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Florida priest, former Vietnamese refugee, named a bishop for Orange, Calif.

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WASHINGTON — Pope Francis has appointed Father Thanh Thai Nguyen, a priest of the Diocese of St. Augustine, Fla., to be an auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Orange, Calif.

Father Thanh Thai Nguyen, a priest of the Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida, is seen in this undated photo. Pope Francis appointed him Oct. 6 to be an auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Orange, California. (CNS photo/courtesy Diocese of St. Augustine)

Born in Vietnam, Bishop-designate Nguyen, 64, fled the country in 1979 by boat with his family and spent 10 months in a refugee camp in the Philippines before arriving in Hartford, Conn., in 1980. After brief studies at Hartford State Technical College, he became a math and science teacher in Hartford public schools.

In 1984, he joined the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette, studying at Merrimack College and the Weston School of Theology, both in Massachusetts. He was ordained to the priesthood May 11, 1991.

For the next eight years, he worked in parishes in Georgia and Florida. In 1999, he was incardinated into the Diocese of St. Augustine. He has been pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Jacksonville, Florida, since 2014.

Bishop Felipe J. Estevez of St. Augustine said he learned of Father Thanh’s appointment Sept. 27, the day Pope Francis launched the two-year campaign, “Share the Journey.” The global initiative is meant to urge Catholics to understand and get to know refugees and migrants who have fled their homeland due to poverty, violence, persecution, and war.

In 1979, Father Thanh and his family escaped Vietnam during the war. They fled by boat, and after 18 days at sea, they landed on the shores of the Philippines. He lived in a refugee camp for 10 months before moving to the United States in 1980.

“Father Thanh knows the plight of refugees, and he understands their journey seeking a safe home and the ability to support their families,” Bishop Estevez said in a statement. “He has a genuine gift when it comes to ministering to people of diverse cultures.”

“Now that reality is beginning to set in, I need to start the process of letting go and letting God,” said Bishop-designate Nguyen in a statement about his appointment. “Yes, letting go of familiar places, familiar faces, Bishop Estevez, the presbyterate of the diocese, parishioners, and staff of St. Joseph and Christ the King parishes who have played an important role in my priestly ministry for more than 20 years.”

While he was a Missionary of Our Lady of La Salette serving in the St. Augustine Diocese, Bishop John J. Snyder, then head of the diocese, named the priest parochial vicar at Christ the King Parish in Jacksonville.

In September 2001, Bishop Victor B. Galeone, newly named to head the diocese, appointed him pastor of the parish. Through his leadership and initiative, he brought harmony to the Vietnamese community by celebrating a Sunday Mass in Vietnamese and building a Vietnamese Center where cultural traditions among the youth and elderly are preserved.

As pastor of St. Joseph Parish, Bishop-designate Nguyen has been instrumental in strengthening the faith community by celebrating its cultural diversity through parish events throughout the year. He has also built a social/youth hall and added a youth Mass. The parish is about to launch a $4 million capital campaign for parish improvements.

“Father Thanh has not only promoted unity in the parish, but he has fostered more vocations to the priesthood and religious life than any other parish in the diocese,” said Bishop Estevez.

The Diocese of Orange, headed by Bishop Kevin W. Vann, has a large Vietnamese Catholic community.

The Southern California diocese is the 10th largest in the country and one of the fastest growing in the nation. It has 1.3 million Catholics.

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Catholic Charities agencies begin helping Hurricane Matthew victims

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Catholic News Service

Catholic Charities agencies joined emergency response efforts in coastal communities in four Southeastern states as residents and parish staffers began returning to assess the damage Hurricane Matthew left behind.

Civilian rescuers Jeremy Blue and his father, Tommy Blue, ferry a family to safety from their flooded apartment Oct. 9 in Lumberton, N.C., after Hurricane Matthew. The powerful storm killed at least 1,000 people in Haiti and at least 33 in the U.S. (CNS photo/Jonathan Drake, Reuters)

Civilian rescuers Jeremy Blue and his father, Tommy Blue, ferry a family to safety from their flooded apartment Oct. 9 in Lumberton, N.C., after Hurricane Matthew. The powerful storm killed at least 1,000 people in Haiti and at least 33 in the U.S. (CNS photo/Jonathan Drake, Reuters)

Some evacuation orders remained in effect in South Carolina, where the storm came ashore Oct. 7, dumping up to 18 inches of rain in communities near Charleston. High water blocked some roads, preventing people from returning to their homes in South Carolina and North Carolina and others were prevented from leaving their homes as they awaited the delivery of food and water.

In Florida, churches sustained serious damage and the historic Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine in St. Augustine experienced flooding, preventing Mass from being celebrated indoors the weekend of Oct. 8-9.

One Catholic Charities official in North Carolina said that in discussions with some residents he learned that the damage and flooding caused by Matthew exceeded that of the powerful Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

Attempts to reach the Diocese of Savannah, Georgia, were unsuccessful because telephone and electrical lines were down.

Some South Carolina communities in in Horry, Georgetown and Williamsburg counties faced the possibility of flooding, even though the storm’s initial fury bypassed them. Kelly Kaminski, a regional coordinator for Catholic Charities of Charleston, said Oct. 10 that authorities were keeping an eye on rivers that continued to rise from runoff from Matthew’s torrential rains.

Many of the same people affected by the storm or worried about potential flooding continue to recover from the historical floods that swamped the state a year ago, she said.

“We’re working with over 2,000 clients just on the flood stuff. Now in addition we have to handle everything from Hurricane Matthew,” Kaminski told Catholic News Service.

Kaminski had no word on damage to churches and schools because evacuation orders in some communities remained in effect.

New flooding also was a concern in North Carolina, said Daniel Altenau, director of communication and disaster services for Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Raleigh.

“The major concern right now is that rivers are increasingly rising. The flooding is not expected to peak in some areas until Friday (Oct. 14) and may not begin to subside until the 15th,” he said.

Catholic Charities planned to begin distributing food cards to families by Oct. 11 as people either returned home or could be reached by some of the 55 to 60 agency staff members working in the affected communities, Altenau said.

“Many of our own staff has been affected, which has limited the ability to be in the community,” he said.

Up and down the North Carolina coast, churches and schools sustained damaged. Altenau said he had reports from “at least a dozen parishes” reporting damage. “The major problem is roofing issues,” he said. “But because of power being out, we aren’t able to communicate with them. We expect more reports in the coming days as well.”

Hurricane Matthew’’s worst punch missed much of the Florida coast. The most serious damage occurred in the Diocese of St. Augustine, where church properties were seriously damaged or flooded and homes were destroyed.

Kathleen Bagg, director of communications for the diocese, said downed trees littered the property of the Mission Nombre de Dios and the Shrine of Our Lady of Le Leche. A tree fell onto the roof of the Our Lady of Le Leche Chapel, she said, but did not cause damage to the interior of the structure.

The Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, which was renovated in time for the 450th anniversary of the city and cathedral parish, sustained enough flooding to render it unusable for Masses Oct. 8 and 9, Bagg said. Mass was celebrated in the west courtyard outside the church, she said.

Another church, St. Anastasia on a barrier island across from the center of St. Augustine, is believed to have sustained serious damaged in the storm. Authorities were not allowing residents, many of whom belong to the parish, to return to St. Anastasia Island Oct. 10.

Bagg said that power remained out for much of the region, making it difficult to contact other parishes to determine how they fared.

In Miami, parishioners at Notre Dame d’Haiti Parish began collecting donations of food for the Caribbean nation, which took a direct hit from Hurricane Matthew. Parishioners prayed Oct. 7 for the estimated 300,000 Haitians affected by the storm.

The number of deaths reached 1,000 on Oct. 9, five days after the storm’s 145-mile-an-hour winds and torrential rains slammed into the country, according to a tally by Reuters based on conversations with local officials.

However, Haiti’s Civil Protection Agency reported that 336 people had died. The agency’s accounting of casualties is lower because of a policy that requires emergency workers visit each village to confirm the number of deaths and injuries.

In the U.S., the death toll stood at 33 as of Oct. 11.

 

Follow Sadowski on Twitter: @DennisSadowski.

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Florida bishop mourns death of priest found dead, believed murdered

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ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — The bishop of St. Augustine mourned the death of Father Rene Robert, a priest of the diocese who was found dead in Georgia and was believed murdered.

“While his life was taken from us tragically on Sunday, April 10, the day of his disappearance. It is important that we remember how he lived his life in selfless love for others,” Bishop Felipe J. Estevez of St. Augustine said in an April 19 statement.

Father Rene Robert, a priest of the Diocese of  St. Augustine, Fla.,  was found dead April 18 in Burke County, Ga., after being reported missing April 12 when he did not show up for a church function. (CNS/Scott Smith, courtesy Diocese of St. Augustine)

Father Rene Robert, a priest of the Diocese of St. Augustine, Fla., was found dead April 18 in Burke County, Ga., after being reported missing April 12 when he did not show up for a church function. (CNS/Scott Smith, courtesy Diocese of St. Augustine)

Father Robert, who was ordained in 1989 but was retired from active ministry, was first reported missing April 12 after he missed a church function. His body was found April 18 in Burke County, Georgia, about 260 miles away from St. Johns County, Florida, south of Jacksonville, where he had lived.

“Father Rene was a humble and generous servant of our Lord and he shared his many gifts with the poor, the deaf community and with individuals whose lives have found themselves in jail or imprisoned. He put his faith into action through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy,” Bishop Estevez said.

Police, using bloodhounds, apprehended Steven James Murray, 28, in a wooded area of Aiken, South Carolina, about 46 miles from where Father Robert’s body was found, on April 14, one day after he was identified as a person of interest in the case. Father Robert’s car was also found near Aiken.

Police said Murray led them to several sites, including the one where Father Robert’s body was found.

Sheriff David Shoar of St. Johns County, Florida, said Murray was to be charged with first-degree murder in Georgia.

“To those whom he ministered, Father Rene will be remembered for his kindness and endless love for them. He always saw the good in the people he served reminding them that God created them for greatness with a good and noble purpose for others,” Bishop Estevez said.

Among those he ministered to was Shoar, a Catholic, who said he and his wife knew Father Robert personally. “Laura and I have known Father Rene since he arrived here,” Shoar wrote on Facebook, adding he was a “wonderful servant.” The priest had performed baptisms and marriage ceremonies for members of Shoar’s family.

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