Fr. Joseph Minh Nguyen, a parochial vicar of Our Lady of La Vang Parish in Happy Valley, blesses the faithful with holy water at the Easter Vigil in 2018 when the church was still in Northeast Portland. (Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel)
Fr. Joseph Minh Nguyen, a parochial vicar of Our Lady of La Vang Parish in Happy Valley, blesses the faithful with holy water at the Easter Vigil in 2018 when the church was still in Northeast Portland. (Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel)
For the Year of St. Joseph, we spoke with four priests named after the great saint to see what the moniker means to them.

Doing the job without fanfare

Standing in his modest, art-adorned house in North Portland, Father Joseph McMahon held up an olive wood sculpture from Bethlehem. It’s part of his small collection of St. Joseph figurines, acquired primarily as gifts over the years.

“I treasure the name and I treasure my relationship with St. Joseph,” said Father McMahon, a longtime pastor in the archdiocese who retired in 2012.

Named after his paternal grandfather and the saint, young Joe grew up appreciating that St. Joseph was protector of the Holy Family, foster father to Jesus and patron of the universal church.

Now 79, he recalled a few moments in church history that were especially meaningful to him in relation to his namesake. In 1955, Pope Pius XII established May 1 — Labor Day for much of the world — as the feast day of St. Joseph the Worker.

“I love that St. Joseph worked hard with his hands,” said the priest. Since retirement, he’s been able to work with his own hands in a leisurely fashion, tending to his vegetable garden.

In 2013, soon after Pope Francis was elected, St. Joseph’s name was inserted into the main eucharistic prayers.

“I very much valued that,” said Father McMahon, known for his administrative skills and humility.

The priest was ordained on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul and has a devotion to the two martyrs. “But St. Joseph has always been special to me,” he said.

“I like that he kind of lives in the background. He did the job God asked him to do and he did it faithfully, likely at a cost to himself, and then he disappears into history.

“When I meet God,” he added,” I hope he will think I did the job he assigned me to do faithfully, without a lot of fanfare.”

A model of humble service

When Joseph Heuberger was growing up on a farm near St. Boniface Church in Sublimity, he received a card each year around March 19, the feast of St. Joseph. It came from Sister Germaine Heuberger, his aunt. Sister Germaine, who entered the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon in 1911, understood what a great saint her nephew was named for. She would die in 1970, exactly a century after St. Joseph had been declared universal patron of the Catholic Church. That was the same year Joseph Heuberger was ordained a priest.

Now a retired pastor who served all over western Oregon, Father Heuberger said the farmers he has known over the years live in the tradition of St. Joseph — humble, hardworking, dependable. He tried to be that way as a pastor and is keeping it up even now while helping at St. Peter Parish in Southeast Portland.

Father Heuberger, one of many Josephs in his German family, still prays the rosary as his parents taught, with an invocation to St. Joseph for a happy death.

His mother always called him Joseph and he prefers that to Joe. When he was a lad, his teachers never compelled him to portray St. Joseph in the Christmas play, despite his name. He leaned toward back stage work, like raising and lowering the curtain, an unpresuming job his patron saint may have preferred, too.

Father Heuberger looks up to two great Josephs in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Of course there is the earthly father of Jesus in Christian Scripture but also Joseph of the Hebrew Scripture, sold into slavery by his brothers and liberated by his ability to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams.

“I have always liked that story,” Father Heuberger said, noting that while he quibbled with his dozen siblings, they never sold him to the circus.

Choosing St. Joseph’s example

Father Joseph Minh Nguyen, a parochial vicar at Our Lady of La Vang Parish in Happy Valley, estimates that about a quarter of parents in Dong Nai, Vietnam, where he was born in 1976, chose the name “Joseph” when baptizing their infant.

“It is a very popular name,” he said.

People rarely called him by “Joseph” as he was growing up in communist Vietnam. He went by his given name, “Minh,” which means intelligent or civilized.

Father Nguyen’s father served as a police officer for the U.S. government in South Vietnam, and the family’s house and property were seized. The government sent his father to a political reeducation camp for more than five years.

The Nguyen family were able to leave Vietnam in 1995, and Father Nguyen became less pleased with the name “Minh.” Too many Americans pronounced it as “mean” — a descriptor no one would choose.

He officially took the name “Joseph” when he became a U.S. citizen 17 years ago. He was a sophomore at St. Joseph Seminary in Covington, Louisiana, studying philosophy at that time. “I wanted to devote my whole life to God,” said Father Nguyen. “It was a good opportunity to embrace the name ‘Joseph.’”

Father Nguyen is a priest of the Domus Dei Society, and one of the society’s three charisms is to help families live according to the model of the Holy Family — another way Father Nguyen does the ministry of St. Joseph.

“I look at St. Joseph’s example — being a hard worker, very humble and quiet,” said Father Nguyen. “That is how I have been trying to live. I say less in homilies, making them short and sweet. I also try to be quick to do God’s will as my superiors assign me to do — just as St. Joseph did in his life as Mary’s chaste spouse.”

Honor and duty

“The name José means an honor and a great responsibility,” said Father José Luis González, pastor of St. Anne Parish in Gresham and a member of the Archdiocese of Portland College of Consultors.

Father González sees the saint as the model of a good father, “one who knew how to take care of his family, and if we entrust ourselves to him, he will know how to guide and direct us to be guardians and protectors of our families.”

A father is not just one who begets, but “the one who educates, the one who raises, watches over, guides, protects and becomes a true meaningful model for the child,” said the priest.

“That father who begets a child and abandons his wife, that is not a really a father,” he said.

Many men in Latin America are named for St. Joseph, Father González explained. He wishes more men named José would recognize the spiritual significance.

In Mexico, as in many Latin American countries, Catholicism still plays a central role for families who consequently choose biblical names for their children. In addition, the first-born child in Mexico traditionally bears the father’s name. So generation after generation it is preserved, without going out of style.

“In my family, my name José is in honor of my father who is also called José,” he explained.

The priest works often with migrant laborers in the region; many of those men are like St. Joseph, working hard and quietly for the good of their families.

Father González explained that the name José means a lot. And although St. Joseph does not speak in Scripture, speeches are not necessary because we know a lot about his work with the life of Jesus, the influence and the results.

“‘You will know them by their fruits,’ Father González says, quoting Matthew 7:16. “And this fully applies to Joseph.”

— Katie Scott, Ed Langlois, Kristen Hannum, Patricia Montana