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May 2015 • Online Edition

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Monsignor Nguyen: Love People And Follow Your Heart | Print |  E-mail

by Susan Dugan

Who would have thought the little troublemaker growing up in Catholic school in Da Nang would later become a pastor in Denver, Colorado?” says Peter Quang Nguyen, monsignor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish and Catholic School, 2200 S. Logan St., with a contagious laugh. “Not even in my wildest imagination.”

MONSIGNOR PETER QUANG NGUYEN FINALLY BROKE FREE from communist oppression in his native Vietnam after five failed attempts at escape. His relentless pursuit of freedom was motivated by the desire to pursue his lifelong vocation for the ministry.

His parents fled to Da Nang in 1954 when the communists took over North Vietnam. Nguyen was born there two years later. The war that raged between his divided land influenced every facet of his early life. “I grew up like normal children, played a lot of practical jokes, got in a lot of trouble with parents. But we had no toys during the time of war. We could not treasure or keep any toy because we may not be back the next day. It was training me to let go and honor the best you have in each day.”

At age 11, Nguyen entered seminary high school (and later college) in Hue, until communists took over South Vietnam in 1975 and then abolished the church and its institutions. “We were dismissed to go home,” he recalls. “By that time my father was captured and placed in reeducation camp. My mother, grandmother, and I moved to be near a relative to avoid further persecution.”

His seminary studies continued, underground. “In public, the archbishop was telling us to stay and help, even though we were facing persecution. But in privacy, he would strongly suggest that you obtain freedom, if you could, and then, hopefully, someday, somehow, help the church and the country in the future.”

After five unsuccessful attempts to escape, Nguyen boarded a small fishing boat (along with several other seminarians) and on Dec. 9, 1980, attempted again to flee with 54 people aboard. The group had entrusted a man boasting U.S. Navy experience with their welfare. “He claimed he knew how to read a map and drive the boat, and we allowed him and his wife and three children to accompany us. However, when we came to the open territory water he ended up having no experience whatsoever.”

Nguyen ended up shepherding the craft. “I was selected because I knew how to drive a boat on the river, but not at sea. And I was the only one capable to stand behind the wheel without seasickness. We had no choice. We were trying to head to Thailand. When we got into the open sea, oh, my dear, it was scary. With strong wind and big waves and severe weather. We couldn’t really tell what direction we were going. So I kept looking for the direction of the sunrise, for the east. At night, for the morning star. But because of miscalculation and inexperience, we ended up in Malaysia.”

After 14 days at sea, fishermen from one of the small Malaysian islands found the boat, most of its inhabitants passed out from dehydration and hunger. (Supplies consisted of three pumpkins and 20 gallons of water.) Two young boys had died on the eleventh day, and the baby girl Nguyen delivered on the thirteenth, also perished.

“The fishermen dragged us into their islands,” he says. “They destroyed our boat. Because if you entered the country illegally, and the boat was still in good shape, all they did was supply you with water and food and send you out again. Without the fishermen we could not have survived. We did not speak their language, but the policeman who dialogued with us in French reported that the fishermen had wanted to save us.”

The next day, survivors were taken to a refugee camp by members of an international committee, where Nguyen served among 20,000 people until July 1981. While there, he encountered two of his former French seminary professors who had taught him in Vietnam, and were now assisting Vietnamese refugees. “They helped me apply to immigrate to France, where I might be able to continue my future vocation. At that time, whatever country had accepted you, you still had to go through one more interview with the United States embassy. I was presenting to the delegate there. She was 25 or 26 years old, and she just looked at me and said, ‘I want you to go to America.’ In French, I said, ‘I don’t speak English.’ And she said, ‘You’ll learn.’”

They found him a sponsor in Denver through the U.S. Catholic Conference subcommittee on refugee services, and he arrived here November 31, 1981. He stayed with his sponsors, who enrolled him in the Emily Griffith Opportunity School to learn English, but Nguyen wanted more rigorous study, and enrolled in community college.

He attended classes daily, from 8a.m.-3:30p.m., and then took the bus to W. Colfax Ave. and Union, where he worked at a Taco Bell franchise 4p.m.-midnight. Once in a while, late getting out of work, he missed the bus and had to walk a couple hours back to his downtown studio apartment. Although sometimes discouraged, he persevered, earning additional money playing piano Saturday nights at a lounge to help make his tuition. He continued studying English, and later electronics, earned an electronic technician degree, and landed a job with Western Bell.

“But the reason I escaped was to pursue my vocation for ministry and serving the community at large,” he says. “I wasn’t confident enough to go back to seminary because of the impediment of English but someone decreed to call from on high, I guess, just kind of twisted my arm to say: at least try. It led me to get in touch with the Archdiocese of Denver. They accepted me into the seminary and sent me back to Conception Seminary College in Missouri to reveal my study in philosophy and religion. I finished the four-year program in two years. My French and Latin helped me to understand, even though my pronunciation in English was not good.”

 He returned to Denver and attended St. Thomas Theological Seminary from 1985-1990, and was ordained June 30, 1990, at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, the first Vietnamese refugee ordained in the archdiocese. “It was a humble day of rejoicing,” he says. “Finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.” Named assistant pastor at St. Vincent de Paul parish, he held similar positions at Immaculate Heart of Mary parish in Northglenn and Notre Dame parish in Denver before becoming pastor at St. Mary’s parish in Greeley, where he was instrumental in building the archdiocese’s newest Catholic school. In 2008, he was sent to assume leadership at Our Lady of Lourdes.

“I was asked to come because there had been a lot of changes at the school that had led to a crisis,” he says. “The spirit of the community was not strong and they were in danger of closing the school. I grew up in the time of war and many times learned to treasure the best we can and live in the fullness of each day. You don’t know what will be happening tomorrow or even the next hour. My background in uncertainty helped me to see, OK; I’ll give this my best shot, one day at a time.”

With help from a small, core group of committed parishioners, he set out to turn things around. “The miracle is in our heart. I have seen many broken people who have suffered loss and separation, and come to understand that what the human heart desires is to be loved. Everyone wants the same thing. I had learned to pray, to ask –show me what to do. And most of the time he did not tell me to do a miracle, just to love people and follow your heart.

Doing so moved him to inspire church members to see shared, over separate interests. “Let’s gather together and make it work,” he says. “And obviously they stepped up. When we made the decision to keep the school open, it took a lot of sacrifices to support the school to stand on its own two feet. And so I challenged the parents and educators to think of this school as serving the community. If we think this is a private school, we need to stop right now and close it. I tried to create more opportunity to provide scholarships instead of serving only those parents who can afford to pay. As a leader, I have to honor the people, rich or poor. That is my ministry.”

The inclusive approach paid off. “So far, so good,” he says. “This year we awarded at least 50 percent tuition for at least 60 children who cannot pay full tuition. We have about 15 students who are not Catholic, three or four Buddhists. I teach them how to honor God in their lives, to honor themselves, and to honor other people.”

The philosophy extends to the church’s dedication to collecting food for the poor. “Since I came here a lot of people have come in from all over seeking food and I never turn anyone away. I don’t say, well, you don’t belong to this area. We can make a difference if, from my religious perspective, we allow God to be the center of our lives. Building a community, serving the people, building up their spirit. I don’t want to see people become a victim of their own fear. I hope that my service gives them a little sense of hope and courage about how to make a difference themselves.

“But, you know, we all do the best we can,” he continues. “Successful in the future, who knows? I don’t really look forward. When I have to go and serve in a different area, I will treasure whatever I received from the people here, the true love and respect and trust. They will become my companions, so that when I’m facing new challenges, I will still have the confidence to serve the people no matter who, or where, they are. I’m grateful to have an opportunity to live with my freedom, to speak and live with truth.

“I see that in the eyes of these children right now. The hope for our future, one child, one family, one community at a time. That was my dream and so far I am doing it."

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