In May and June 2014, 6 sisters from the Congregation of Dominican Sisters in Bui Chu, Vietnam arrived in the United States to begin a 2-year residence during which they will learn to speak, write and read English and prepare for college studies. They are hosted by the Sisters of Jesus Christ Crucified and the Sorrowful Mother at the Convent of Our Lady of Sorrows in Brockton, Massachusetts. Several of the CJC sisters and several lay people serve as tutors for the Dominican sisters.
Raimondo DiBona and Steve Cavanaugh sat down with the 6 Dominican sisters (Srs. Thuy, Thoa, Quyen, Ngoc, Yen and Lanh), the CJC superior Sr. Mary, and Fr. Bao, SJ from USA’s Jesuit Southern province, who has sponsored the sisters coming to the US, to talk about the program and the plans for these sisters.
Q. How did the Sisters of Jesus Christ Crucified come to be involved with the sisters from Vietnam?
Sr. Mary: I got a phone call from Fr. Bao back in 2009. At that time he had arranged for two sisters to attend Stonehill College, in nearby Easton, Mass., on scholarship. The administrators at Stonehill pointed us out to him as the closest congregation where the sisters could live. This was the first group of Vietnamese sisters to come to the East Coast. These sisters were from the southern part of Vietnam, and members of the order of the Lovers of the Holy Cross.
Q. How do the young Dominican sisters relate to the older sisters in the convent? How do the Dominican and Passionist sisters’ special devotions differ?
Sr. Mary: It’s been a good experience for the sisters here; having the younger sisters has helped us a lot. The two previous groups of sisters, both of whom were members of the Lovers of the Holy Cross, had a similar charism focused on the Passion. I feel that I have to learn more about the Dominican spirituality.
Q. How did the program with the Vietnamese sisters start?
Fr. Bao: I saw how the sisters were treated as second-class citizens at home, and that many were treated as servants, as basically clerical help in the chancery and parishes. I felt that they could be doing far greater service and that education would help. The first two sisters to come here cried when told they would be coming to America, because the indoctrination they had received made them afraid to come to the US. But their thinking changed radically after they arrived.
Q. Have sisters who have come through the program gone on to further education programs?
Sr. Mary: Srs. Duong and Hen both had degrees before they came here. Sr. Hen is getting a Masters in Social Work at Boston College. Sr. Duong has a Masters degree from Boston College, and is now studying for her doctorate at the School of Theology run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in San Antonio, Texas.
The 4 sisters who came in the second group are also in college. One of these, Sr. Trang, had a degree in social work; but the others from the south did not, because there is no easy transportation to the cities where the educational facilities are located.
Q: Please tell us a bit about the history of the Sisters of Jesus Christ Crucified.
Sr. Mary: The CJC were founded in northeast Pennsylvania, although the motherhouse, in an unusual move, has been moved here to Brockton, Mass. We had taught in the Boston area, and Cardinal Cushing invited us to come here, and we moved here in 1946. The present convent and land had been the poor farm for Brockton. We were originally founded to help orphans and widows in the coal-mining region of Northeast Pennsylvannia. Our founder was a Passionist priest, and a great preacher. But he felt there was a need to help the widows and orphans of the miners.
We are now a one-convent order. It was a very difficult thing to move from Pennsylvannia and close the convent there. We gave our sponsored works over to Covenant Health System, which includes a nursing home in Pennsylvannia and the nursing home and adult day care here in Brockton. I still travel to Pennsylvannia for monthly board meetings of the nursing home.
There are only 15 sisters left in our order. In the 1990s, we decided that we wouldn’t accept new sisters, because we felt it was unfair to a young person to live with only elderly sisters. But we also decided that we will live out our lives fully until the last sister dies. I always remind the sisters that we exist for mission, not maintenance.
We are looking to the future, and want to continue our legacy of helping the elderly and the poor. We have moved out of one part of the convent, so it can be renovated. We were originally working with the Brockton Housing to create housing for the elderly, but at the time Brockton Housing did not have enough funds to do the work. We are now working with Urban Development, via an introduction from Cardinal O’Malley of Boston. We are still keeping Brockton Housing involved, and when we do set up elderly housing we will have representation from them on the Board of Directors.
We then turned our questions to the Dominican sisters themselves, to ask about their experience in the United States so far.
Q: How were you selected to be part of the group to come to Brockton?
Sr. Yen: Our superior chose some of us in our convent; she asked each of us individually if we would like to come. One sister did decline to come, because her father is terminally ill and she wanted to stay close; we had freedom to come or not.
Q: What do you think of the program?
Sr. Lanh: I like the weather here, but I am not always happy, because I have trouble understanding when others speak.
Sr. Yen: I like living with the sisters here, because they are very holy, and are very kind to us.
Q: Have you learned as much as you thought you would?
Sr. Thoa: In Vietnam I could speak just a little English, but I have learned a lot more here and am very happy. I like the program with the Sisters of Jesus Crucified and the Sorrowful Mother. I feel we all can speak English better.
Q: Part of the program is working with the elderly at the Nursing Home. How do you like that?
Sr. Thoa: We are all very happy to visit at the nursing home because everyone is very happy to see us and we receive their love for us.
Sr. Yen: I am very happy because we can help the old people a little; I can pray with them, and help them make simple pictures and sing with them.
Q: What else do you like about your stay here?
Sr. Quyen: I love learning to drive.
Sr. Ngoc: I have passed the written driver’s test. I don’t like some food here, because it is so different, but I like barbeque and beef and turkey,.
Sr. Mary: All of the groups from Vietnam have had trouble adjusting to the different foods, especially dairy food.
Sr. Thuy: What I likes the most is the experience of the sisters’ love, that they really care for us. When I went to the nursing home, they make me feel very moved. In Vietnam we don not have nursing homes, because in our families all the elderly live with their families. The residents are happy when we come, and I want to pray for them.
Sr. Thoa: When we return to Vietnam, we will remember how generous everyone was here, said.
Sr. Mary: In America now, because of the decline of the number of sisters, the elderly don’t see as many younger sisters and the residents just light up when the sisters come.
Fr. Bao: There are huge differences in the cultures of Vietnam and the West. Because of the Confucian philosophy that is part of Vietnamese culture, which is more hierarchical; older people are more respected than in the West.
Q: How is the English learning program set up?
Sr. Mary: Each Dominican sister has a teacher among the CJC sisters they go to for English, and then some lay teachers, like Mr. Cavanaugh and yourself, who teach them as a group. The sisters are assigned seating in the dining room, and the seats are changed occasionally so that they get to know all the sisters. They are treated as part of the community and do not live or pray separately from the rest of the sisters.
Sr. Thuy: If we speak Vietnamese in the house we have to put a nickel in a jar, and the money will go to the poor. I think Sr. Mary will need to get a new bucket!
Q: Are the sisters learning reading, writing and grammar?
Sr. Mary: There are three people teaching phonics. Studying English is not just for daily communication, but to prepare them for college. The goal is to learn English, to prepare them to enter college, hopefully after 2 to 2 and half years, so they can apply for scholarships, usually at Catholic colleges.
Fr. Bao: Next year the sisters will hopefully get involved with Academic English. Their bishop and superiors want them to get their bachelor’s degrees; some will also be able to pursue post-graduate degrees. We have formed a charitable group “Formation Support for Vietnam” to assist the sisters. We have helped more than 170 priests, seminarians, and sisters to come to the USA for study, although most are on the East Coast.
Q: Is part of what they are learning the differences between the communist culture and that of the USA?
Fr. Bao: There is communist, patriarchal culture in Vietnam while there is a greater emphasis on democracy and human rights here in the US. So yes, part of what the sisters are learning is about the different culture here in the USA.
There are no Catholic schools or universities in Vietnam, although only a few weeks ago, the government did give permission for the Church to open a Catholic university. Only 10 out of the sisters’ congregation have college degrees; the others have the religious formation offered in the convent, but then go on to work in the farms and villages.
Q: Tell us about the Dominican congregation in Vietnam.
Fr. Bao: There are about 300 sisters in the Dominican congregation in the diocese of Bui Chu (a small diocese 150 km south of Hanoi). There are 35 novices this year. There are 5 different houses for the sisters. The average age is 25-30 years old. There are many postulants and candidates. This is the first group to come here to the US. The patron saint of the diocese is St. Dominic. It was evangelized, in the 17th century by the Dominican fathers, after the Jesuits left.
Q: Mr. DiBona said that as a lay Dominican, he knows that in Vietnam there are many lay Dominicans, more than in any other country. He asked the sisters if they have had contact with the Dominican laity there?
Sr. Thoa: All the parishes have Third Order Dominicans (i.e., Dominican Laity). All the sisters have parents who are Dominicans, except Sr. Lanh and Sr. Yen.
Q: What do you hope will happen when you return to Vietnam?
Sr. Lanh: I would like to help the elderly; seeing how much the elderly enjoy the visits of us sisters, I would like to do the same.
Sr. Thoa: When I finish in the US I will spend part of my life helping poor children. There are many poor children who cannot continue school. My dream is that having learned about education, is to be an educator.
Sr. Yen: My dream would be to teach young children.
Sr. Quyen: I would like to help children with disabilities; because my congregation helps about 200 orphaned children.
Sr. Ngoc: I would also like to help children when I return to Vietnam.
Sr. Thuy: Our congregation always serves in the parish. I will offer free classes in English. But I will need help to buy books for everyone.
Mr. Raimondo A. DiBona, OP is a life professed Dominican. A graduate of Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island (1959), he is a retired public school teacher. He is the past president of a Boston chapter of the Dominican Laity, and has authored several articles on the Dominican Laity and a series of commentaries on the Rule of the Lay Fraternities of Saint Dominic. He has also become one of the tutors working with the Dominican sisters.
Mr. Stephen Cavanaugh is one of the tutors working with the Dominican Sisters in Brockton. A graduate of the University of Massachusetts in Boston, he has been a teacher in public, private and Catholic schools, and has been active in the music ministry of several Catholic churches. He currently works as a managing editor of two medical journals and is the editor and a chapter author of Anglicanism and the Roman Catholic Church: Reflections on Recent Developments (Ignatius Press, 2011).