Perilous escape, second chapter, and conversion mark 25th ordination celebrations
FORT WORTH — Two priests of divergent backgrounds celebrated the 25th anniversary of their ordinations on May 20 at Holy Family Parish in Fort Worth, remembering along the way a third who has since passed away.
Father Hoa Nguyen presently serves as pastor at Holy Family. Fr. John Swistovich though retired from full-time work continues to assist at the parish.
Fr. David Bristow, who retired in 2016 having last served as pastor of St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Fort Worth, attended Mass at Holy Family. Fr. Bristow passed away in 2021.
Although all three were ordained at the same time, their backgrounds could hardly be more different.
“Somehow the Lord called us from separate walks of life to come into one community, to serve in the same diocese, and to come together at Holy Family,” Fr. Nguyen said while delivering his homily during the Mass celebrated that day.
The 1998 ordination of the three proved cause for celebration in itself.
“It was the first time in a long time the [Diocese of Fort Worth] had three men ordained,” Fr. Nguyen said.
Lost at sea
Fr. Nguyen thanked God for his parents and siblings, most of whom attended the May 20 celebration.
Born in Vietnam, the fortunes of Fr. Nguyen and his family deteriorated dramatically in 1975 following the fall of Saigon to communist North Vietnamese forces.
“Before that my father was a banker,” said Andy Nguyen, Fr. Nguyen's brother. “He provided financing for farmers and fishermen. Like many other people, he was arrested and imprisoned, and our family fell into utter starvation.”
Starvation as in literally nothing to eat.
“We would trap geckos in the backyard and butcher them to survive,” Andy Nguyen said. “We ate vegetation until that ran out, chopped wood to sell for food. Would go days without anything in our belly.”
Fr. Nguyen worked to support the family, his brother said, adding that one job offered a free lunch, which Fr. Nguyen instead took home to ensure his family had food.
In 1979, at age 16, Fr. Nguyen and his oldest brother managed to escape Vietnam via boat. Unfortunately, the boat's engine died once they reached international waters, stranding them and fellow crew members afloat for 30 days without food or water.
“We had already gone through four or five years with no food on many days, mom and dad in prison,” Fr. Nguyen answered when asked how he managed to maintain his faith while drifting the ocean. “But, through those earlier ordeals, one day something would happen, and we'd have food. So we totally relied on God. In the boat that trust was the same because we knew the only hope we had was in God.”
Fr. Nguyen's call to the priesthood predated the troubles in Vietnam.
“I took the test and was accepted into the seminary in seventh grade, but that's when the communists came and shut down everything,” Fr. Nguyen said.
Once he made it to America, Fr. Nguyen delayed entering seminary for several years in order to work to support his family.
America brought opportunity and challenge.
“The hardest was leaving family behind, coming here without mom and dad,” Fr. Nguyen said. “No English. Knowing the future of the family depended on me, but struggling in a strange land. Some of the kids in school were cruel and not accepting because I looked different.”
Fr. Nguyen's father and some of his siblings managed to escape Vietnam in 1981. His mother and a younger brother remained behind for another 13 years.
Business to religious
New York native Fr. Swistovich entered the seminary later in life, at 46, and was ordained at 52.
Before that, he enjoyed successful careers in the world of banking, sales and marketing, making good money and traveling a lot.
“But there was always something gnawing at me to think back on vocations because I had been brought up in that atmosphere,” Fr. Swistovich said.
Fr. Swistovich said thoughts of the priesthood predated his entry into the business world.
“I was raised in a parish where we had a number of guys in seminary, had more vocations than any parish in the Diocese of Syracuse,” Fr. Swistovich said. “I was an altar server for several years and most of us were encouraged to look at vocations. So that was just part of growing up.”
In many ways, his business career helped prepare him for the priesthood, Fr. Swistovich said.
“It's a mission, the priesthood, but you also have finance councils and parish operating concerns to deal with,” Fr. Swistovich said. “My business career gave me tools that later helped me with those things. God put me in the business world to learn those tools to use later when He was calling me to the priesthood.”
Fr. Swistovich describes himself as retired from being a full-time pastor but not from the priesthood. He still celebrates Mass, hears confessions, and performs other duties at Holy Family and, occasionally, other area parishes.
“I learned years ago that St. Thomas the Apostle said, 'My Lord, My God,'” Fr. Swistovich replied when asked how he keeps Mass fresh. “When I perform the consecration, under my breath, I always say that. It makes me aware of what's actually going on at that altar. The gravity of it's not about me. It's about Christ.”
Fr. Nguyen offered similar thoughts.
“Even though it's the same parish, the community of each Mass tends to be different,” Fr. Nguyen said. “So it's that connection with the people at each Mass. Every week I celebrate five Masses, for example. I don't write anything out. I reflect on the readings and rely on the Holy Spirit. So every homily is very different even though the central idea is the same.”
Fr. Bristow served for 21 years as an Episcopal minister before converting to Catholicism. In 1998, through a pastoral provision, he was ordained a Catholic priest in the same ordination Mass as Fathers Nguyen and Swistovich.
Deacon David Kinch, during the May 20 celebration, characterized Fr. Bristow as a gentle, kind, spiritual man who drew joy through serving others.
Dcn. Kinch and other speakers praised the positive impacts each of the three priests made at the various parishes they served.
Fathers Nguyen and Swistovich spoke of their deep friendship through the years.
“Didn't know each other, came from completely different backgrounds,” Fr. Swistovich said of himself, Fr. Nguyen, and Fr. Bristow. “Yet we all became brothers.”