Walking in the Footsteps of St. Vincent de Paul

May 1, 2019

This article featuring Vincentian seminarians at Miraculous Medal House in Jamaica, NY currently studying at St. John’s University originally appeared on St. John’s University website and can be located here.

After a day spent going to class, studying, or engaged in service, 12 St. John’s University students—who commit themselves to discerning their vocations and joining the Congregation of the Mission—gather for Mass at Miraculous Medal House. Located a short distance from the University’s Queens, NY, campus, Miraculous Medal is the Vincentian house of studies at the college level for the Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Mission (also known as the Vincentians).

During his homily at a recent evening Mass, Rev. Paulus Dwintarto, C.M., challenged the young men to see God in the faces of all they serve, whether they are homeless, abandoned, or poor. He recalled that St. Vincent de Paul (the founder of the Congregation of the Mission) did just that. “It is easy to find God in a glorious moment,” but it can be challenging when confronted with someone who has led a hard life, he asserted. “In my experience, it is easy to find God when I serve the poor.”

Following Mass, the seminarians enjoyed dinner and the fellowship of those who live in community. It is an environment alive with conversation, laughter, and common purpose: the shared goal of young men striving to heed the call to follow Jesus Christ in the way of St. Vincent and make a difference in the world. There is also ample time for prayer, study, and solitude.

Hailing from places like Vietnam, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, the seminarians live and work at Miraculous Medal House while completing undergraduate or postgraduate studies. All undergraduate seminarians must major in Philosophy at St. John’s University, but they can choose their own minor. Students who do not speak English must first complete a two-year course of study to learn the language before beginning their undergraduate studies.

They share the responsibility for keeping the house neat and clean, and each of them enriches the environment with their culture, native cuisine, and stories from home. Additionally, most of them do apostolic work in parishes throughout Queens, Brooklyn, and Long Island, ministering to young people, the sick and infirm, and immigrant populations, among others. Their time at Miraculous Medal House represents their first step toward the priesthood.

Rev. Michael Nguyen, C.M. ’90CBA has been Rector and Formation Director of the Miraculous Medal House for six years, and also serves as a tribunal judge for the Diocese of Trenton, assisting Catholics seeking annulments. “I enjoy the work, because it helps bring healing,” he noted. At the age of 13, he escaped Communist-controlled Vietnam, making a perilous journey by sea to the US.

After settling in Philadelphia, Fr. Nguyen attended the Miraculous Medal Shrine there and was asked by a Vincentian priest if he had ever considered a vocation to the priesthood. “Many of my relatives are priests and sisters, and I definitely had an interest in the priesthood,” he recalled. After attending a weekend retreat at St. Joseph’s Preparatory Seminary (which he would eventually attend), in Princeton, NJ, his calling was cemented.

“I was inspired by the Vincentian priests who taught me,” he stressed. “They were joyful and dedicated. After 24 years in the priesthood, it is clear I made the right decision. Working and serving people with other Vincentian priests and brothers brings me great happiness.”

Since being ordained, he has held a variety of positions within the community, including three terms as Consultor for the Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Mission and Pastor at St. Mary’s Church in Greensboro, NC. He serves on the Board of Trustees of Niagara University and the Central Association of the Miraculous Medal in Germantown, PA.

Today, Fr. Nguyen coordinates the temporal and spiritual life of Miraculous Medal House, running its day-to-day operations. He also assists the seminarians by connecting them with local parishes and agencies in which service opportunities are available. “It is very rewarding to help these young men explore their vocation and bring them closer to God,” he said.

Rev. Gerard Luttenberger, C.M., was Rector and Formation Director of Miraculous Medal House for four years until June 2013, and continues to serve in the formation program, overseeing its academic and spiritual components. Having been ordained to the priesthood as a Vincentian in 1965, he completed doctoral studies at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, and has taught theology both at Mary Immaculate Seminary, Northampton, PA, and also at Immaculate Conception Seminary, Huntington, NY. “I find teaching theology and engaging in formation ministry a happy combination of ministries, each enlightening and reinforcing the other,” he said.

Fr. Luttenberger met the Vincentians in January of 1952, when he entered St. John’s Preparatory School, located at that time at 75 Lewis Avenue in Brooklyn, NY. “These Vincentian priests— high school educators—were very interested in helping us young men,” he said. “They were friendly, compassionate, good teachers, and worked well together. I wanted to be like them, I wanted to be one of them,” he reflected. “I entered the seminary after graduating from the Prep and have never been disappointed.”

Today, in addition to his ministry at the Miraculous Medal House, Fr. Luttenberger serves as a member of the Board of Trustees at St. John’s University. He also serves on several provincial committees and celebrates Sunday liturgies at St. Thomas More Church.

Journeys of Faith

Seminarian Noé Garcia was raised Catholic but noted that his family did not practice their faith. He came to the US from Guatemala in 2009, settling in Freeport, NY. He joined Our Holy Redeemer Church there in an effort to become part of a community, he recalled.

After going through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), Noé felt a strong desire to know Jesus more deeply. He joined a youth group and eventually was invited to Miraculous Medal House for a program known as Sunday Discernment. There, he found himself attracted to the Vincentian charism.

“The Vincentian priests are very human,” Noé said. “Within this community, there are a variety of ways to serve. Right now, I see myself in parish ministry, but that could change.”

Every year, the seminarians complete a rotation in a different area of service. Noé currently works with a youth group at St. Martha’s Church in Uniondale, NY. Last year, he worked with a group of adults from Central America at Our Holy Redeemer.

Seminarian Peter Tran came to the US from Vietnam in 2015. After arriving in Texas, he found it difficult to find his place. He sought guidance from a priest he knew in Vietnam, who suggested Peter explore a vocation to the priesthood. Eventually, he connected with Fr. Nguyen, who invited him to Miraculous Medal House.

The Vincentian mission of serving those less fortunate resonated strongly with Peter. “I feel like God guides and protects me. He brought me here.” Eventually, he hopes to serve in the missions. Currently, he assists at the food pantry at St. Raymond’s Parish in East Rockaway, NY. “Working with the clients there really touches my heart,” Peter observed.
Originally from Honduras, Seminarian Milton Lara adopted the strong faith of his grandparents. “When I was eight or nine years old, I liked to read the Bible, in particular the Psalms, the Book of Wisdom, and the Gospels. They inspired me, and I thought a lot about God. I felt His love.”

This awakened in him a desire to become a priest, but Milton was shy about expressing this desire to his parents, and eventually he put it aside. When he was 19, he came to the US and settled in Charlotte, NC. He joined Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Charlotte and immersed himself in the life of the Church. “This reawakened my desire to become a priest,” he said.

A Vincentian priest at the parish suggested Milton look into the Congregation of the Mission. After arriving at Miraculous Medal House in 2013, Milton joined the RCIA program at St. John’s to receive his remaining sacraments. Currently, he distributes Holy Communion to homebound adults in St. John the Baptist Parish in Brooklyn, NY.

“Throughout this journey I see how God continues to call me,” Milton said. “When I was a child, I wanted to be a missionary, but I did not know how to express it. When I was in Charlotte, I met a priest who sent me here. I did not know about the Vincentians, but when I learned about St. Vincent de Paul it all started to come together. I just say, ‘Yes.’ The only way I can answer God is to give my life in service to His people.”

The seminarians enjoy the diversity and multiculturalism they find at St. John’s. “I meet people from all around the world,” Milton stressed, “and I have very good experiences with them.”

Peter has participated in Midnight Runs at St. John’s, which he said have been life changing. Noé came to the University without knowing English, but once he learned the language he became very active in campus life.

Milton noted that community living can be challenging, “We are like a family. Sometimes we have conflicts, but then we fix them, and we continue moving forward as brothers.” He added that Fr. Nguyen has been very helpful along this journey. “Anything we need, he is there. He is like a father figure to us.”

All of the seminarians agree they are on a lifelong journey that eventually led them to the Congregation of the Mission and Miraculous Medal House. “I feel very comfortable here,” Milton said. “I am very sure I made the right decision. I am happy.”

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