Obituary: Father Anthony Nguyen, refugee and beloved priest in Chelsea and Lowell

“A fascinating life -- a wonderful life.” Father Anthony Nguyen would probably not have thought his life “fascinating,” but his clear love for his priestly ministry, won as a pearl of great price and tempered like fire-tried gold, was certainly “wonderful.”

His hand printed biography and the information sent to Cardinal Bernard Law outlining his life is stark and direct. Born in Phnom Penh, Cambodia (then Kampuchea) on July 23, 1939 he was one of the four children of Phuoc and That (Vo Thi) Nguyen. His seminary career previewed, at least partially, his early priestly life: he studied in his native Phnom Penh, then went to his ancestral Vietnam, and back to Cambodia before his ordination there on July 18, 1966 at the hands of Bishop Yves-Georges-Rene Ramousse, then the vicar apostolic of Phnom Penh.

Father Arthur Coyle, for whom Father Anthony was parochial vicar at St. Patrick, Lowell narrated well the first years of Father Nguyen’s priestly ministry in his homily at Father Nguyen’s 40th anniversary of ordination in 2006. “Father Anthony would know the hard life of an exile and a refugee. Having served four years in Cambodia, he returned to Vietnam where he was in charge of a repatriation camp for ten years. Due to increased harassment from the local communist government officials, he escaped to Saigon where he lived illegally. Captured, he was imprisoned for two years and a week before escaping and again living illegally. In April 1985 he escaped from Vietnam and arrived at the Galang Camp in Indonesia.” From fledgling freedom there he came to the United States.

The NCCB (now USCCB) Committee on Migration and Tourism referred Father Anthony to Cardinal Bernard Law and in 1986 Father Anthony began his more than two decades of service here in the archdiocese, serving as parochial vicar at both St. Patrick, Lowell and St. Rose of Lima, Chelsea. Shuttling between the two parishes and placing his considerable abilities, especially with languages -- he was fluent or at least able to celebrate Mass in Khmer, Vietnamese, French, Spanish, English, and for extra measure Greek and Latin -- at the service of the growing Catholic Vietnamese and Cambodian communities in each city. Later his priestly love and ministry would reach to Haverhill and Lawrence.

Father Nguyen’s impact was immediate and lasting. His simple life and his amazing journey of faith attracted people readily to him. His kindness and goodness radiated his life. Father Coyle noted the reasons “you know who you are; you know you are loved by God, and in that realization -- everyone is wonderful, and all things are possible.”

An additional sign of his impact was his service on the Presbyteral Council where he completed a five-year term of service just a few weeks ago. His counsel to both the archbishop and his brother priests was much appreciated. In 2005 when he was honored at the annual Chrism Mass by then-Archbishop O’Malley and the others priests of the archdiocese giving rise to a not unusual humble response “many other priests deserve this more than I do.”

Tributes flowed in from all corners and not just from priests. A St. Patrick parishioner, Peg McAndrews, told the Lowell Sun “he’s the closest thing to a saint that I’ve ever met. If he didn’t make it straight to heaven, then we’re all doomed.”

St. Patrick Church, Lowell was packed for his funeral Mass on Sept. 26. Bishop Robert Hennessey was the principal celebrant, among those concelebrating with him were two of Father Anthony’s previous pastors at St. Patrick, Father Richard ‘Doc’ Conway and Father Thomas Powers; and Father Patrick Taggart, OMI, present pastor; two priests who had worked closely with him when they were secretary for pastoral services, Fathers John Mulloy and Paul O’Brien; and Father John Schatzel, and a large contingent of Vietnamese priests serving in the archdiocese and in neighboring dioceses. His people from the parishes where he was assigned and beyond filled the venerable Lowell church.

Father Nguyen’s survivors are his brothers Trieu, Calif. and Van, Vietnam; and his sister Phong, also of Vietnam. Following the funeral Mass, Father Nguyen was buried in St. Joseph Cemetery, Chelmsford.