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June 8, 2015 | Volume 90 Number 16


photo: Sister Agnes Vinh Nguyen
Sister Agnes Vinh Nguyen

Sr. Agnes Vinh Nguyen prepares to celebrate 60th anniversary

A s she prepares to celebrate the 60th anniversary of making her religious profession of vows on Saturday, June 20, Sister Agnes Vinh Nguyen’s thoughts go back to her native country of Vietnam where she grew up. But she also recalls the harrowing journey she made to escape to the United States in 1975.

Born in Quang Tri, which she said is in the mid-section of Vietnam, Sister Agnes was the sixth of eight children in a Catholic family and attended Catholic school. She was born in 1933 and is now 82.

“In my village everybody was Catholic and we had sisters who taught in a parish school,” she recalled. “I was still young and thought I’d like to be like them.”

But when she was eight her family moved and her father sent her to a Catholic boarding school.

The order which attracted her was known as the Lovers of the Cross. Today the religious community has has two houses in California and one in Portland, Oregon. She entered the order at age 12 at Quang Binh.

“When I entered, I liked the way the sisters lived,” Sister Agnes said. “We were an active order and worked with the poor.”

She was assigned to teach in Laos, but her health was affected by the strain of studies and a physician advised her to not continue higher studies after high school.

“I was in a mission in Laos,” she said, adding that she was part of a group of nine sisters. “When the Communists came and took over South Vietnam, we heard the news on the radio. We cried and cried.”

With the Communists in power as of April 30, 1975, life in South Vietnam changed drastically. Sister recalled that the new government officials took priests and two nuns who taught in a Catholic school and made them attend a meeting in which their freedom was threatened.

They were able to escape when someone drove them at night to Thailand.

“We didn’t know what to do,” Sister Agnes said. “We knew a priest who worked at the Vatican and came from Rome to Thailand to sponsor members of his family to live in Rome.”

The priest urged the sisters to flee to Thailand, but it was difficult to leave. In the end, Sister Agness and two other sisters went to Thailand after the priest left each of them $400, which he said they would need to buy necessary items.

Sister Agnes lived in a convent in Thailand for one month, but later they told her and three other sisters to leave for a refugee camp where the condtions were primitate and they had to sleep on the floor.

“Priests or religious of an order of any faith did not need a sponsor to come to the United States so they made plans to come to the U.S.

“We landed in the United States on Nov. 1, 1975, and were taken to a holding camp in Pennsylvania,” Sister Agnes said, adding that she stayed there for 26 days.

“My sister was in the U.S. before me,” she continued. “She had been sponsored by a Baptist church and they agreed to sponsor me, too.”

She flew to Missouri and was taken to her sister’s home. Nearby was a cloistered monastery of the Sisters of the Visitation.

“I didn’t speak one word of English,” Sister Agnes said. But a Vietnamese-born nun who spoke some English brought her to a Vietnamese church for Mass.

Mother Anne, who was superior of the monastery in nearby Elfindale, invited her to “come out and celebrate the Feast of St. Agnes.”

After caring for her sister, who at the time was very ill, she made preparations to enter the Visitation monastery but it had to close due of low numbers. In 1978 she entered a monastery in Washington state which had merged two small communities. But soon after, that monastery also closed.

“In 1980 I had to start all over again in the novitiate for three years,” Sister Agnes said. “Then that monastery closed in 1983.”

Mother Emmanuel Stahl, superior of the Monte Maria Monastery in Rockville, Hanover County, continued the story.

“When a monastery closes the sisters are given a period of time in which the sisters are free to choose the monastery theyant to join,” she explained.

Sister Agnes first went back to Vietnam for a visit, but the Communists would not let her stay. So she went to Rome where her order—the Lovers of the Cross—had a monastery.

“I had to study the Italian language,” she said. “I get very nervous when I have to study.”

Eventually Sister Agnes decided that she felt attracted to the life of the Sisters of the Visitation so she visited the monasteries in Washington, D.C., Tyringham, Mass, in the Berkshire Mountains, and Monte Maria in Rockville.“Then she decided to settle down with us in 1995 after a long, long and hard, hard journey,” Mother Emmanuel told The Catholic Virginian.

“After being chased from place to place, her vocation lives even though it was tested by fire time and time again,” she continued. “It takes a strong soul to be faithful through thick and thin.”

Sister Agnes still has one sister and a brother who still live in Vietnam along with other extended family.

Another sister lives in San Jose, California.

“She has eight children and they’re all coming for my jubilee,” Sister Agnes said.

The 60th Jubilee Mass will be celebrated on Saturday, June 20, at 11 a.m. at the Monastery Chapel, 12221 Bienvenue Rd., Rockville.

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