BALTIC, Conn. — The end of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam and the fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese forces nearly 40 years ago brought significant changes to the Catholic Church in the United States, particularly in the West.
As U.S.-born vocations to the priesthood and religious life declined during this time, many Vietnamese Catholics answered the call; and, today, they make up a significant portion of priests and religious sisters in many dioceses.
According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website, Vietnamese men make up 12% of American seminarians, and there are between 450-500 Vietnamese priests in the United States.
Bishop Dominic Luong, auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Orange, Calif., which has the greatest concentration of Vietnamese Catholics in the country, reports that Mass attendance among Vietnamese Catholics is nearly 90%.
And, according to The Encyclopedia of Women and Religion in North America (Indiana University Press, 2006), “Religious vocations from Vietnamese Americans are among the highest of any ethnic group.”
Sister Anna Joseph Duong
A member of the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady, Mother of the Church in Baltic, Conn., Sister Anna Joseph Duong was born in Da Nang, Vietnam, in 1970; her father worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Army. She was one of five children.
In 1975, when Saigon fell, she was staying with her grandmother. Her father wanted to flee the country with the family. The country was in a state of chaos and the roads closed by the new government, so he was forced to leave Sister Anna with her grandmother. He made the difficult decision to leave the country with his wife and four other children.
Sister Anna, her grandmother and an uncle made their way to the coast. The plan was to board boats in hopes of reaching U.S. Navy vessels out at sea. Many other refugees had the same idea, and North Vietnamese troops were sent to block their escape.
Before they could reach the coast, troops opened fire. Sister Anna, then 5 years old, remembers sitting on her grandmother’s shoulders as she raced into the jungle, leaping over dead bodies along the way. At one point, with bullets whizzing overhead, they hid behind sandbags left behind by the U.S. military. She said, “My uncle would scream to me, ‘Keep your head down!’”
Sister Anna and her grandmother returned to their home in Da Nang. Shortly after arriving, her grandmother told her to hide in the outhouse (“We didn’t have fancy bathrooms like they do in the U.S.,” Sister Anna noted). A truck full of “singing” communist soldiers arrived, ordering her grandmother to burn her South Vietnamese flag and put up a North Vietnamese flag in its place. She said, “Every home was required to have a communist flag and a picture of Uncle Ho [Chi Minh].”
Her grandmother’s possessions were taken. Food was scarce. For many months, they lived on a flour paste used to feed pigs. Authorities searched for Sister Anna’s father, as he had worked for the U.S. military. She recalled, “My grandmother told me to say he was living in Saigon.”
Her family had actually resettled in Wisconsin, where her father worked as a hotel cook, and her mother found a job in a factory.
Sister Anna adopted the identity of her cousin who had died, in order to escape persecution by authorities.
Sister Anna was a devout Catholic by age 13. North Vietnamese authorities threatened to send her to a re-education (prison) camp if she kept attending Mass. She had seen many Catholics sent to such camps and forced to work long hours in the rice fields. She had wanted to be a nun, but joining a community was out of the question.
At age 17, she was able to immigrate to France under her assumed identity; and, two years later, she went to the United States. While happy to see her family again, she said the “culture shock” was tremendous. Her siblings had grown up in the United States and were Americanized.
Sister Anna was delighted to be accepted as a Sister of Charity and is currently caring for elderly sisters and studying nursing. She said, “I’m very happy to be in the U.S. I could not fulfill my calling in Vietnam. I’m grateful for the freedom to be able to proudly proclaim that I am a sister and not have to worry about our convent being shut down.”
Sister Mary Thu Hoi Nguyen
Sister Mary Thu Hoi Nguyen of the Sisters of St. Paul de Chartres is superior of a community house in the city of Wyoming, a suburb of Grand Rapids, Mich. She is also from the city of Da Nang, one of 10 children.
“My mother was a Catholic convert, and she urged all 10 of her children to become priests or nuns,” she recalled. “Six of us entered seminary or religious communities, but only my twin sister and I remained.”
She started attending Sisters of St. Paul de Chartres schools in 1963 and entered its novitiate in Da Nang in 1972. Although the combat zone of the Vietnam War was far way, she said, “the atmosphere of the war was everywhere.”
Many had lost family members in the war, and funerals were a regular occurrence. She recalled many grieving widows wearing white, the color mourners wear in Vietnam. Viet Cong rockets would rain down on her city, striking fear in the hearts of its citizens. And one of her duties as a young sister was to care for orphans.
When Saigon fell, many of her family fled the country. One brother was in the South Vietnamese military and spent eight years in re-education camps before fleeing by boat. Another of her sisters who was left behind later was able to escape by boat as well.
Sister Mary’s community was not allowed to engage in its charism of education, hospital care, social work and pastoral care. Instead, they engaged in manual labor to support themselves: “I did knitting, and I also made bamboo blinds.”
In 1997, she was allowed to leave and came to the United States to study. Her community asked that she stay and assist with a Vietnamese parish in Michigan.
Today, she is in charge the formation of new sisters. Recently, her home welcomed five newly professed sisters from Hanoi. The sisters will teach, work in hospitals and nursing homes and volunteer at chancery offices.
She doesn’t know if she’ll return to Vietnam. She said, “As a religious, I took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. We obey our superior and go where we’re told.”
Sister Ann Tran
Sister Ann Tran is also a Sister of St. Paul of Chartres. She is from Saigon; her father was a carpenter, and she is one of five children.
She attended a school of the Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres, and “I knew I wanted to be a nun like them.” The Vietnam War led her to the convent, “because I wanted to pray and serve the poor from the war-torn areas.” She entered her community’s novitiate in 1974.
Sister Ann also noted that her family was on both sides of the conflict, as she had relatives from the North. She said, “We were fighting each other.”
She left Vietnam in 1996, lived in Australia and ultimately came to the U.S. earlier this year. English was initially hard for her to learn, and now she’s adjusting to the American accent. Today, she volunteers in a nursing home and works with the Vietnamese community.
Whether or not she returns to Vietnam is up to her congregation, she said, but she is likely to remain because “there are fewer of our sisters in the U.S. than Vietnam.”
Sister Maria Goretti
Sister of Christian Charity Maria Goretti Nguyen was 2 years old when Saigon fell. Born Duyen Nguyen, she was one of eight children. Her father was a member of South Vietnam’s Special Forces trained by the U.S. military, who, after a serious injury, became a dentist.
Growing up in communist Vietnam, one of her memories was extensive rationing of scarce resources. Since her father had once been trained by the U.S. military, her family was “blacklisted,” she said, and she was discriminated against in a variety of ways. For example, as a young adult, she was not able to attend a four-year university.
Her family was affluent, she said, but was careful to hide its money, for fear it would be confiscated by the government. The key to being left alone, she said, was to appear no different than everyone else.
One of her brothers was forced to flee the country illegally. Local authorities, she said, attempted to draft him into the military, which he did not want to join. He hid. Authorities repeatedly visited the home, “and when they came, we lied and said we didn’t know where he was.”
Her brother became a “boat person” in 1988 and made a grueling trip to the United States.
She wanted to learn English, as she hoped one day to come to the United States, too. She was instead told to learn Russian. Her family, she said, came to realize: “We had no future in Vietnam.”
Sister Maria was allowed to leave the country in 1993, and, eventually, the entire family came with her. They settled in Atlanta and became active in the Vietnamese-Catholic community. Adjusting to American life was difficult, however. Sister recalled, “The American accent was difficult for us to acquire. It was hard to communicate.”
She added, “The food was different, and so was the culture. And all Americans looked alike to us.”
Sister Maria had first been introduced to nuns in Vietnam; her mother had been taught by Dominican nuns. Their joyful spirit impressed her. She said, “I wanted to give more of myself than as just a layperson.”
She entered the Sisters of Christian Charity in 2000. Although most of the community is not Vietnamese, the community “welcomed me and embraced my culture. It helped me a lot.” While most in her community are involved in health care or work in parishes, she works as a teacher.
Living in Jersey City, N.J., and with her family now living in the Atlanta area, she has no desire to return to Vietnam. She is pleased to adopt the American lifestyle. She said, “I wanted a fresh start. I was willing to convert to the culture, adjusting to how the American people think and interact. And I’m very appreciative of the freedom and opportunities America offers me.”
Register correspondent Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.