Joseph Hoc Thai Nguyen traveled the unlikely life path of escaping Vietnam in the mid-1970s; carving out a living in the United States while supporting his wife and five children; and becoming the first Vietnamese permanent deacon in Rochester diocesan history.
Whatever the circumstance, Deacon Nguyen remained steadfast in his Catholic faith, according to his son, Hoang.
“He was faithful to Christ until the very last moment, his last breath,” Hoang Nguyen said.
Deacon Nguyen, 67, died Feb. 20, 2009, at Rochester General Hospital of complications from a stroke suffered nearly two weeks earlier. He had been a deacon since 1997, serving Rochester’s Vietnamese Catholic Community.
Deacon Nguyen grew up in North Vietnam but moved to South Vietnam after the North fell under communist rule. He became a communications officer in the South Vietnamese navy during the country’s lengthy civil war. Shortly after South Vietnam fell to the communists in 1975, effectively ending the Vietnam War, Deacon Nguyen fled the country to avoid imprisonment in a concentration camp.
“We love freedom,” Deacon Nguyen remarked in a 1998 Catholic Courier article recalling his strong desire to come to the United States.
Deacon Nguyen escaped by boat with his wife, their children and his sister. He was among the first influx of what eventually would total hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees arriving in the United States. The family first resided at an Arkansas refugee camp before moving to the Rochester area. Deacon Nguyen and his family eventually settled in East Rochester.
Working for such employers as Rochester General Hospital, Lawyers Cooperative Publishing and Nalge Nunc International, Deacon Nguyen successfully provided for his family. In the early 1990s his spirituality and determination led him to begin studies for the permanent diaconate, despite his limited knowledge of English.
“The language was a barrier. I was side by side with him, helping him with translation, persevering,” Hoang Nguyen recalled.
Father Hoan Dinh agreed that Deacon Nguyen faced an immense challenge in his studies, “but he was willing to take it.”
Father Dinh, who serves as parochial vicar at St. Rita Parish in Webster, observed that he shares a special bond with Deacon Nguyen, with whose family he has been close since Father Dinh first came to Rochester as a seminarian in 2001. Ordained two years ago, Father Dinh is the first Vietnamese-born priest to be ordained in this diocese. Meanwhile, he noted, Deacon Nguyen is still the only Vietnamese native to be ordained a deacon here.
Upon his 1997 ordination, Deacon Nguyen became further immersed in the Vietnamese Catholic Community, a 200-family contingent currently based at St. Helen Church in Gates. (The community formerly worshipped at Rochester’s St. Anthony of Padua until that church closed in 2007.) Deacon Nguyen served as a catechist; sponsored numerous ministries in his home country; and helped bring Vietnamese priests to the local community.
Hoang Nguyen said his father worked tirelessly on behalf of whatever person might come his way needing assistance.
“He had a very charitable heart. He would help just about anyone, any new arrival to get settled — housing, something as simple as getting a bag of rice. I was amazed,” he said, adding that his father remained highly active among the local Vietnamese until a couple of weeks before his death.
Father Dinh agreed that Deacon Nguyen’s ministry “is extraordinary to the community here.”
Deacon Nguyen is survived by his wife, To Thi; children, Hoang (Chauhoan), Ha (Dzung), Huy, Huyen and Hai Nguyen; four grandchildren; sisters, Xuyen and Tuyen; and brother, Kinh.
His funeral Mass took place Feb. 28, 2009, at Sacred Heart Cathedral, with Bishop Matthew H. Clark presiding. Interment was at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.