Sister Mary Vu, SCC
Hometown: Saigon, Vietnam
Education: Public school in Saigon; Assumption College for Sisters, Mendham, N.J., Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa.
Current Assignment: Inpatient Behavioral Health at Penn State Health Holy Spirit Medical Center in Camp Hill
Tell me about your childhood in Vietnam.
I was born in Saigon in 1963 and came to the United States when I was 30 years old, in 1993. My father was a seminarian at one point in his life and always prayed that at least one of his children would enter religious life or become a priest. When I entered, he felt that God had answered his prayers. My parents had three boys and five girls. I’m number six of eight.
I remember very vividly that we all went to church every morning, no matter what the weather was. We walked from our home to the church, which was about 20 to 30 minutes. In Vietnam, we had the tradition of praying together as a family and before we went to bed. My sister and I joined the choir, and we would sing every day at Mass, and on the weekend. We went to public school for our education, and the church provided religion classes.
Because my father instilled the idea of religious life and priesthood in us, I wished to enter religious life by the time I was in high school. Of course, it was one thing to want to enter religious life, and another thing if God called us. I prayed that God would call me.
What was it like to live in Saigon and practice the faith?
Vietnam became a Communist country and religion was not freely practiced. I remember when I expressed that I wanted to enter religious life, a priest friend of my father’s wanted to help me enter. He took me to another family and asked them for help because I could not enter the religious community legally. The government did not want anybody living in a big group like that. At night, I would stay with the family in the village, and then during the day I would join the Sisters for activities. We had to wait until dark to walk from the convent to the houses of the people in the village who agreed to help us. Before dawn, we had to walk back to the convent. We had to be very careful not to be found out by the government, and were instructed to not tell people we were going to the convent. If the government found out, we could have been imprisoned, and the Sisters and families who were helping me would have had the same happen. We knew that religious life was risky for us to enter.
I was 12 years old during the fall of Saigon. We were living through times of a lot of people dying, villages being destroyed and young men losing their lives. Life was miserable. Two of my older brothers joined the military because they were forced to at age 18. They had no option. My parents worried every day that they would get news that my brothers were killed. We prayed for them every day, and we held on to faith. The environment we lived in became part of who we were.
How were you able to come to the United States?
Both of my brothers survived their time in the military, so they escaped in 1975 and came here to the United States. They sponsored my parents, two sisters and me. All the people who were in the military were being put in prison, and my brothers were among them. After they were released from prison, they escaped Vietnam, because they knew they had nothing left for their lives in the country.
When they came to the United States, they landed in California. They had to get jobs and save money to sponsor us. In sponsoring us, they had to become citizens first and then guarantee that they could provide for us. The process for sponsoring took years, so I didn’t come here until 1993.
Only me, my parents and my two sisters came here, because I had lost two sisters and one brother while we were in Vietnam. Of my eight siblings, there are only five of us left.
My parents, at the time, were over 65 and they sacrificed to come here for the future of their children. They left everything behind and moved to a country where they did not know the language. They brought nothing with them.
In the years before you came to the United States, were you still discerning religious life?
We were raised to know that health care was a good career, so I thought I would become a nurse after I graduated from high school. But again, Communists do not favor any family that goes against their government. Anyone who wanted to go to a university had to give a family history, and I could not deny that my father worked for the democracy government. Therefore, my application was automatically denied. I could not get into any school, even though I graduated high school with honors.
We ended up being self-employed. We were tailors, along with other women who couldn’t get a job or go to the university because of the government. My mother taught us how to sew to earn money.
I managed to enter a religious community in Vietnam during that time, and became a novice. After I became a novice, I got very sick. At that time, the religious community saw my getting sick as a sign that I did not have a vocation. They sent me home. That did not sit well with me, so I met with three more religious communities. When they interviewed me and I told them that I had entered the community that sent me home when I got sick, one of the providential superiors told me, “Go home, get married and be settled. Do not continue to another religious community because you don’t have a vocation.” I went home, and my parents said there was nothing more I could do.
When I look back on that, I realize that I was helping my parents and my family at that time by staying home and working. My brothers had left for the U.S. at that point, and I was the oldest at home helping my family. So I consider, looking back, that it was a time that God was preparing for me to come to the U.S., to pull me out of the convent when I got sick, and eventually bring me here with my family.
Before we came here, we said goodbye to our relatives. One of them was a priest. He said, “Who knows. Maybe if you go to the U.S., you might become a religious Sister. Just because the communities here didn’t accept you, who knows what might happen in the U.S.” I was laughing at him, and I said, “You are just saying that to try to encourage me.” But he was right! Maybe God used his voice to prevent me from extinguishing that flame to enter religious life.
You obviously kept that flame alive when you arrived here.
Yes, I arrived in California. It was clear that we couldn’t make a living there. I was 30 years old and we needed to work in order to provide a living for our parents. My uncle who came here in 1975 had landed in Pennsylvania, and he knew about the Sisters of Christian Charity. When he arrived in Pennsylvania, he went to Indiantown Gap and one of the Sisters came to help him get settled.
My uncle called us when we came to California, and we told him we couldn’t find jobs and that the cost of living was unbelievable. We rented a house for $1,000 a month for the five of us, and had barely enough money to pay the rent and buy food. We decided to come to Pennsylvania to see if we could find a better situation. When I arrived, I expressed to my uncle that I wanted to join religious life. I said, “I will try again, and if God does not call me and it does not work out this time, then I will get married.”
My uncle went to the Sisters of Christian Charity and told them about me, and that’s how we got connected.
Did you know anything about the Sisters of Christian Charity when you first connected with them?
No. I knew only the name of the community, just because of my uncle knowing one of the Sisters from Indiantown Gap. He arranged for me to meet with them. They invited me to a live-in weekend at the convent. I went with two other women to their Motherhouse in New Jersey, and at the end of the weekend they asked if anyone had interest in entering. I said, “I would like to think about it.” I prayed and then decided to send a letter to request to enter.
I liked them because of their name, the Sisters of Christian Charity. When I was in high school, I knew that if I entered a community, I would want to do something to help the poor and care for the sick. The Sisters of Christian Charity care for the poor and the blind, and help the sick in their hospitals.
I entered their community in 1994. At that time, my parents weren’t too happy about it. I had just arrived here and they thought I needed more time to think about my future and help my family get settled instead of enter a convent. But my parents agreed for me to enter. Later, after my parents were settled, one of my sisters entered college. For a lot of Vietnamese who came here, they had no choice but to work. They had to earn a living and didn’t have an option for education.
Where were you educated in the United States? Did you speak English when you arrived?
I did not speak English when I arrived. When I went to the convent for the live-in, nobody understood me or what I was talking about, and I didn’t understand them. We used sign language.
When I entered, the first year, we needed translation. I then learned English while I was in the convent. I took classes to learn the language. Our community has Assumption College to teach young women, so when we entered we went right away to be educated for two years. I had several courses, including English and religion. Years ago, we had 50 postulants and the college provided classes for those young women. Today, we only have two or three postulants, so Assumption College has expanded to educate women in other religious communities.
I went to Lycoming College for nursing school after taking two years of classes and learning English. Nursing school is not easy for a lot of English-speaking women, so for me it was a huge challenge. I prayed every day, “God, if you do not want me to become a nurse, you have to help me. If you perceive I will make a mistake that will be deadly to someone, stop me right here. I don’t want to hurt or kill anyone because of my ignorance or misunderstanding.” I said that prayer every day through nursing school.
It was difficult. The teachers spoke fast, the words were challenging. I worried that if I didn’t understand clearly about medications and IVs, I could make a mistake that would mean an overdose for some people.
One time, I went to Confession to talk about this burden. I said, “Father, I want to know if this nursing career is God’s will for me to help the sick. Learning the English language came late in my life and nursing is very challenging. So far, I’ve heard nothing from God.” The priest said, “Sister, do you think that God doesn’t answer your prayer? Do you think God would allow you to make the mistake to kill someone?” He helped me understand that even though I didn’t hear God’s voice, He wasn’t going to lead me on the wrong path. I went through nursing school and took the final exam and passed on the first try. I believe that’s a miracle!
Did you ever have doubts in your discernment?
I took my final vows in 2004. It was a ten-year journey.
Working as a nurse, living community life and taking care of the needs in my family with my parents getting older and my sister getting tired of helping them – that was challenging for me. Things were not going smoothly in the time before I took my final vows. It was a journey. I had to think about if God wanted me to follow Him with all the ups and downs, with my family upset. Did I want to continue? I prayed about it. There were times that I did not think I would make it. I entered the convent with three other women, and they had left. Every time one of them left, I asked myself, “Is this for me? Why is this for me and not for others?” At the same time, my sister was telling me, “If you leave now, you still can make a living and you can have a future for yourself and help us. Religious life is not as ideal as you think.” I’ve come to believe that, because we are human, we live together, we make mistakes, we struggle to be honest. It is not always easy.
Given all of that, I have to say that God’s grace filled me on the day I walked up the aisle and prostrated before the altar to make my vows for eternity.
Where have you ministered?
In nursing school, I worked at Muncy Valley Hospital’s nursing home. I worked at Williamsport Hospital when I was stationed at Divine Providence. After I graduated from nursing school, I moved to Camp Hill because my father got very sick and needed help. I asked the superior if I could come here to help him.
In addition to working at Penn State Health Holy Spirit, I also worked as administrator in the retirement nursing home for our Sisters for six years in Danville.
Talk about your ministry in behavioral health.
I decided to work in behavioral health because, during my clinical practice, we were exposed to many areas to see what we were interested in. Behavioral health was attractive to me because I care not only for a patient’s medical condition, but also their spiritual condition in addressing their mental illness. In addition to giving patients their medications, I also provide spiritual help.
A lot of people come to me and say, “You’re a nurse and a nun?” Many of them say, “Sister, please pray for me.” They feel more at ease in sharing things about their life with me.
What do you enjoy most about being a religious sister?
The journey is a struggle, but along the line I discovered that the love of God is incomparable to any other love that I’ve seen or experienced. From the beginning of my religious life until this point, God has been ever-faithful. People can be unfaithful, but God is never unfaithful.
(Interview conducted by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness.)