This article initially appeared in the fall 2023 edition of The Vincentian, the Western Province’s quarterly newsletter.
Fr. Binh Nguyen, C.M., grew up in Vietnam and attended the Vincentian high school seminary. Initially, he didn’t know the difference between an order priest and a diocesan one, but he liked the atmosphere and eventually entered the novitiate. Over the next few years, he finished his philosophy studies and was well into his theology studies when things changed.
In 1975 the Viet Cong army was advancing on Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). The seminary was evacuated, and the students were sent home to their families. Fr. Binh knew that his father was in the hospital but was uncertain about the rest of his family.
“When I later connected with my family, I didn’t want to leave them,” he said. “But my mother told me to go and finish my studies for the priesthood. So, with her blessing, I left Vietnam.”
His parents were from North Vietnam and knew that the seminary would likely be closed permanently and the Church suppressed. On April 30, 1975, the day Saigon fell to the Communists, Fr. Binh found some fishermen who were organizing a trip out of the country, so with his brother and another seminarian, they went to sea, looking for the U.S. Navy.
The Navy had already left the area for the Philippines, so for many weeks to come, this band of three journeyed to Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore, looking for assistance. They finally made it to the U.S. Navy base at Subic Bay in the Philippines. Along the way, Fr. Binh and the others did their best to help the other refugees.
“We helped to birth two babies on the boat,” he said, “the other seminarian and I, all by ourselves!”
Once at the refugee camp in the Philippines, they discovered that the policies concerning refugees were in constant flux. They spent 10 months in that refugee camp. Finally, a Daughter of Charity who was working there discovered the two Vincentian seminarians. An Irish bishop there also knew the Vincentians of the Eastern Province. These two seminarians were eventually granted visas and were able to enter the U.S. (Fr. Binh’s brother came later).
Since he was not yet a priest or even a vowed member of the Congregation, Fr. Binh studied English and finished his theological studies at Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary in Northampton, PA. Knowing there was more work to be done with Vietnamese people in California, he went to the Vincentian community there. He took permanent vows in 1979 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1982.
Of the six children in his family, Fr. Binh and his brother were the first to come to the U.S. One year later, two sisters and another brother escaped to Malaysia and later settled in the U.S. Only his oldest brother remained behind.
The risky passage from Vietnam to the United States and his spiritual trek to becoming a Vincentian priest—it was quite the amazing journey.
“Throughout everything, I saw the hand of God was with me,” he said.