IRVINE, Calif. — For each of the 18 days that Thanh Thai Nguyen was at sea, he prayed the rosary.
It was 1978, and Nguyen and his family had fled the Communist takeover of Vietnam. They escaped by boat — "six feet wide and 27 or 28 feet long, with 26 other people in the boat," he said — but then battled tropical storms, hunger, thirst, and exhaustion. The rosary, a series of prayers said along a strand of beads, offered solace.
"At the time, we were really in desperate need," Nguyen said.
"I want to bridge the gap and bring these two worlds together ... I think it will enrich the Church because we will learn from one another."
After more than two weeks, they reached the Philippines — and Nguyen said he offered another prayer.
"I said, 'Thank you, Lord, for saving my life and my family's. I dedicate my life to whatever you have in store for me,'" he recalled.
Nguyen spent the next 10 months at a refugee camp, and then resettled in Texas. But he never forgot the promise he made at sea, so he entered seminary to become a Catholic priest and served in parishes along the East Coast for more than two decades.
Now, Nguyen is slated to become the only active Vietnamese-American bishop in the United States — and the second in U.S. history — after the Vatican appointed him auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Orange in Southern California earlier this month. He is scheduled to be ordained in December.
"It's long awaited," the Rev. Tuyen Nguyen, pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in Westminster, California, which is part of the Diocese of Orange and unrelated to Bishop-elect Nguyen, told NBC News. "This is a recognition of the position of Vietnamese Catholics. We are very proud."
During his tenure as a priest, Bishop-elect Thanh Nguyen worked to build up the growing Vietnamese communities in Atlanta, Georgia, and Jacksonville, Florida. In Atlanta during the 1990s, Nguyen said that the Vietnamese community didn't have its own church — or one that offered the sacraments in Vietnamese language — so he would go to people's homes to hear confessions. He also advocated for a monthly Vietnamese language mass.
"And then so many people came that we ended up having it once a week," he said.
In Jacksonville, Nguyen said that he again requested to have a weekly mass in Vietnamese, and also helped to establish a Vietnamese cultural center.
But in the Diocese of Orange, Nguyen will preside over a more established Vietnamese Catholic community. Orange County is home to 70,000 Vietnamese Catholics, the largest community in the country, according to the Diocese. They are overrepresented in the priesthood — 40 of 263 Orange County priests are Vietnamese — and 16 parishes, including Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove, the spiritual and administrative center of the Diocese, offer Vietnamese-language mass every week. The Diocese was also home to the first-ever Vietnamese-American bishop, Dominic Dinh Mai Luong, who retired in 2016.
One of the projects Rev. Tuyen Nguyen hopes the bishop-elect will become involved with is the construction of a shrine to Our Lady of La Vang, a Vietnamese Marian apparition. The site is scheduled to be blessed on Oct. 21, and is expected to be completed in 2019.
"Wherever the Vietnamese are, Our Lady of La Vang is always being acknowledged, and here is another place for our people to come," said Rev. Nguyen. "We hope that with his help, this can be a pilgrimage destination for people from around the world."
"I said, 'Thank you, Lord, for saving my life and my family's. I dedicate my life to whatever you have in store for me."
Bishop-elect Nguyen, meanwhile, said he's still developing his vision for the position.
"I'm not familiar with the Diocese of Orange, so I need to take time," he said. "I need to spend time with the community, say mass with different churches, listen to the stories of Vietnamese priests and Vietnamese people, and then with the direction of Bishop Kevin Vann [of the Diocese of Orange], I can get a vision of how to approach the community."
In addition to being the only active Vietnamese-American bishop, Nguyen is also only the second active Asian-American bishop, according to the diocese, alongside Oscar Solis of the Diocese of Salt Lake City in Utah, who is Filipino American. Nguyen said that he while "American bishops tend to be slow in approaching it," he feels that diversity is important to the Catholic hierarchy, especially given the demographic changes of American Catholicism.
According to a 2015 report by the Pew Research Center, more than one-quarter of U.S. Catholic adults are immigrants, and racial and ethnic diversity within the community are steadily increasing.
Nguyen hopes that as these changes unfold, he can bring communities together.
"I want to bridge the gap and bring these two worlds together," he said of Vietnamese and white Catholics in the United States.
"I think it will enrich the Church because we will learn from one another."