Ordinations show the generosity of the Vietnam church to NZ

Joseph and Suu web


Cultural and language barriers did not stop two young Vietnamese men from following the call of God to become priests in New Zealand.

Dunedin diocese joyfully celebrated the ordinations of young Vietnamese seminarians Joseph Long Van Nguyen and John the Baptist Suu Van Nguyen to the priesthood on the feast day of the Nativity of St John the Baptist (June 24) at St Therese of Lisieux church in Invercargill.

Dunedin Bishop Michael Dooley said that the last double ordination that the diocese had celebrated was 36 years ago, which was the ordinations of Fr David Hercus and the late Fr Colin Schmelz.

“In many ways today, this will be the first day of the rest of your lives as priests. And there is a lot that can only be learned when you start carrying on your ministry as a priest,” Bishop Dooley told the new priests, as he assured them not only of his support, but also of that of the other priests and parishioners as well.

Bishop Dooley recalled that the two had arrived in New Zealand in 2013, and were invited to a Monday evening fish and chips gathering, but the “culture shock” the two were having had not been considered.

“All of us thought nothing of it and we just invited you to join in but later, we realised you have never even seen fish and chips before, and were probably extremely wary of what this food could be because it looks so strange.”

“And talking to Joseph, he remembered it was a shock but he said to me, it wasn’t as much of a shock as seeing the bishop at the time dressed in shorts. [In] his defence, it was Monday which was his day-off so that was fair enough,” Bishop Dooley added, eliciting laughter from the parishioners.

He reflected on the challenges that the two new priests had faced in learning a new language and applying it to their studies.

“In the midst of this storm, you expressed your deeply-held faith and hope in Christ and really, it was apparent to all of us that that was the motivating force that keeps you going,” the bishop said.

No English

Both men had no idea what New Zealand was like before they came here. They were asked by Vinh diocese Bishop Pierre Nguyen Van Vien and Msgr Brendan Daly if they wanted to become priests here.

“In my imagination, New Zealand is a country with a lot of high buildings, something like America. So much so that when I was landing in Dunedin and I saw all the mountains and all the grass, I thought, what?!,” Fr Suu told NZ Catholic.

“It was very hard at the beginning, because of the cold and because of new surroundings and new people. I couldn’t speak English at the time. One thing I could only say [was] ‘hello and thank you’,” he said.

Fr Suu said that, on his first Christmas in New Zealand, he was asked to prepare the Christmas crib in the front of Holy Name church in North Dunedin.

“I tried to find the materials to go with the crib. But one of the things I didn’t know (how to say) was ‘tarpaulin’. I tried to speak to them (staff at The Warehouse) but I couldn’t ask. Luckily, one of the ladies, a staff [member] at The Warehouse, took me around the store. It took us 35 to 40 minutes to find it,” Fr Suu said.  “She was very kind to me.”

At his retreat before his ordination, he said that he looked back on his journey with a smile.

“I think it’s God’s grace. Looking back at our journey . . . it’s got love and the care of the people for me,” he said.

Back to kindy

Fr Joseph said that he didn’t really know about New Zealand, because the Vietnamese word for the country’s name translated to “New Land”.

He said that language school was both stressful and disappointing. He felt as if he had gone back to kindergarten when he was put in a class of children.

“Other young students came to New Zealand just for a visit, and they were there for only a few weeks of study, and they were able to talk in English so well,” he said, remembering his frustration.

“I was so stressed, especially when the teacher [would] always pick me up and [say], ‘Hey, Joseph, introduce yourself to the students. Tell them who you are and where you come from, what do you want to do here in New Zealand and blah-blah-blah.’ I got sick of it,” he said.

“I ran away from class one morning and went to the library, and I said, ‘Lord, why have you abandoned me? You called me here and now I’m suffering?’ I cried,” he recalled. “And I thought, if you’re crying, it’s not going to make your English better. Wake up, stand up, do it.”

He asked a librarian to help him, translating each word on his phone. She took him to a corner where the mums and children were playing with toys, flash cards and picture books.

He acquired some flash cards and stuck them all around his room, in the presbytery’s kitchen and even in the toilet.

“Fr Mark [Chamberlain] would just laugh about it. And any priest that would come, he would say, ask Joseph. Go to his room and take a look. One priest came in and he said, ‘good on you doing the good work!’,” he said.

He said that, even though he felt that God had abandoned him, he realises now that God was with him every step of the way, and in the many hands which had helped him become who he is today.

The call 

Fr Suu, 37, was a civil engineer in his family’s construction firm, but he felt it wasn’t the life he was meant to be living.

“Actually, I did civil engineering because my father want[ed] me to inherit his company in the future as well. But when I was working for my father’s company, I didn’t really enjoy working there,” he said.

Fr Suu said that he sensed God’s call as an altar server, but he was not sure about it because he was too young.

“One day, I went to Mass and when I was sitting there, I saw God is coming closer. I was looking at the cross, and I thought something was going on there. But I wasn’t sure. So, I talked to my uncle who is a priest, and he said maybe it’s the way God wants me to be a priest,” he said.

Fr Joseph, 33, was an altar boy as well. He grew up in the country and admired the priest who would come to their village once a week.

However, the call to be a priest in New Zealand came as a surprise.

“I said to bishop, ‘look, give me 24 hours and I’ll get back to you’,” he said. He took his scooter back home and decided to stop by a river to think about it.

“I sat down and prayed, opened my pocket Bible and just in front of me was the Annunciation, the part where Mary was confused and asked the angel of the Lord, ‘what does that all mean? I don’t know what to do.’ Mary was confused as well. When Gabriel said, ‘nothing is impossible with God’, peace spread in my heart,” he said.

He picked up his phone, called his bishop and said, “yes”.

Strong faith foundation 

One of the other challenges that they faced was homesickness. Both men came from close-knit families, with a strong foundation in faith.

“My parents were really supportive of me on the journey. I often talk to my parents on (Facebook) Messenger or Viber. My mum often told me, at the end of our conversations, ‘just pray with the Holy Spirit.’ The Holy Spirit will keep me in the right track,” Fr Suu said. “My father would say cling to Bible, study the Bible, read the Bible more and more.”

Fr Suu said that, because they missed their families back home, he and Fr Joseph have come to depend on their brother seminarians, particularly the Vietnamese seminarians, for support.

“We didn’t know each other in Vietnam, but know we become part of each other as a family in New Zealand,” he said.

He also thanked the parishioners who had welcomed him into their homes, and who had shared their life stories and struggles with him.

“It helped me to understand what the Church in New Zealand is and what we need. The people give us the sense of becoming a servant of God,” he said.

Fr Joseph was also grateful for the support of the parishioners who have become his second family in New Zealand.

He said that he deals with homesickness by dedicating to his family in Vietnam his services to the people in the hospices or rest homes.

“For example, I lost my dear grandparents while I was here. I was in Mercy Hospice, and it’s hard going there as my grandparents passed away back home. But actually, it worked, the way of the Lord. I said, ‘grandparents, I don’t have the chance to serve you, but I am doing this for these people, and I am doing that for you’,” he said.

He also thanked the parishioners who had also welcomed his family who travelled to New Zealand for his ordination. He particularly thanked the retired schoolteachers who had helped him with his English. He said that their warm hospitality extended to both his and Fr Suu’s parents had “melted our hearts”.

At the ordination Mass, Bishop Dooley thanked both sets of parents and expressed his gratitude for the generosity of the Vietnamese Church.

“I also would like to take this opportunity to thank the Church of Vietnam, thank the Diocese of Vinh and your home parishes for giving you both such a good solid foundation in faith, and for generously supporting you in coming here to New Zealand and making us your new family in faith. We are very appreciative of that generosity shown to us by the Vietnamese Church,” he said.

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Rowena Orejana

Reader Interactions


  1. Dr.Cajetan Coelho says

    Hearty congratulations to the Reverend Joseph Long Van Nguyen and to the Reverend John the Baptist Suu Van Nguyen.

  2. says says

    Hearty congratulations to the Reverend Joseph Long Van Nguyen and to the Reverend John the Baptist Suu Van Nguyen.