WINDSOR TERRACE – Four brave men who have answered the call to serve God in the priesthood will be ordained on Saturday, June 5 at a Mass at the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph. The new priests all came to the U.S. as immigrants – two from the Dominican Republic and two from Vietnam. – and will be serving in the Diocese of Brooklyn, which is known as the Diocese of Immigrants. Here is a look at the new priests.
FATHER HUNG SY TRAN
Father Hung Sy Tran describes himself as a versatile athlete who enjoys playing a variety of sports.
“My friends call me a sportsman,” he says. “I really love all sports — soccer, tennis, badminton, volleyball, ping pong, walking, and running.”
While his competitive spirit lingers, there is no competition when it comes to his top priority. He wants to become a priest and serve God.
He is about to achieve his goal. He will be ordained on June 5 at the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph, the fulfillment of a dream he has harbored since he was a 12-year-old boy in his native Vietnam.
Father Tran, 38, who came to the U.S. three years ago, spent this past year serving as a transitional deacon at St. Agatha Church, Sunset Park.
“I have really enjoyed my assignment here at St. Agatha,” he said.
Father Tran’s life at the parish has been very busy. Among his duties are assisting with the scheduling of meetings, preparing three homilies per week, and serving as an advisor to several parish groups, including the altar servers, the choir, and the faith formation ministry.
“There are over 30 groups at St. Agatha,” he explained.
Father Tran has built such close ties with the church community that it’s a sure bet that St. Agatha parishioners will be among the people sitting in the pews on ordination day.
“They asked me how many people can come to ordination,” he remarked.
Born and raised in Central Vietnam, Father Tran hails from a large family. He is one of 10 children and the oldest boy.
From the time he was 6 years old, he was going to church with his family every day, rising at the early hour of 4 a.m.
“All of us kept quiet at the Mass,” he recalled. “But it is very difficult to go to church that early in the morning.”
At 6 years old, the importance of church wasn’t something he readily understood.
“At first, I preferred to play outside the church. But eventually, I started liking being in church,” he said.
Father Tran also liked other aspects of Catholicism, particularly its focus on helping others. As a teenager, he and his siblings spent their spare time doing volunteer work for charities. His affection for the church grew exponentially when he became an altar server.
“I got to be an altar server for a long time — about 14 years. I felt very comfortable. From that, I got the desire to be a priest. I was 12. That was my dream,” he recalled.
He discussed his dream of the priesthood with his parents, who were not only supportive but helped him along.
“My dad really supported me. He brought me to some parishes to talk to the pastors. He wanted me to be much more familiar with the priests,” Father Tran said.
His siblings were fully on board, too.
“They encouraged me. I have three uncles who are priests. My brothers and sisters said to me, ‘You should be like them,’ ” he recalled.
With his family firmly in his corner, Father Tran began his studies for the priesthood in his home diocese in Vietnam.
He came to the U.S. to continue his education and studied at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut, and at Notre Dame Seminary Graduate School in Theology in New Orleans. Father Tran is looking forward to his upcoming ordination.
“I feel very happy and very excited,” he said. “I come to serve, not to be served.”
FATHER ELVIN TORRES
Father Elvin Torres heard a calling to the priesthood when he was a young boy.
All these years later, he is completing his studies at Pope Saint John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Massachusetts, and preparing for his ordination on June 5. During this past year, he served weekends as a transitional deacon at Most Holy Redeemer Church in East Boston.
Born and raised in the Dominican Republic, Father Torres, 36, remembered going to church every Sunday with his family and finding himself fascinated by the rituals of the Mass.
There was one particular Sunday at his local church, Saint Ignatius Loyola, that stirred his heart.
“I was really moved by the priest that day. I felt something. I was intrigued with the priest´s presence, his reverence, and the love he displayed for Jesus Christ,” Father Torres said. “I was 7 or 8 years old. I started asking a lot of questions because I was so moved by his presence. I was asking ‘Why is he dressed like that?’ I was moved, like, ‘Wow!’ ”
However, he realized then that he was too young to understand what was stirring inside his heart.
“It moved me and at that moment I felt something special that I did not understand,” he recalled.
Father Torres went on to become an altar boy, adding that he “was really involved in the parish. I felt like that was bringing me closer to God.”
Still, as a young man, he also had a desire to live a secular life. Once, a friend approached him and asked him if he wanted to be a priest.
“I said, ‘No, of course not!’ ” he recalled. ‘You can’t get married? No way!’ ”
But deep down inside, “I thought maybe God is really calling me,” he said.
He initially resisted that thought and continued living a secular life. In 2011, he earned a degree in philosophy from the Pontifical University Catholic Mother and Teacher in the Dominican Republic. In 2016, he earned a degree in education.
He met a woman and dated her for 18 months.
“I thought, ‘Let me enter a relationship so I don’t have to think about the priesthood,” he recalled.
“She is a wonderful person, but … I thought, ‘What is this? I’m happy but something’s missing,’ ” he said.
In secret, he began attending retreats on the weekends at a seminary: “Nobody knew. Only my mom.”
All the while, Father Torres was moving closer to making a decision about entering the priesthood.
“I talked to my girlfriend. She was a really religious Catholic. She said, ‘If God is calling you, I won’t stand in His way,’ ” he remembers.
In 2004, he entered a seminary in the Dominican Republic but left soon afterward, however, and decided to become a teacher.
“The church and the government are closely aligned in the Dominican Republic. I taught Human and Religious Formation to fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders. It was beautiful. I really loved it,” he said.
At the time, he thought, “I’m done with the seminary. I’m making great money. I’m happy.”
But after a year, he called a priest friend and expressed interest in attending a mini-retreat. He also obtained a visa to come to the U.S.
“It was really hard, coming to another country, a language I did not speak,” he recalls. “I was really scared. I said, ‘Come on God, you’re calling me to be a priest now?’ ”
Father Torres didn’t quit his teaching job. Instead, he hedged his bets by taking a leave of absence, thinking, “If this doesn’t work out, I’m not going to lose my job.”
He came to the U.S. and studied English for 11 months at the American Language Communications Center in Manhattan. In 2016, Father Torres came to the Diocese of Brooklyn, fearful he would not be accepted into the seminary but determined to try.
“I can hardly speak English,” he remembered. “But I said if God is calling me, I have to go.”
In 2017, he entered the Pope Saint John XXIII Seminary.
“Going there has been the greatest experience of my life,” Father Torres explained. “It started off as a school but it became a family.”
He predicts that the day of his ordination “will be very emotional, for sure. My parents will be there and my brother. In two years, I haven’t seen them.”
As for his role as a priest: “I will be happy to work with people, accompanying them will be an amazing experience.”
FATHER ROBINSON OLIVARES
Father Robinson Olivares admits his journey to the priesthood wasn’t an easy road for him; there were bumps along the way.
“There was a battle inside my heart,” he said candidly of being torn between wanting a secular life with its possibilities of marriage and children and hearing a call to become a priest.
With God’s help, he chose the latter and is looking forward to his ordination on June 5 at the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph.
“I’m very grateful to the Lord for calling me,” he said, adding he’s also grateful he finally heeded that call.
Father Olivares, 48, spent his year as a transitional deacon for the Diocese of Brooklyn serving at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Church in Bayside.
He studied for the priesthood at Pope Saint John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Massachusetts.
He called his decision to become a priest “a gradual process.”
“I wanted to get married since I was little. My parents are going to be 56 years married in July. It really inspired me. I wanted to have a family,” he said.
He spent 20 years as an IT specialist, working as a technical support engineer serving customers in healthcare, entertainment, business consulting, education, and finance.
That included a stint at Kaplan Inc., a professional development and test preparation firm, where he made a good salary and enjoyed great success. At that time, he was in a relationship.
But God had other ideas for his life.
Father Olivares was born in the Dominican Republic and grew up in Harlem in the 1980s, describing the neighborhood as “a drug-infested war zone.” His family was deeply involved in the local parish and, looking back, he believes that kept him on the right path.
“At home, of course, I prayed the rosary. We went to Mass every Sunday,” he recalled.
Despite his professional success, he realized something was missing.
“I felt a void. I was making good money. I thought I would like to have someone special in my life,” he said. “But things didn’t make too much sense to me. What was the meaning of life? I was having an identity crisis.”
It was around that time that a friend invited him to a Catholic charismatic retreat in the South Bronx, an event that changed his life.
“It was there that I encountered the Lord in a beautiful way,” he said. “I honestly feel He befriended me.”
Father Olivares became more active in the church, finding a special place in youth ministry and working with young people for the next 18 years. While serving in the church, he met a woman with whom he developed a close friendship that eventually blossomed into romance. They dated for four years. He loved her, but he still felt something wasn’t right with his life.
“I really loved her, but I really loved the Lord,” he said.
Meanwhile, he saw other signs that the life in the clergy awaited him.
“People at random would tell me that I would make a great priest,” Father Olivares said. “It took a lot for me to even think about it. I was really afraid of the call. I felt it was something too big for me.”
But friends urged him to pay attention to the signs.
“The Lord gave me continuous signs,” he recalled. “One of my priest friends said, ‘Do you want the Lord to come down to tell you directly?’ ”
He made the decision to enter the seminary and chose one in Miami because he thought it was best to leave everything behind and start fresh in a new environment. He enjoyed his stay in Florida, but returned to New York and enrolled at St. Joseph’s Seminary and College in Yonkers.
“Things didn’t go so well academically. Studying philosophy and theology when you come from IT is hard. I struggled,” Father Olivares conceded. “I met with Auxiliary Bishop [Joseph] Massa. He helped me to see if another seminary would be better for me.”
He decided to complete his studies at Pope Saint John XXIII National Seminary and found a better fit there.
“It was more than the academics. I think they tailor it more to older guys,” he said.
Father Olivares found that his desire to get married, which had exerted such a strong pull on him, is gone.
Now, he says, “I have a tremendous feeling in my heart that I made the right decision to enter the priesthood.”
FATHER CHIN NGUYEN
Father Chin Nguyen remembers the exact moment the thought of becoming a priest first entered his mind.
“I was in the seventh grade and I saw a bunch of kids playing in the street,” he recalled. “In my mind, I said, ‘I’m going to be a priest to say Mass for these kids.’ That was a thought in my mind.”
That encounter took place in Vietnam, where he was born and raised. He felt sorry for the youngsters because it happened in a neighborhood where there were no churches. He felt if he became a priest, he could celebrate Mass and somehow get those kids into a church.
“It was a thought. It just came to me and then it was gone,” he said.
Luckily, the thought returned and he acted upon it. Father Nguyen, now 34, will be ordained a priest on June 5 at the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph.
Father Nguyen was born in the northern end of Vietnam but spent a great deal of time in the south, where there were more Catholic churches and better schools.
“Since I was 7 years old, I was sent from the north to the south for the sake of my education. I spent most of my years in the south,” he said.
Starting at that young age, he attended Mass every day, usually early in the morning. It fostered in him a sense of discipline, he noted.
Vietnam is a country ruled by the Communist Party but it does have a Catholic presence — approximately 7 million people out of a nationwide total of 94 million. There are 27 Catholic dioceses in the country making it the fifth largest Catholic population in Asia after the Philippines, India, China, and Indonesia.
Father Nguyen became an altar server when he was in the sixth grade.
“It drew me closer to the altar and to God,” he said.
He got the chance to come to the U.S. in 2010, and when he arrived in New York City, he took English classes. He later enrolled at St. John’s University in Queens to study philosophy, and by that time, he was determined to become a priest.
He then entered St. Joseph’s Seminary and College in Yonkers, where he is now completing his studies.
He made many friends at the seminary — the seminarians all root for each other, he said — and is hoping that some of them attend the ordination Mass.
Last year, he was ordained a transitional deacon — the final step before priesthood — and has been serving at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Astoria.
In addition to serving at Masses, delivering homilies, and performing other duties, his year at Our Lady of Mount Carmel gave him the chance to do one of his favorite things — talk to children.
Every Friday, he visits classrooms and meets with second-graders. “I found joy there. It has brought me joy and happiness,” he said.
In a way, he has come full circle. His first inkling of becoming a priest occurred to him when he encountered children all those years ago. Now, he gets to spend his time talking to kids.
But the pandemic did interfere with other parts of his mission.
“Because of the pandemic, I didn’t get much of a chance to visit hospitals and nursing homes,” he said.
With restrictions being lifted, he hopes to start going into places where he can bring comfort and God’s love to patients.
Father Nguyen is looking forward to the day of his ordination: “I will feel happiness for sure. I’ve been longing for this day.”
Currents News has extensively covered our four new priests. Below is a playlist of their individual profiles.