Answering God's call brings Vietnamese, American Sisters together

by Renae Bauer
published February 2016

If Sister Yen Thi Bui and Sister Lan Thi Nguyen had any doubts about leaving Vietnam to study English in the United States, the doubts were wiped away the moment they pulled into the driveway of a west Green Bay home.

Through the January snowfall, Sisters Lan and Yen spotted two women, Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross Anne Margaret Carmody and Agnes Fischer, waiting at the front door.

“It was dark,” says Sister Yen. “I saw two Sisters welcoming us.”

“I will never forget,” says Sister Lan. “I felt happiness.” A few Wisconsin hugs quickly turned this group of strangers into friends.

The Vietnamese Sisters are part of a contingent of religious sisters and priests who are studying English in the United States. Their group of about 150 people met in Houston in December for an English jump-start program before dispersing across the country in early January for long-term programs. Sisters Lan and Yen, who are vowed in the Lovers of the Holy Cross order, will live in Green Bay while they study English at St. Norbert College in De Pere.

When they have completed their English studies, Sisters Lan and Yen would like to teach English to other Sisters and children in Vietnam, and help translate between their order and international organizations. The Lovers of the Holy Cross Sisters serve people in Vietnam through health care, social work, and education for children ages 18 months to 5 years old.

‘A great learning experience’

Several Vietnamese Sisters have lived and studied in Northeastern Wisconsin but this is the first time the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross have hosted foreign Sister-students.

“The reason we said yes to the two Vietnamese Sisters was because they had a need for housing and we had a place for them with Sisters Anne Margaret and Agnes,” says Sister Donna Koch, Community President. “We wanted to accommodate them with room and board while they attended classes at St. Norbert College and we also realized it would be a great learning experience for us in hosting Sisters from another culture.”

American independence & Vietnamese respect

The four Sisters agree that they are learning about each other’s culture -- food, transportation, government and cultural perceptions of age.

“One of the things I’ve learned is that our culture focuses on independence and efficiency. Their culture expects the young to help older members,” says Sister Agnes. If it were up to Sisters Lan and Yen, Sisters Anne Margaret and Agnes “would never wash dishes or vacuum, so we’re trying to understand each other.”

Sharing culture through prayers, meals & lives

The typical day at their westside home begins with 5 a.m. prayers followed by Mass. The Vietnamese Sisters then catch a ride to campus while the American Sisters are, depending on the day, heading off to daytime ministries or going home to sleep after nighttime ministries. Sisters Lan and Yen ride the city bus home, arriving by 5 or 5:30 p.m. for dinner for which everybody takes turns planning and preparing.

“We can eat Sisters Agnes and Anne’s cooking,” says Sister Yen. The Vietnamese Sisters have been introduced to -- and like -- pizza, hamburgers, butter, cheese, bread, squash and meatloaf. They have discovered ketchup.

Of their Vietnamese counterparts, Sister Agnes says: “They make great fish, stir fry, soup and excellent eggrolls.”

Prayers follow dinner. All four pray in the house chapel and use the Franciscan Morning and Evening Praise book. In two months’ time, Sisters Lan and Yen have added praying in English to their Vietnamese prayers, says Sister Anne Margaret. The only exception is the Magnificat: Sisters Lan and Yen sing a lovely Vietnamese version.

When asked what they pray for now that they are in the United States, Sister Lan says she asks for help with her studies and for good health for everybody in the house, the Community here and back home. Sister Yen asks God to prepare her for whatever plans and challenges lie ahead. There are also prayers for vocations, the homeless, Pope Francis and for people in the news that day.

After prayers, Sisters Lan and Yen study for several hours before going to bed.

The four Sisters genuinely enjoy each other’s company. Whatever cultural differences there might be, the Catholic faith and the holy cross unite the four of them -- the Lovers of the Holy Cross and the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross.

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CREATING COMMUNITY: Sister Agnes Fischer, left, and Sister Anne Margaret Carmody, right, welcomed Sister Lan Thi Nguyen, second from left, and Sister Yen Thi Bui to their Green Bay home in January. Sisters Lan and Yen are from Vietnam and are living with Sisters Agnes and Anne Margaret while they study English. (Renae Bauer photo)