Father Joseph Huong Nguyen, a beloved priest of the Diocese of Sacramento for more than 35 years, died on Saturday, July 17, 2021. He was 74.
Bishop Jaime Soto will preside at a funeral Mass for Father Nguyen on Wednesday, August 4 at 10 a.m. at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, located at 1017 11th Street in downtown Sacramento. Following the burial, a reception will be held at 1 p.m. at St. Anne Parish in Sacramento. A vigil service will be held on Tuesday, August 3 at 5 p.m. at St. Anne Parish in Sacramento.
Father Nguyen had been serving as pastor of St. Anne Parish since January 2010. Previously he served as pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Marysville from Sept. 2006 to December 2009, and of St. Peter Parish in Dixon from August 2004 to September 2006. He also served as parochial administrator and then pastor of St. Paul Parish in Knights Landing from January 2000 to August 2004.
Upon arriving at St. Joseph in September 2006, he launched an ambitious project to renovate the basement of the church building, which had previously been unused for 50 years to house the church’s food pantry and youth center.
He was ordained at St. Joseph College in Mountain View in 1985. He served as parochial vicar of St. Isidore Parish in Yuba City from September 1995 to January 2000; of St. Joseph Parish in Auburn from December 1993 to August 1995 and from December 1985 to April 1987; and of St. Joseph Parish in Lincoln from April 1987 to December 1993.
In an interview with the Marysville Appeal Democrat in 2007, Father Nguyen, a native of North Vietnam, recounted a moment of decision on April 29, 1975, when his life and that of 37 countrymen changed forever.
He and fellow Army of the Republic of Vietnam soldiers stayed in an underground tunnel through the early hours of what became the fall of Saigon. Father Nguyen convinced the others to spring with him through a hail of rocket fire to his EC-47 plane so he could fly them to safety.
Like many other foreign-born priests serving in the United States, his early life was colored by economic strife and war. In 1954, Communist forces took the region that included Hanoi and the nearly all-Catholic village where Father Nguyen and his family lived. His family, along with about a million other North Vietnamese, headed south, and Father Nguyen spent the rest of his youth and young adulthood in Saigon. They enjoyed less than a decade of peace before Communist forces began to invade the southern provinces.
The 1963 assassination of South Vietnam’s president, Ngo Dinh Diem, sent the country into “trouble and chaos,” he said, and within a few years he and thousands of his countrymen had joined the U.S.-backed ARVN forces against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army.
In his role as a pilot, he delivered supplies to ARVN troops, often having to fly low above the dangerous Ho Chi Minh Trail. By the time of the Tet Offensive – a massive onslaught from the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army in 1968 – death had become a familiar sight to the young airman.
“This really broke my heart,” he recalled. “I lost many relatives. Every week I had to bury a friend of mine.”
A desire to overcome that sense of powerlessness, he said, helped fuel his aspiration to become a priest. One day in the midst of the bloody days of Tet, he said, he encountered a South Vietnamese soldier whose foot had been blown off by a land mine. The young man had been left to die. “I wanted to console this soldier and give him hope for the life to come,” Father Nguyen said. “I said to myself, ‘Someday, I want to give Communion.’”
He said his background in Vietnam allowed him during his priestly ministry to feel an easy kinship with people around him who were struggling – particularly for those whom English is a second language. He learned Spanish and became comfortable celebrating Mass in both English and Spanish.
He is survived by his sisters Kinh (Khanh) Tran, Khiem Nguyen, brothers Chinh (Ha) Nguyen, Minh (Chau) Nguyen, An (Van) Nguyen, 5 Nieces (Thuy, Ha, Hanh, Vi, Thao), 9 Nephews (Dat, Nguyen, Vu, Chuong, Bao, Huy, Hoang, Toan, Phuc), 3 great nephews, 2 great nieces and many loving relatives and friends.