The short answer: There were about 900 Catholic priests of Vietnamese origin in the U.S. by 2012. There are approximately 950 at this time (2017), and probably more.
This past summer, I came across several online articles from newspapers and magazines that state there are “approximately 450-500” Catholic priests of Vietnamese origin in the U.S. This figure apparently comes from an article about Vietnamese Catholics on the website of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops. The article also notes that “Vietnamese men currently make up 12 percent of the American seminary population,” and that Vietnamese made up six percent of the ordination class in the U.S. in 2009. There isn’t an exact date attached to the USCCB article, but it appears to have been written between 2010 and 2014.
I don’t know how the USCCB article came to this estimate, but wanted to find out a more precise or accurate number. Some sleuthing led me to a list of Vietnamese American priests compiled by the Federation of Vietnamese Catholics in the USA: Liên Đoàn Công Giáo Việt Nam Tại Hoa Kỳ. Calling it “Linh mục Việt Nam tại Hoa Kỳ,” or “Vietnamese priests in the United States,” the Federation does not claim the list to be exhaustive, and indeed the top of this list shows a brief request for updates. There isn’t an exact date from this list either, and I’ve asked the Federation about it but haven’t heard back.
Nonetheless, the website of the Federation includes a news item from February 2011 stating that there were “presently 795 [Vietnamese] priests in the U.S., and it is estimated that about 25 deacons will be ordained to the priesthood during the upcoming summer.” These figures put the number at approximately 820 priests by the end of 2011, and they alone contradict the estimate from the article on the USCCB website. In addition, I saw the names of two of four Vietnamese priests ordained for the Diocese of Orange in 2012, but not the names of several others that were ordained in the last five years. For this and other reasons, I think the list was last updated in 2012.
To be exact, the Federation’s list includes 880 names: 779 priests plus Bishop Dominic Mai Thanh Luong. (The name of a Carmelite appears twice under different spellings.) As far as I could determine, among the priests are 549 diocesan and 330 from 26 men’s religious orders, congregations, and institutes. There are 329 priests listed with the abbreviation of their congregation at the end of the name – but also at least one without it: a Norbertine currently in my home Diocese of Orange. It’s possible that there are others. On the whole, however, I think that the Federation has made a very good effort at identifying priests from religious orders.
Puzzlingly, however, the list wasn’t updated entirely with information published elsewhere on the Federation’s website. An announcement from 2010, for example, shows the names of sixteen Vietnamese, but at least six do not show up on the list. It sounds like an example that, sometimes, the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing. Likewise, the announcement in the following year includes the name of a new priest for the Diocese of Palm Beach in Florida, but it doesn’t show up on the list. Similarly, the announcement in 2012 shows an incomplete list of ten new priests, but only one appears on the list! These discrepancies alone mean that the list does not account for at least sixteen new priests.
In addition, the compiler of the list did not receive information from some Vietnamese priests. There were four priests ordained for my home diocese in 2012, including one of the associate pastors at my parish, but only two names show up on the list. Only six Carmelites (O.Carm) appear on the list (including the one whose name shows up twice), but an article in 2011 from the Carmelite North American Province of St. Elias indicates that there were “ten ordained Vietnamese friars” from the Province. Having considered the various additions, I believe that there were already over 900 Vietnamese priests in the U.S. in 2012. This figure is consistent to an estimate of “more than 900 priests” that appears in a news report from 2013 by an ethnic newspaper in Orange County about a convention of Vietnamese American priests.
[Edit 9/24: Not all of them were necessarily in the U.S., as some, perhaps two or three dozens, were in other countries on assignment. But they were based in the U.S. and, therefore, are counted as such.]
All the same, its shortcomings notwithstanding, the compilation by the Federation provides us with strong basis for more sure-footed estimates. Judging from death announcements that I’ve seen, it also appears that there have very few deaths among Vietnamese American priests in the last few years.
As for the estimate of 950-1000 priests at this time, I think there have been at least forty other ordinations in various dioceses and religious orders between 2013 and 2017. During this span of time, for example, my home diocese in southern California saw two new Vietnamese priests in 2014 (out of three total); none in 2015; three in 2016 (out of four); and four in 2017 (out of six). Which means an addition of nine new diocesan priests to this list. It’s true that the Diocese of Orange typically has the largest number of Vietnamese ordinations in the last three decades, and the same cannot be said about other dioceses, including those with many Vietnamese. Indeed, next-door Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which has a good number of Vietnamese Catholics, did not have a single new Vietnamese priest in the during the same time frame.
But there have been many ordinations elsewhere in addition to the Diocese of Orange, that I am fairly confident of a figure of at least 950 priests in 2017. To return to the Carmelites in Middletown, for example, there was one new priest in 2013, two in 2014, and one in 2015. A greater number is found among the U.S. Redemptorists, who are organized into two provinces (Baltimore and Denver) and two vice-provinces (Richmond and Extra Patriam, the latter created for the Vietnamese Redemptorists after 1975). The Baltimore Province saw four new priests in 2014 alone, a number matched by the Vice-Province of Extra Patriam earlier this year. (A fifth ordination is scheduled for November.) Between the Carmelites and Redemptorists, then, there were a dozen of new Vietnamese priests in the last four years.
[Edit 9/24: It’s true that three of the priests ordained in the Baltimore Province originally came as seminarians from Vietnam under an arrangement between the Province and the Redemptorists in Vietnam, and three of them were scheduled to return to Vietnam for their first apostolate. But one was scheduled to remain in the U.S. to serve at a Redemptorist parish in the Province. A similar case has been true of several of the Vietnamese Carmelites. These kinds of arrangement have complicated the meaning of “Vietnamese priests in the U.S.”]
Let me now return to the list, which does not indicate the home diocese for each diocesan priest. But it provides the addresses of most priests, including fifteen that are marked “moved.” There are also a few listed to have moved to Rome, Canada, the Philippines, Vietnam, etc., likely for studies or an assignment on a temporary basis. Still, the addresses helped to confirm that California leads the country in terms of diocesan and religious priests. In fact, there were twice as many priests in California than there were in Texas, the next leading state.
Based on the addresses in the list, here’s a breakdown by selected states.
- California: 244.
- Texas: 117.
- Louisiana and Missouri: 52 each. There are fewer Vietnamese Catholics in Missouri than many other states, including Louisiana. But the large number of priests is a result of the Congregations of the Mother of the Redeemer, known as Dòng Đồng Công among Vietnamese, whose headquarter of the U.S. Province is located in the city of Carthage.
- New York: 36.
- Florida: 25.
- Virginia: 22. They include six Dominicans at the Holy Martyrs of Vietnam Parish in the Diocese of Arlington. Since there are 19 Dominicans listed, this number means practically one-third of Vietnamese Dominicans in the U.S.
- Washington: 21.
- Oregon: 20.
- Pennsylvania: 18.
- Iowa: 16. There are not a lot of Vietnamese in the state, and of course fewer Vietnamese Catholics than many states, including neighboring Minnesota. But the situation in Iowa is somewhat similar to Missouri because there are many Vietnamese priests with the missionary-oriented Society of the Divine Word (DVD), and 16 of them were living at the Divine Word College in Epworth. At the same time, it should be noteworthy that half of the number (8) are diocesan priests and serve mostly non-Vietnamese communities.
- Georgia: 15.
- Oklahoma: 13.
- Minnesota & North Carolina: 10 each.
- Ohio: 9.
- Arizona & Kansas: 6 each.
- Alabama: 4.
- Hawaii: 3.
- Idaho & South Carolina & Utah: 1 each.
- Wyoming & Alaska: None.
And here is a breakdown of priests in selected religious orders.
- Congregation of the Mother of the Redeemer (CMR), formerly known as the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix (CMC): 70. An even seventy names appear in this list as CMC priests. See my post from last month for some background on them.
- Redemptorists (CSSR): 50.
- Society of the Divine Word (SVD): 38.
- Jesuits (SJ): 32.
- Dominicans (OP): 19.
- Society of Domus Dei (SDD): 16. Like the CMR/CMC above, this is a Vietnamese-founded religious institute.
Salesians (SDB): 14.
Franciscans (OFM): 10.
Consolata Missionaries (IMC): 9.
- Benedictines (OSB): 8.
- Carmelites: 5. As previously noted, another source indicates that there’ve been ten Vietnamese ordained to the Carmelite North American Province of St. Elias by 2011.
- Spiritans (CSSP): 5.
- Vincentians (CM): 4.
- Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament (SSS): 3.
- Congregation of St. John the Baptist (CSJB): 3
- Sulpicians (SS): 3.
- Maryknoll (MM): 3.
- Conventual Franciscans (OFM Conv.): 3.
- Capuchin Franciscans (OFM Cap.): 2.
- Missionaries of Precious Blood (CPPS): 2.
- Norbertines (O.Praem.): 2. Only one priest appears on the list as a Norbertine. But Fr. Andrew Trần Quang Tuệ, whose address is listed correctly as St. John the Baptist Parish in Costa Mesa, Calif., should be listed as another.
Among contemplative orders are the Cisterncians (OCist), several of whom are located at St. Joseph Monastery in Lucerne Valley, a remote area just north of Big Bear Lake in southern California. The monastery itself is their own creation, not inheritance from another religious order (such as the location of the headquarters of the CMC, which had belonged to another religious order before 1975.)
Finally, it’s interesting to note that there are several congregations with only one Vietnamese priest on this list:
- The Brothers Hospitallers of St. John of God (OH).
- The Legionaries of Christ (LC).
- Order of Carmelites (O.C.).
- Dicalced Carmelites Friars (OCD).
- Trappists (OSCO). This Vietnamese priest happens to belong to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, perhaps the most famous abbey in America because Thomas Merton used to live there.
- The Holy Cross (CSC). Here’s someone I knew from the time at Notre Dame: Fr. Martin Nguyen, who has taught painting and design in the Department of Art for many years.
When analyzed in conjunction with other documents and sources, this list should yield many insights and implications about the history of Vietnamese Catholicism in the U.S. Before 1975, for example, the Franciscans didn’t have as many members or carry as much influence as the Redemptorists or Jesuits in South Vietnam, and one consequence is their relatively small number in the U.S. in comparison to the other orders. On the other hand, the Society of the Divine Word had been virtually non-existent in South Vietnam, but their response to the call to help refugee seminarians at Fort Chaffee in 1975 turned out to be the beginning of a semi-rebirth for that congregation.
Moreover, there have been a few U.S. dioceses that recently sought out seminarians directly from Vietnam. It’s a consequence of several factors such as the long-standing declining number of white men entering seminaries and the ban on women priests and deaconesses. It is a twist, then, to see a small flow of Vietnamese seminarians into the U.S. Conversely, some Vietnamese American priests, usually missionaries, are spending a considerable amount of time working outside the U.S. The increasingly fluid situation reflects another level of changes and interactions among Vietnamese American communities, Vietnam, and global Catholicism.
But analysis is for later. For the time being, this compilation by the Federation has enabled us to can say with confidence that the estimate of “approximately 450-500” was true at one time, perhaps 10-15 years ago, but it is clearly wrong today. The estimate should be doubled according to this document, and I believe it is more accurate to say that there are about 950 Vietnamese priests in the U.S. today.
Appreciation to Fr. Linh Hoang, OFM (Department of Religious Studies, Siena College) for suggesting that I check with the Federation of Vietnamese Catholics in the USA on this subject. I’m also interested in finding out the number of Vietnamese American women in Catholic religious orders, but haven’t yet seen comparable documents on the subject.