A chance reunion between a priest and a medical doctor in the hallway of an Orange County hospital led to another reunification – this one involving two devout Catholic families who touched each other’s lives four decades earlier, brought together by a historic event.
EDWARD “NED” UCKER AND HIS WIFE PATRICIA. COURTESY PHOTO
In April 2016, Edward “Ned” Ucker was gravely ill, his final days spent in a patient room at Hoag Hospital.
Msgr. Beaulieu, then pastor of Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in Newport Beach, was at the hospital to administer Anointing of the Sick to Ucker. Ned’s wife, Pat, had died in 1994.
Before entering the room, Msgr. Beaulieu crossed paths with Dr. Binh Nguyen, an interventional radiologist at Hoag.
The two men recognized each other from years earlier, when Msgr. Beaulieu was a new priest at St. John the Baptist Parish in Costa Mesa, where Nguyen had been a young parishioner.
Msgr. Beaulieu told the doctor he was there to administer Last Rites to Ned Ucker, a name that revived pleasant memories for Nguyen, but a name he hadn’t heard mentioned for years.
The doctor and the priest entered the room together and when Nguyen told Ucker who he was, the patient’s face lit up.
This was a joyful moment.
Days later, on April 26, 2016, Ucker passed.
“It was probably one of the most beautiful blessings and evidence of God’s love that one can imagine as you’re breathing your last days of life,” said Brian Ucker, the oldest of the Uckers’ four children.
“I know for my dad, it was probably the greatest gift he received in a long time.”
HOW IT BEGAN
The story began almost 41 years earlier to the day.
In April 1975, when the fall of Saigon was imminent and the Viet Cong were on the verge implementing communism throughout Vietnam, tens of thousands of South Vietnamese people fled, rather than live under a communist regime.
Bach and Van Nguyen, then 32 and 31, and their four children, Ban, 10, Trang, 7, Binh, 5, and Jacob, nine months, were among them. The Nguyens were among about 100 people who boarded a boat and left Saigon in the middle of the night with only the clothes they were wearing and $200 in cash, Bach recalled.
“We didn’t even have water,” Trang Nguyen said. “I remember being so thirsty on the boat.”
REUNION BETWEEN THE NGUYEN AND UCKER FAMILIES RECENTLY TOOK PLACE IN GARDEN GROVE. COURTESY PHOTO
The family spent two days at sea, before being rescued by a Japanese freighter.
The Nguyens, who are devout Catholics, then spent a month in the Philippines and two weeks in Guam before arriving at Camp Pendleton in California, not sure knowing what their new home would be.
“At that time, we don’t know where we were going,” Bach said. “We just wanted to get out.”
Meanwhile, knowing these refugees were in nearby Camp Pendleton, Bishop William Johnson, the first bishop of the newly erected Diocese of Orange, put out a plea to the Diocese’s 44 parishes and 300,000-plus Catholics to consider sponsoring a Vietnamese family.
The Uckers, parishioners at St. John the Baptist, felt it was their responsibility as Catholics to help others in need, recalled Brian, who was 13 at the time.
Pat Ucker made the hour-long drive from Costa Mesa to Camp Pendleton, met with the Nguyen family and arranged through St. John the Baptist to situate the family in an apartment in Costa Mesa.
There was no better blessing than to be helped by another Catholic family, said Bach Nguyen during the most recent reunion between the families and Msgr. Beaulieu at a Vietnamese restaurant in Garden Grove on Sept. 20, 2022.
“We were so happy,” he said. “First of all, it was Catholic people and second, it was in California. My family wanted to have a Catholic parish in this country.”
Living in a country where there was no war was another gift, Nguyen said.
“We appreciate the American people,” he said.
The Nguyens were the first Vietnamese family to join the parish at St. John the Baptist.
“We didn’t want the Catholics in Vietnam to be persecuted,” said Msgr. Beaulieu, now retired. “So, it was wonderful to have a family arrive with children. We were glad to help them. We shared a common base.”
Bach was the only member of the family who spoke English and insisted his children speak only in English, so they picked up the language fairly quickly.
The Uckers helped the Nguyens assimilate to life in the U.S.
“It was as much a blessing for us as it was for you,” Brenda Ucker told the Nguyen family during the dinner.
Sometimes, that involved financial help, but mostly the Uckers helped their new friends learn the culture of their new country.
The Uckers helped with tasks such as grocery shopping and clothes shopping. They helped the Nguyens learn English. Their children played with each other.
“The experience was beautiful,” Brenda Ucker said. “The experience of seeing our parents do something outside the norm was a beautiful one.”
Bon Nguyen, now 57, is retired after a career in law enforcement, including stints with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the LA County Sheriff ’s Department. Binh Nguyen, 52, is an interventional neuro radiologist. Trang Nguyen, 55, is a physician and Jacob Nguyen is an attorney.
“We saw how hard our parents worked and the struggles they faced,” said Binh. “I wanted to do something helpful for a career and I also didn’t want to struggle financially.”
When Ned Ucker passed, Bach and Van Nguyen attended his funeral. The families have reunited on various occasions over the past year, both cherishing the life-changing bond they formed almost 50 years ago.
“We never know who we touch and what it means,” Brian Ucker said. “We just did it because we did it. It was hey, let’s try to help this family out. To come back 40 years later to see what Dr. Nguyen and his family have been through and his mom and dad coming to the funeral. I think it was just a glorious blessing for my dad.”