By Dan Russo | Witness Editor
DUBUQUE — When four Vietnamese sisters first arrived at Mt. St. Francis, the headquarters of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Family in Dubuque, the beauty of God’s creation touched them immediately.
“We realized the leaves change,” recalled Sister Ha Chao, of their arrival in the fall of 2014.
The visiting women religious, members of the order of the Lovers of the Holy Cross, had lived in a tropical climate for their entire lives up to that point. Coming to the United States, they experienced autumn and winter with fresh eyes.
“When we were in Vietnam, we had only ever saw snow on TV,” said Sister Thao Nguyen, another one of the visitors.
The group is staying with their American colleagues for two years to study English. They began with very few English language skills and are learning rapidly with the help of attentive Franciscan teachers. In honor of National Catholic Sisters Week March 8-14, The Witness is taking an in-depth look at the special relationship that has developed between these two women’s religious communities since the young Vietnamese sisters arrived.
“Our goal is to help them with speaking, listening, writing and reading,” said Sister Charlotte Enright, OSF, the English language program coordinator for the Franciscans. “They’ve brought so much joy to our lives.”
Ultimately, the Lovers of the Holy Cross sisters hope to use their improved English skills to attend college, most likely to study education. A group of three other Vietnamese sisters recently completed a similar program with the Dominican Sisters in Sinsinawa, Wis. They are now studying at a college in Madison.
In Vietnam, three of the sisters now living with the Franciscans taught young children. The fourth, Sister Chi Huynh, was an embroiderer who made vestments for priests, with the income from this activity helping to support her order.
Now diligent students, the women spend hours each day learning the new language. Each is assigned a tutor from the Franciscans to help them one-on-one when they are not in class as a group.
“I admire their energy and enthusiasm for us older sisters,” said Sister Nancy Frommelt, OSF.
Despite a significant age gap between the four Vietnamese sisters and the Franciscans, the newcomers have been able to integrate themselves into daily life at Mt. St. Francis very well.
They usually wake up around 5:30 a.m. to study vocabulary. By 7 a.m., they join in morning prayer with the Franciscans. After breakfast, most days, it’s time for class. After lunch, there is more class, followed by an evening Mass and dinner. The visitors have also had the opportunity to study piano and Franciscan spirituality.
“We’re amazed at their comfortableness with us,” said Sister Mary Assumpta Glaser, one of their teachers. “They have a great desire to be with us. My goal is to help them understand the lives of St. Francis and St. Clare. I take quotations from books. Their homework is to write in their own words what the quotes mean to them.”
There has been a certain amount of cultural exchange as well. A few times a week, the Vietnamese sisters join together to pray in their native language. In December of this year, they performed music and dance in traditional Vietnamese clothing for the Franciscans.
The visitors also keep busy by performing jobs such as helping out in the kitchen, gardening or laundry. On two occasions so far, they have been able to visit American elementary schools, including Resurrection Parish School in Dubuque.
“We discovered many things and saw how teachers in America teach their students,” said Sister Ha.
Their presence among the Franciscans has also enhanced the spiritual lives of both groups. After seeing white flakes cover the landscape, Sister Chi was inspired to write a poem called “Snow: A Symbol of Grace.”
“I woke up and I was surprised,” she wrote. “I wondered why did my room shine… Wow! It’s snowing! All space was very bright. The creation project of God was excellent … God’s graces covered up me as the snowfall. I liked to see the snow alight on the roof and the tree. I wish I’d be the roof and the branches to catch God’s graces and my heart could unwind as the surface of the earth to accept all God’s graces.”
In a recent group interview, both the Franciscans and the Lovers of the Holy Cross sisters reflected on what inspired them to follow their call to a religious vocation.
Sister Charlotte was influenced by the example of a Franciscan teacher she had in high school.
“She saw every vocation in life as precious — whether it was single, married, priesthood or religious,” recalled the sister.
Sister Madonna Lang was attracted to the happiness she saw in sisters living out their lives.
“After I saw Mt. St. Francis, I knew it was the place for me because of the joy of the sisters here,” reflected Sister Madonna.
Sister Mary Assumpta also had Franciscan teachers who influenced her positively, but her realization of her vocation didn’ t come all at once.
“For me, it was a gradual process,” she said.
The Vietnamese sisters echoed some similar sentiments to their American counterparts, focusing on their love of God and desire to serve others.
“We want to live every day like Jesus,” said Sister Chi. “I love to pray for people who have sinned. I also love the poor.”
The visiting sisters aim to complete the English language program and then continue their educations in either the United States or Vietnam. They expressed gratitude to the Franciscans for hosting and teaching them.
“When in this community, the Sisters of St. Francis welcome us with love and hospitality,” said Sister Chi.
The Franciscans, in turn, feel blessed to have their Vietnamese students.
“They have enriched our community,” said Sister Susan Ivis, OSF, one of the tutors.
This story is provided courtesy of The Witness, the official publication of the Archdiocese of Dubuque.