By Fr. Mike Mendl, SDB
(New Rochelle, NY – March 10) – Fr. Paul Chuong Nguyen, SDB, a member of the SUE Province, suffered a heart attack on the morning of March 8 and died in his room in Rosemead, CA, where he had been serving in the Salesian community since 2014 as coordinator of the Youth Renewal Center retreat house. He was 64 years old and had been a professed Salesian for more than 43 years and a priest for almost 35 years.
Paul Chuong was born on September 4, 1958, in Saigon, Vietnam, to Hua Nguyen and Ho Thi Hong-Lam. He was one of seven children in the family. Paul, his three brothers, and his three sisters fled Vietnam in 1975 among the tens of thousands of “boat people” and were fortunate enough to make it to the Philippines and thence to the U.S.
Following his immigration to the U.S., Paul resided in Sewaren, NJ, and completed his secondary schooling at Woodbridge Senior High School in Woodbridge, NJ, in 1977. He enrolled among the Sons of Mary at Don Bosco Seminary in Newton, NJ, on September 7, 1977. He entered St. Joseph’s Novitiate in Newton on August 31, 1978, under the guidance of Fr. Carmine Vairo as master of novices and with classmates who included Richard Alejunas, Rich Putnam, and Dave Sajdak.
Br. Chuong made his first profession as a Salesian on September 1, 1979, at Newton and his perpetual profession at Elizabeth, NJ, on August 16, 1986.
Br. Chuong graduated from Don Bosco College in Newton in June 1982 with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. During his college years, he assisted at the Boys Club on campus. He did his practical training at Salesian Junior Seminary in Goshen, NY (1982-1983), and Mary Help of Christians School in Tampa (1983-1984).
Br. Chuong studied theology at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Worthington, Ohio, between 1984 and 1988 and earned a Master of Divinity degree. He was ordained on May 29, 1988, at St. Therese Church in Linden, NJ.
Fr. Chuong began his priestly ministry as dean of religious activities at Don Bosco College in Newton (1988-1989) before moving to Archbishop Shaw High School in Marrero, LA, as DRA for two years (1989-1991). He then taught religion/theology at St. Dominic Savio High School in East Boston (1991-1993) and Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, NJ (1993-2000).
Fr. Chuong left schoolwork in 2000 to become a member of the retreat team at the Don Bosco Retreat Center in Haverstraw, NY, for six years. In 2006, he took an assignment as treasurer at Mary Help of Christians Center in Tampa until 2013. He was also vice director in Tampa from 2007. From Tampa, one lay staffer writes, “He will be greatly missed by many here in Tampa, he was such a good priest and touched many lives while he was here and even after he left.”
In November 2004, Fr. Chuong took part in a medical mission to Vietnam. On their return, the project’s coordinator wrote enthusiastically to the provincial, Fr. Jim Heuser, to thank him for Fr. Chuong’s presence as “one of the most dynamic participants,” reporting that he “was on the Primary Care team and promptly became the troubleshooter, helping everywhere when team members were overwhelmed, registering patients and reestablishing order, bringing supplies and distributing gifts, assisting medical personnel… He was at his best when entertaining school children and directing interactive plays.”
The coordinator, Dr. Quynh Kieu, continued, “Most importantly he ministered to the spiritual and moral needs of the 159 team members, and for the first time since 1996, we enjoyed private Mass on Sunday…. Father Nguyen was the agent to elevate our medical mission trip to a unique spiritual experience.”
The program desired Fr. Chuong’s continued participation, and so it happened for several more years.
For one year, Fr. Chuong served as assistant pastor, vice director, and youth minister at St. Anthony Church in Elizabeth (2013-2014).
Following the Salesians’ withdrawal from Elizabeth in 2014, Fr. Chuong asked leave to move to California and became coordinator of the retreat center in Rosemead, while remaining a member of the SUE Province.
In January 2017, Fr. Chuong made national news with an open letter to President Trump, posted February 10 on the blog of the Catholic magazine Commonweal by Peter Steinfels. In the letter Fr. Chuong offered his U.S. citizenship to a Syrian refugee seeking the same asylum that young Chuong had been granted when he fled Vietnam. In the National Catholic Reporter (online 2/13/17), religion writer David Gibson quotes from the letter: “Yes! I am a refugee. I am an American and I have made America great in my own way for the 42 years since I was granted asylum in this great country. But now, I would like to relinquish my U.S. citizenship and ask that you grant it to a Syrian refugee.” The President ignored Fr. Chuong.
Fr. Tim Ploch, who was his director in Columbus while Br. Chuong was studying theology and later was Fr. Chuong’s provincial, described him as apostolic, innovative, and “insanely funny.”
Table conversation at the provincial house in New Rochelle was full of admiration for his zeal and his vast connections among the Catholic Vietnamese diaspora of the U.S.
Fr. Chuong is survived by his parents Hua Nguyen and Ho Thi Hong-Lam, now residents of San Jose, CA, and several siblings in both California and Vietnam.
Updated on March 13: Funeral arrangements are available here. Please pray for the repose of Fr. Chuong's soul and for his fellow Salesians, family, confreres, colleagues, and everyone whose hearts and lives were brightened by his presence.