27 February 2024

Lake Illawarra's new police chaplain Father Joseph Nguyen shares his 'typical Australian story'

| Zoe Cartwright
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Father Joseph Nguyen at his Lake Illawarra Police Service of Investiture.

Father Joseph Nguyen at his Lake Illawarra Police Service of Investiture. Photo: NSW Police.

New Lake Illawarra police chaplain, Father Joseph Nguyen says his life is a “typical Australian story,” but you’d be forgiven for being a little surprised by that description.

Joseph arrived in Australia in 1982, after three years in a Hong Kong detention centre.

A fifth-generation Catholic, growing up in Hue he dreamt of joining the seminary, but in the 1970s the Communist Party began to target Christians.

When Joseph finished school in 1979 his parents told him if he still wanted to become a priest, he couldn’t safely stay in the country.

“They paid my way on a boat, and from there I was in the detention centre in Hong Kong for three years,” he said.

“My first home in Australia was East Hills where I learnt English and entered the workforce, and I worked for a few years before I joined the seminary.

“The first time I spoke to my parents on the phone was in 1988. I had to make an appointment at the post office to call, and when we heard each other’s voices we just cried.

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“My parents came out to Australia for my ordination to the priesthood in 1993, and that same year I was able to visit home and see my siblings – they all came to the airport and we stood in a circle and cried.

“Hardship and heartache makes you a stronger person, and gives you compassion for other people who struggle in their life, and it’s especially given me compassion for the most recent waves of refugees.”

Joseph was in Camden for a time, before he was sent to Shellharbour where he became the priest for the All Saints Catholic Parish.

This month he undertook his Service of Investiture as honorary chaplain for Lake Illawarra police.

An informal police chaplaincy program began in 1933 at the Guild of St Christopher and provided support for Catholic officers.

By 1972 Cabramatta’s Father Jim Boland was helping police who were forwarded to him by the Police Medical Branch.

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Eight years later the first honorary chaplains were appointed, with Father Boland becoming the first paid, full-time police chaplain in 1986.

Chaplains support NSW Police Force employees who have been involved in critical and traumatic events and visit stations to provide confidential support.

Across the state, chaplains are drawn from all Christian denominations, along with Buddhist, Muslim and Jewish faiths.

Joseph said juggling the roles of parish priest and police chaplain was a privilege – and the culmination of his long journey.

“I’m in people’s lives at their happiest moments and their saddest moments,” he said.

“It’s a privilege to be part of people’s lives in every respect, to offer a listening ear and provide support.

“The only difficulty is that I only have two hands and 24 hours in a day, and sometimes that’s not enough – I just love my people and want to be there for them.

“The Archbishop of Canberra said to me once that I’d gone from refugee to a community leader; my life is a typical Australian story.”

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