamese population, of the Vietnam War, of immigrating over the years, and especially of being a boat person,” said the Rev. Brandon Dang, a priest at Our Lady Queen of Angels in Newport Beach.

“Also, the dynamic of being Vietnamese American, being in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, and then the Diocese of St. Augustine in Florida, he’ll be able to bridge those cultures.”


Francesca Tran of Santa Ana agreed, adding that speaking Vietnamese will also help Nguyen reach out to the community.

“He can relate to them and they can relate to him,” she said.

Clergy from around the world, including priests from St. Joseph Seminary in Vietnam, where Nguyen began his training, as well as interfaith leaders from Orange County, attended the ordination on Dec. 19 at St. Columban Church in Garden Grove. As the largest church — and the largest Vietnamese congregation — in the diocese, an estimated 1,600 faithful attended the ceremony.

“To my new family and friends in the Diocese of Orange, please know how grateful I am for the love and kindness you’ve showed me,” Nguyen said at the closing of the service. “I look forward to getting to know you better in the coming days.”

But the ordination was also marked by sadness, coming less than a week after the funeral for the Rev. Dominic Mai Thanh Luong, auxiliary bishop emeritus of Orange. Luong was the first Vietnamese American bishop in U.S. history and served in the diocese for 12 years.

“It was a big loss to see Bishop Dominic go before the ordination,” said Elysabeth Nguyen, a parishioner at Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove. “It’s definitely mixed emotions, in the same week. Vietnamese people are going through a lot of emotions right now — they probably couldn’t tell you if it was happy or sad.”

Elysabeth Nguyen said she hopes the new bishop will lend his leadership to the construction of the Our Lady of La Vang shrine at Christ Cathedral, a $25-million project dedicated to the Vietnamese Marian apparition that also became a symbol for persecuted Catholics in Vietnam. Completing the shrine was one of Luong’s dreams.


“It is sad, but I think we all accept it,” said Nguyen of Christ Cathedral. “It’s the passing of the torch from Bishop Dominic to the new bishop. It’s very appropriate.”

Kandil is a contributor to Times Community News