On a sweltering September day, three young women lay prostrate in front of the altar at St. Columban Church in Garden Grove. They were covered by a large white pall as they each promised to die to this world in order to be reborn in a new life with Christ. When they arose from these final vows the three new sisters, Lovers of the Holy Cross, embarked on a path that began in the mid-17th century in Vietnam.
For Kimberly Nguyen, one of the three professors, it was an unlikely journey taking more than a decade to bring her to this moment. She was born in Malaysia to parents who became “boat people” after escaping persecution in Vietnam in 1975. When Kimberly was a year old, the family was able to move to the United States.
“Growing up, I never ever thought I would become a sister because I was really ‘mean’ and loud,” recalled a smiling and vivacious Sister Kimberly. “The only hint was when I was in fifth grade, one time during the consecration at Mass, a homeless man walked into the church and frightened many of the people. But at that moment, a voice came to me asking me if I wanted to do this. That was the first time I ever thought about becoming a sister.”
Kimberly tucked that question into the back of her mind, where it settled while she pursued high school and college. “I had all these dreams for myself but it came to a point where I became exhausted, and just wanted to know what God wanted me to do with my life.” As she was kneeling in church, she asked God what he wanted from her. “I told God I will do anything for you but I really don’t want to be a sister. I want to travel and I don’t like to wear the same clothes every day. But as I prayed before that Crucifix, all I could hear was: ‘Why not?’ All the excuses I had felt unworthy, so I decided to give it a try and if it didn’t work out, I’d go back home.”
The Lovers of the Holy Cross were founded in 1670 in Vietnam by the Bishop Pierre Lambert de la Motte, M.E.P. for the French colonial territories Tonkin and Cochinchina. In 1902 the sisters established a congregation in Phát Diệm where a large Catholic cathedral still stands. In 1954 the sisters migrated to South Vietnam, after the country was divided at the 17th Parallel, following the Geneva Conference. A small number of elderly sisters remained in the north, to protect the motherhouse, but by 1968 most of the buildings were destroyed by bombings.
When Saigon fell in 1975, in the chaos the Mother Superior dismissed all the sisters who had not made final vows, and gave them permission to temporarily return to their families. On April 30, 1975, 28 sisters managed to leave Vietnam by boat, with nothing but the clothes on their back and some dried food. They had no idea where they were going to end up. Eventually they were reunited and sent to refugee camps in Pennsylvania and New York.
In 1978 the sisters were invited to the new Diocese of Orange by Bishop Johnson, to help minister to the many Vietnamese Catholics who had recently arrived in the county. Today they serve 14 parishes and have 4 convents in Orange County.
Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez presided at the September profession ceremony at St. Columban Church, and Bishop Thanh Thai Nguyen, Auxiliary Bishop of Orange, was the homilist. They were joined by 30 concelebrants at the Mass and 850 friends and family in attendance. In addition to Sr. Kimberly, Sr. Maria Huong Xuan Thi Lam and Sr. Theresa Lan Ngo also made their final profession.
The day also included a renewal of vows for several sisters, many of whom had arrived here in 1975. Celebrating 70 years with the Lovers of the Holy Cross were Sister Ann Chuyen Thi Nguyen; Sr. Mary My Le, and Sr. Martha Marie Phan Nguyen. Sr. Maria Rosemary Hong Nguyen celebrated her 25th Jubilee.
For the sisters making their final vows, and the older sisters celebrating a lifetime of service, Bishop Nguyen honored their commitment.
“By their vows, they announce to the Church and to the world that from now on, they commit their life to Christ, making constant effort every day along with other sisters from the same community, growing in inmate relationship with Christ, following their founder’s spirituality to let go and let God with one purpose – to preach the Good News of Christ crucified in their apostolic ministry.”
Sister Kimberly may not get to wear different outfits every day and travel the world as she had planned, but she now knows the answer to her question to God – and with abundant grace and the support of a large community of like-minded sisters, her adventure begins.