New St. John’s Trustee Stresses Faith and Devotion
At 13, Rev. Michael M. Nguyen, C.M. ’90CBA set out on a harrowing journey from his native Vietnam in search of a new beginning. The year was 1980, and his country had fallen to the Communists five years earlier. “My parents saw no future there and hoped for a better life in the United States.”
Fr. Nguyen was recently appointed to the St. John’s University Board of Trustees, and reflected on the path God set out for him, confident in the belief that he was always protected no matter where he found himself.
Part of a large family which includes 11 children, Fr. Nguyen recalled how strongly they were devoted to their Catholic faith. His great uncle was a priest who served in his family’s home parish; several other family members are priests and members of the religious community. “By the time I was seven or eight years old, I knew how to pray the rosary,” he recalled.
His family lived in a small town near Ho Chi Minh City (then known as Saigon), and the local parish was the center of community life. Fr. Nguyen’s family would walk to Mass every Sunday, and most of the town’s activities took place there. As a boy, he was an altar server, often waking at 4 a.m. to serve Mass.
After the Communist takeover, millions of Vietnamese fled the country by sea, becoming known as “Boat People.” “I was one of those people,” Fr. Nguyen noted. His family bought passage for him, his brother, three cousins, and three uncles on a boat bound for Thailand. However, only Fr. Nguyen and his three cousins made the voyage.
The boat was barely seaworthy, Fr. Nguyen recalled. It set off with more than 50 people and a limited supply of food and water. After four days, with no land in sight and dwindling rations, the engine failed. Before he left, Fr. Nguyen’s mother placed a rosary in his hand, and he prayed with it often during his perilous voyage. “I put my faith in God, and trusted He would deliver me.”
Eventually, they were rescued by a German ship and brought to a refugee camp established by the United Nations in the Philippines. After eight months there, Fr. Nguyen traveled to the United States and arrived in Philadelphia, PA, in October of 1981. Once there, Fr. Nguyen lived with a foster family; his aunt, a member of the Lovers of the Holy Cross of Phat Diem, a congregation of religious sisters founded in Vietnam, also lived nearby.
At that time, she worked in the infirmary at St. Vincent’s Seminary in Germantown, PA, which also housed the formation program for the Congregation of the Mission. Today, it still serves as the headquarters of the Eastern Province and a care facility for aging members.
Fr. Nguyen’s aunt introduced him to several Vincentian priests. “I went to Church there every Sunday for about a year, and a priest asked me if I had an interest in the priesthood.” Given his family’s long tradition of serving in the religious life, as well as his own strong faith, Fr. Nguyen felt a strong calling worth exploring. After attending a weekend retreat at St. Joseph’s Preparatory Seminary (which he would eventually attend), in Princeton, NJ, he made the decision to join the Congregation of the Mission.
Upon graduation from St. Joseph’s, Fr. Nguyen came to St. John’s to study for his undergraduate degree in Accounting. He also minored in Philosophy. While here, he lived with other seminarians at a house of formation in Ozone Park, NY, performed service throughout the local community, and each summer was assigned to a local parish.
“My interest in the life of St. Vincent de Paul only grew stronger during this time,” he remarked. “It became clear to me that I loved service—and I loved serving people.”
Since ordination, he has held a variety of positions within the community, including three terms as Consultor for the Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Mission, and Pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Greensboro, NC, which has been staffed by the Vincentians since the 1930s. Fr. Nguyen supervised the construction of new facilities and watched the parish grow from about 300 families to more than 3,000 when he left 17 years later.
For the last six years, Fr. Nguyen has served as Rector and Formation Director at Miraculous Medal House in Jamaica Estates, NY, and considers formation work very rewarding. This is the house of study at the college level for the Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Mission.
“I love working with young people and helping them discern their calling,” he noted, recalling the many priests and religious who shepherded him along his faith journey.
Eager to serve wherever he is called, Fr. Nguyen received his degree in Canon Law from Catholic University and serves as a tribunal judge for the Diocese of Trenton, assisting Catholics seeking annulments. “We help people who are divorced and remarried reconcile with the Church. It is a great opportunity for healing.”
For the last several years, Fr. Nguyen has served on the Board of Trustees of Niagara University, also founded by the Congregation of the Mission. Each year, he travels back to Vietnam, which is home to a young Vincentian province. He often recruits students to study at Niagara and anticipates doing the same for St. John’s.
“We are fortunate to have Fr. Nguyen as a Trustee at St. John’s University,” observed Kathryn T. Hutchinson, Ph.D., Vice President for the Division of Student Affairs. “I have had the pleasure of working with him as a fellow Board member at Niagara and as he evaluates the best services to provide to those in formation at Miraculous Medal House. He is selflessly focused on the students and the community, constantly looking for ways to improve the conditions of those he serves. Fr. Nguyen has a terrific sense of humor that enhances his already engaging personality, making it easy for him to connect with those he serves so readily.”
As a Trustee of St. John’s, Fr. Nguyen hopes that he can help the University further distinguish itself as a Catholic and Vincentian institution, especially as it approaches its 150th anniversary. An avid sports fan, he expects to attend as many St. John’s soccer and basketball games as his schedule allows.
A life of service means that members of the Congregation go where the need is greatest, but one day Fr. Nguyen hopes to serve as a missionary. Last year he traveled to Mexico, and this Christmas he will go to Madagascar. “I can easily see myself working in the missions,” he said. “It is one of my dreams.”
Once a refugee in a strange land, Fr. Nguyen is keenly aware of the challenges faced by those who leave everything they know in search of a better life. He believes God set a path for him to follow, and praying the rosary helped him feel closer to God and discern that path. “I feel very blessed and happy as a priest in the Vincentian community,” he said. “I believe that God protected me during that trip through praying the rosary to the Blessed Mother—and has done so ever since.”