In 2016, Elysabeth Nguyen traveled alone to central Vietnam to the shrine of Our Lady of La Vang, where the Virgin Mary was said to have appeared centuries ago. The sacred site in the Quảng Trị province is rural and remote, but Nguyen wanted to learn more about what she was getting into back home in California.
At Christ Cathedral, Nguyen’s home parish, church leadership wanted to build their own La Vang shrine. Relying on her years of professional experience, Nguyen was tapped to help oversee the project.
Five years later, the monumental effort was done: a striking display of the contemporary and traditional, highlighted by a 16-foot-tall Our Lady statue carved from Italian marble. The blessing day attracted more than 8,000 of the faithful. Nguyen, seated in the front row and wearing an orange dress symbolic of the Diocese of Orange, was understandably emotional.
She thought to herself, “Who would’ve thought that a little seed, with a little watering, would grow to become this today?”
Two years later, she’s still emotional thinking back on that hot July afternoon in 2021, wondering why she hadn’t gotten more involved in her faith earlier. “I should’ve known God sooner,” Nguyen said. “I should’ve done things sooner, because He gave me a lot of skills and I didn’t even know.”
FROM THE MIDWEST TO OC
Nguyen’s Francophile parents were inspired to spell their daughter Elysabeth’s name like the Champs-Élysées — the iconic thoroughfare in Paris.
A first-generation Vietnamese American from Omaha, Nebraska, with an entrepreneur mother who did trading and manufacturing and an optical engineer father, she developed a balance of business and science.
Living in Omaha connected her with locals like Warren Buffett and visitors like Nancy Reagan. She remembers the First Lady reading at her elementary school. She met Buffett many times — “Before he became a big shot,” she says — and was a recipient of his scholarship fund.
“I met many famous people when I was younger, not understanding how significant they would be to my life later,” Nguyen said.
Her parents valued education, sending her to the White House to study constitutional law, Catalina Island for biology camps and Houston for NASA lessons in astronomy.
Nguyen spent her formative years in Nebraska before her family moved to Orange County, then the San Francisco Bay Area. She received a bachelor’s in biochemistry at UCLA. She later attained an MBA from Pepperdine Graziadio Business School and a Ph.D. with additional post-doc work in medical engineering at Northwestern University.
Throughout her life, she has displayed the same entrepreneurial spirit as her mother, and the traveler’s itch to visit new places and cultures. With keen abilities in speech and debate, backed by a values-based, no-nonsense way of interacting with others, Nguyen started her career in the biotech industry. She developed a reputation for being a deal maker. She ran laboratories, manufacturing, marketing, sales, research and development teams in the U.S. and abroad.
“I was very fortunate,” Nguyen said, “to have had very good mentors who put me in places where I could grow.”
‘TO THE SAME ROAD’
In her 30s, Nguyen, now married and with a daughter, revived her Catholic faith.
Church leaders leaned on her to create business plans, organizational charts, act as a liaison and do whatever was needed to get projects done.
“I’m involved in a lot of different things in different capacities,” she said, “but it all leads to the same road.”
In 2016, she joined Christ Cathedral’s Our Lady of La Vang Shrine community group and was later appointed by the Diocese as its official project manager for fundraising, architecture and construction. The more involved she became, the more she found herself on the Cathedral campus.
“I went from a person who went to church several times a year to church every day,” she said. “Twice a day, sometimes.”
Nguyen compares her Catholic involvement to personal nourishment.
“Like a granola bar, but much bigger,” she said with a laugh. “A source of protein!”
‘A PASTOR’S DREAM’
Nguyen is having a banner year. Three separate organizations have given her awards in 2023: Catholic Charities Auxiliary (as a recipient on its Inspirational Catholic Women list), the Orange Catholic Foundation (with the Bishop’s Award for Exemplary Business Integrity) and a Vietnamese community group.
In April, Bishop Kevin Vann praised her when presenting the Bishop’s Award.
“We recognize her for business skills and her amazing ability to engage people in various parts of Orange County, especially our Christ Cathedral,” Bishop Vann said. “I’m grateful that she’s a friend of mine.”
She’s also in her first year as the new chief executive officer of the OLLV Foundation, an independent nonprofit charged with fundraising and managing the St. Callistus Chapel and Crypts and finishing phase two of the Our Lady of La Vang Shrine’s Marian gardens.
The St. Callistus project, located in the Christ Cathedral undercroft, will add a new worship space for the campus and contain burial spaces for bishops and parishioners. Groundbreaking began in July and is estimated to take about a year.
Importantly, with her small but dedicated team, they’ve raised some $8 million in less than a year, with a continued trajectory to complete fundraising by the end of 2024. Her team goes from person to person, parish to parish — a true grassroots effort throughout the Diocese.
Fr. Christopher Smith, rector emeritus of Christ Cathedral who has worked for years alongside Nguyen, called her “a pastor’s joy.”
“She exemplifies what we would like all of our people to be,” Fr. Christopher said.
Fr. Bill Cao, pastor of St. Anthony Mary Claret parish in Anaheim, added that Nguyen is “truly a woman of faith and service, a mover and shaker, a person who bridges cultures. She is truly a doer of the Word through her action. She serves Christ because she desires to be a true disciple of the lord in all ways.”
Of all the things Nguyen has accomplished, perhaps the impact of the Our Lady of La Vang Shrine resonates the strongest.
“We’re using the shrine for so many things,” she said. It’s not just for Vietnamese Catholics or the Marian Days celebration. There’s the Eucharistic Congress, the various Legions of Mary. Different communities come to pray and book it for their own events. The true success of the project is seeing how many different people stop by and pray to Her.”