From prison to priesthood, new Kamloops bishop ready for role

The new Bishop of Kamloops will be joined by several thousand people on Thursday at the Sandman Centre to celebrate his ordination as the head of the Roman Catholic diocese.

Thirty years ago, Joseph Nguyen shared a different kind of room: with 150 other men in a Vietnam prison, surviving on two bowls of rice a day. One bathroom and four litres of water -- drink it, flush it or wash with it.

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After six months, Nguyen could no longer walk. A Catholic bent on entering the priesthood since he was a child, he was an enemy of the state who tried and failed to flee the country as one of thousands of boat people in the 1980s.

It was not his first brush with a Vietnamese communist government.

In 1975, government officials entered the Catholic seminary where he was living and told the group they had 24 hours to leave. For eight years he lived with other students in the bishop's house, a compound that served as an unofficial sanctuary. Eventually the government forced all the Catholic students and officials out.

Nguyen lived back home for a year, still not ordained as a priest, until he tried to flee Vietnam the first time, landing him in the brutal prison.

Undaunted, after his release, Nguyen tried to leave Vietnam a second time aboard a boat in the Pacific Ocean. This time, after three days, he was intercepted by a German ship, which transported him and the others to safety in the Philippines. Nguyen was eventually sponsored in Canada by his brother.

He arrived in Canada with nothing.

A farmer and painter with no grasp of the English language, Nguyen said his prospects to enter the seminary and become a priest in the Catholic church were bleak. He began to work with little thought of going into the priesthood.

"I gave up," he said.

Nguyen's father, however, reminded him of the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale.

"The German ship was the whale," Nguyen recalled his father's words. "God took you to Canada and you have to do something for the Lord. He brought you there."

On Thursday, Nguyen becomes the sixth Bishop of Kamloops.

He replaces David Monroe, who served 14 years here before retiring at 75 -- mandatory under Catholic laws -- to church-appointed housing in the Lower Mainland.

Most recently, Nguyen served in Vancouver as vicar general for the archdiocese of Vancouver.

The Kamloops diocese is one of six in B.C. and the Yukon.

When he is installed and ordained here, Nguyen will be one of about 5,000 Roman Catholic bishops in the world.

Nguyen will head a diocese with about 57,000 parishioners and 20 priests serving 67 communities in an area that stretches south from Quesnel to Merritt and from Whistler and Lillooet in the west to Sicamous in the east.

In the coming weeks and months, he will pore over staffing, budgets and building details while ministering to the spiritual needs of the communities.

Nguyen said his diocese reflects Canadian demographics of an aging society. Among his goals are to bring in more families and young people to the church, including into the priesthood.

"We need to have young families," he said.

"That's the challenge in Kamloops right now."

© 2018 Kamloops This Week

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