IRVINE, Calif. — Dominic Dinh Mai Luong, the first-ever Vietnamese-American bishop, who spent his career advocating for refugees and immigrants, died on Dec. 6 at the age of 77.
Luong served as auxiliary bishop for 12 years in Southern California’s Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, which is home to an estimated 70,000 Vietnamese Catholics, the largest such community in the United States, according to the Diocese.
“Among the bishops there were some Hispanic, some black, some Irish, some Filipino—and here was a Vietnamese. There was a recognition that yes, this is a universal church and it’s represented in the hierarchy.”
To represent his ministry to migrants, Luong had chosen the Bible verse “You are strangers and aliens no longer” (Ephesians 2:19) as the official motto for his coat of arms.
“He lived that motto well in making many strangers, immigrants, and refugees feel at home,” the Rev. Tuyen Nguyen, pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in Westminster, California, which is part of the Diocese of Orange, said. “He showed that the Church is a Church for everybody, especially for immigrants.”
Luong was born in 1940 in North Vietnam, about 50 miles outside Hanoi, according to the Diocese. It was there that he entered the seminary, but at age 16 he was sent to the United States to finish training for the priesthood. He was ordained a priest in 1966 in New York, but was unable to return to his home diocese because of the Vietnam War.
After the 1975 Fall of Saigon and the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees into the United States, Luong was recruited by the Archdiocese of New Orleans, where he served as director of the Archdiocesan Vietnamese Apostolate.
“He was the liaison to the archbishop for all matters relating to the Vietnamese community,” the Rev. John Nhan Tran, pastor of Mary Queen of Peace in Louisiana, said. “If our bishop needed advice or to address something with the Vietnamese community, he would be at the table discussing those issues with everyone involved.”
Tran added that Luong became a sort of lifeline for new Vietnamese arrivals in New Orleans at a time when most of them weren’t yet fluent in English. He spoke on behalf of the community to local civic leaders and even took personal calls from those who needed help with day-to-day tasks like going to court or negotiating workplace disputes.
“He lived that motto well in making many strangers, immigrants, and refugees feel at home. He showed that the Church is a Church for everybody, especially for immigrants.”
“He served as our translator,” Tran recalled. “Had it not been for Bishop Dominic, any help that the Church wanted to lend people in the Vietnamese community would have certainly been a slower process because of the English barrier.”
Luong also became the founding pastor of Mary, Queen of Vietnam Parish in New Orleans, which Tran said was the first Vietnamese-language church in the city.
In 2003, Luong was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Orange, becoming the first Vietnamese-American bishop in U.S. history. In addition, he served as a leader on the national level, as director of the National Center for the Vietnamese Apostolate and as director of pastoral care for migrants and refugees for the U.S. Conference of Bishops.
Tran said that Luong’s old congregation was “proud” of his elevation to bishop.
Nguyen said that the Diocese of Orange’s Vietnamese Catholic community felt the same.
“Among the bishops there were some Hispanic, some black, some Irish, some Filipino—and here was a Vietnamese,” Nguyen said. “There was a recognition that yes, this is a universal church and it’s represented in the hierarchy.”
During his time with the Diocese, Luong advocated for immigrants, including joining other Catholic clergy across California in launching a comprehensive initiative to naturalize legal permanent residents eligible for citizenship across the state.
“Had it not been for Bishop Dominic, any help that the Church wanted to lend people in the Vietnamese community would have certainly been a slower process because of the English barrier.”
Luong retired in 2016. In October, the Vatican appointed Thanh Thai Nguyen auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Orange. Nguyen is slated to become the second Vietnamese-American bishop in U.S. history after his scheduled ordination on Dec. 19.
Tuyen Nguyen, the Westminster pastor, said that one of Luong’s dreams during his tenure as bishop was the construction of a shrine to Our Lady of La Vang, a Vietnamese Marian apparition that has also become a symbol of persecuted Catholics in Vietnam — a subject Luong was writing a book about at the time of his death.
As a result of Luong’s initiative, the Diocese announced last December that it would embark on a $25 million project to build a plaza and shrine to Our Lady of La Vang at Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove, the spiritual and administrative center of the Diocese. The site of the shrine, which Nguyen hopes will become an international pilgrimage destination, was blessed on Oct. 21, and is expected to be completed in 2019.
“That was one of his dreams,” said Nguyen, “and gradually it’s becoming a reality.”