Daughters of Charity recall early days of their vocation

The Daughters of Charity, one of the oldest orders of religious sisters, dates back to the early 1600s with about 14,000 active members throughout five continents. Currently, the Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau is home to three of those members.

Sister Cecilia Nguyen wanted to join the convent at the age of 13 in the 1980s when she lived in Vietnam, but her mother told her no.

At age 24, Sister Lucia-Lam Nguyen knocked on a convent door to the Daughters of Charity in Saigon, present-day Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, to ask to join.

For Sister Frances Vista, the vocation came from God’s repeated signals while she worked as a Safeway clerk in her early 20s and attended community college in San Francisco.

The path to a convent comes from many roads. It involves not only realizing a vocation to God, but careful consideration of finding an order that fits one’s natural gifts.

Sisters Cecilia, Lucia-Lam, and Frances are a small community who live and serve in east Anchorage. Sr. Cecilia is the chaplain at Providence Extended Care; Sr. Lucia-Lam serves the homeless for Catholic Social Services; Sr. Frances serves as director of Catholic Native ministry for the Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau.

The mission statement of the Daughters of Charity says: “Our founders, St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac, invited us to go wherever there were poor people, and this is where we would find Christ.”

The Daughters offer themselves to God through simple annual vows. They live in numerous communities for the service of those who are poor. The Daughters go where people suffer to offer service, support, and friendship. And they stand in solidarity with those in need.

In Anchorage, the three sisters are busy serving the needs of the sick, the poor, those who require hospital care, and those who crave spiritual help.

Sister Cecilia

Sr. Cecilia grew up in a family of eight children in Saigon.

“My name is Luyen Thu Nguyen, but when I became a citizen, I chose my baptism name Cecilia Nguyen,” she wrote in a short biography of her life. “I wanted to become a sister at age 13, but my mother said, ‘no, you are too young to think about it. You have to finish high school first.’”

She grew up around a convent of sisters in Saigon from the age of 7. Her family ranged from a 20-year-old sister to a three-month-old baby brother, all raised by their mother alone. Her father was imprisoned by the North Vietnamese Communists because he was allied with the Americans. Sr. Cecilia would not see him for 13 years.

“When I was five years old, 1975 was a year of misery, an unpleasant history to many Vietnamese because it was when the communist from the north took over the south of Vietnam,” Sr. Cecilia wrote.

A couple of years prior to Sr. Cecilia’s “year of misery,” a truce agreement under the Paris Peace Accords concluded in January 1973 after five years of on-and-off negotiations. Up to 3.6 million civilians and military died in Vietnam during the war, according to historical accounts.

Fighting continued after the truce. The regular North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong launched a major second invasion in 1975. Communist forces overran Saigon on April 30, 1975. In July 1976, North Vietnam controlled the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam, and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north merged to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Sr. Cecilia said her mother suffered much during those years without her husband.

Sr. Cecilia’s mother was considered a good cook, who owned her own restaurants, and an excellent basket weaver. Sr. Cecilia recalls helping her mother create “beautiful straw baskets and hats” with her sisters using materials they purchased from neighbors. However, this only brought meager earnings.

“We led a very simple and impoverished life for many years,” she said.

At the age of 7, Sr. Cecilia and some of her siblings were sent to boarding school to receive a Catholic education and learn a good religious foundation. Their mother worked hard to earn money for their education.

At boarding school, Sr. Cecilia recalls one soft-spoken sister who was always friendly and good-natured.

“She had many beautiful virtues that I compared with our Blessed Mother,” Sr. Cecilia said. In those years, she learned how to pray, meditate, read, and reflect on the Gospel. They were good models who helped her grow spiritually.

“While at boarding school I lived with the sisters at the convent and followed their morning schedule that began with 4 a.m. morning prayers and Mass. I had devoted three times a day for prayers [and] one time for Holy Hour, daily rosary, and confession every month. I lived there until I finished 8th grade,” she wrote.

While with her friends one day in town, she saw her father who’d been released from prison.

“I thought he was a homeless man. I was stunned because that old man I met was my father. So, I cried and ran to him,” Sr. Cecilia said. “We were united, but I did not have a lot of days with him.”

Sr. Cecilia attended boarding school six days a week.

Sr. Cecilia’s family was later selected to move to America through a humanitarian operation program.

“On an unforgettable hot summer day in 1991, my family and I were having lunch together when a mailman appeared and delivered a big envelope with a seal of the American government,” she said. “Most of us stopped eating and looked at my sister who was holding the envelope, trembling with excitement. After a moment of hesitation, she opened it.”

Her parents’ eyes sparkled with tears. The letter stated that the American government offered the family an opportunity to come to the U.S.

“Our entire house was filled with joy,” she said.

But along with the excitement, Sr. Cecilia felt concerned. Would she be able to continue her vocation? Would she have the freedom to practice her religious belief?

The family was relocated to Garden Grove, California. Later, Sr. Cecilia moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to enter the Vietnamese Convent of the Sisters of the Lovers of the Holy Cross of Missionary of the Quy Nhon in January 1995. She transferred to the Daughters of Charity in 2007.

Today Sr. Cecilia has a busy role as chaplain at Providence Extended Care. She comforts those brought in after tragic health problems disabled them, often with the families of clients as well. She is also completing her master’s degree through St Joseph’s College of Maine; she acquired a Bachelor of Arts earlier in 2022.

Sister Lucia-Lam

Sr. Lucia-Lam Nguyen also grew up in Saigon during the turbulent war years. In high school, she felt so strongly that she made a private vow to God.

“I didn’t share with others [that I wanted to become a nun]. I had a strong feeling I wanted to join a quiet religious community,” Sr. Lucia-Lam said. “We were in Saigon City [Ho Chi Minh now] before 1975.  We would hear bombs explode from a distance and gunshots sound close to the fall of Saigon.”

The St. Clare Community and the Carmelites seemed like the right order.

“I didn’t know myself well at that time,” she said. The Carmelites are an order of cloistered contemplatives, a community dedicated to praying for the Church and all people. They do not mix with the public.

Sr. Lucia-Lam went to a priest who had known her best.

“I asked him for a recommendation letter to St. Clare. You couldn’t do anything without a letter of introduction,” she said.

The priest knew Sr. LuciaLam through her active participation in the choir where she played piano and sang.

He refused.

“I was upset,” Sr. Lucia-Lam said. “I didn’t speak to him for many months. But he knew me better than I knew myself.”

Though he passed away, their friendship lasted decades.

Sr. Lucia-Lam worked at home for her family business. She approached the mother superior of the Daughters of Charity. That time she came with no letter of recommendation or application. At age 24, she knocked on the door.

Even without paperwork, the mother superior agreed to take Lucia-Lam.

“I was so surprised,” she said. “It was like a miracle for her to accept me.”

“It was very chaotic,” she said, referring to the Daughters of Charity house in Saigon. “There were 600 hundred children in a daycare at the Mother House.  There was a separate class also in there with 20 street children. I worked with both groups.”

Like Sr. Cecilia’s life, Sr. Lucia-Lam’s upbringing was marked by the war’s upheaval and political oppression.

“My father went to the Communist concentration camp for almost six years as he had worked for the government in the South,” Sr. Lucia-Lam said. “Our house was taken.

Though it was hard for my family, I experienced life in the countryside and with nature for a few years.”

What affected her and her family most was seeing an un-

just government.

“The suppression created distrust and fear for us,” she said. She lost the opportunity to continue college. “Our names were in the ‘black book.’ So even though my brothers passed the entrance exam to go to university, their names were erased at the local level. And I experienced the same a few years later.”

They also lost basic freedoms like going to church.

Then, because her father was an officer in the government and spent years in prison, he and the whole family was sponsored by the U.S. government to enter the country as refugees in 1991 through the Humanitarian Operation program, a subprogram of the Orderly Departure Program (ODP) from Vietnam.

The ODP was established under a 1979 “Memorandum of Understanding” between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the government of Vietnam. The program‘s goal was to provide a safe and legal means for people to leave Vietnam rather than clandestinely by boat, according to a document from the U.S. General Accounting Office’s International Division.

In April 2022, Sr. Lucia-Lam was sent to Alaska from her mission in Utah. She now works as an art and music teacher at Catholic Social Services.

“I offer art and music sessions to our guests — men, women, mothers, children,” Sr. Lucia Lam said. “I invite them to express themselves, their experiences, their journey, their hopes, and dreams.”

Spiritual care equals physical care, Sr. Lucia-Lam says. “All equally important. People respond well [through art]; it brings out their journeys. I love seeing God in their artwork,” she said.

Sister Frances

Sister Frances Vista completes the trio of Daughters active in east Anchorage.

Daughters are missioned where they are most needed as determined by the leadership of the Daughters of Charity, Province of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in northern California. Sister Frances is presently the director of the Catholic Native ministry for the Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau.

This work involves both culturalization and evangelization stemming from outreach work at the Alaska Native Medical Center, facilitation of Kateri Circles, and community organizing. On the third Saturday of each month, a Native mass is held at St. Anthony Catholic Church at 825 Klevin Street.

Sister Frances’ road to becoming a sister with the Daughters of Charity wound around a busy time in her young life when she juggled studies at a San Francisco community college, worked full time for Safeway, and contemplated buying a house. Yet she also attended prayer with the Daughters of Charity, called Liturgy of the Hours.

“For three years, I joined them [in prayer],” she said. “The journey started from there.”

Yet, it was to the Maryknoll Sisters that she wrote a letter of inquiry.

“I wondered: ‘did the letter get lost? I never heard back from them. Was that a sign?’” she said of her spiritual quest. “I wanted to be a missionary with the Maryknoll Sisters, but I continued to mingle with the Daughters of Charity and continued to pray.”

God again steered her in the direction of the Daughters of Charity though she was offered the position of manager at the Safeway store where she was a clerk. At age 24, she was the youngest and the second female to be offered that position in San Francisco, she said. But she wasn’t sure she wanted to accept it. She also was trying to buy a house, but another buyer’s offer was accepted first.

“Everywhere I turned, roadblocks were thrown up. I thought God is really hounding me,” Sr. Frances said. She later found out that the sisters were praying for her. “Then suddenly it hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew what God wanted me to do.”

Sister Frances entered postulancy at 25 years of age. And at the end of her initial formation, she was doing missionary work, the kind of vocation she’d had in mind all along. Her ministries included parish work in Colorado, hospital spiritual care, counseling for developmentally disabled children, and social work for Meals on Wheels — all in California.

She then went on to serve as the director of St. Jude Food Bank in Arizona on the Navajo reservation for 13 years. Sr. Frances’ experience of working with various tribes in Arizona led her to be missioned to work with Alaska Natives in the Archdiocese of Anchorage in 2010. Years later in 2019, she was asked to return to Anchorage once again, where she continues to work with Alaska Natives.

“I would say to those who are discerning a vocation to consecrated life, that it is important to not ignore the call of God but continue to listen and pray,” Sr. Frances said. “If need be, talk to a person who knows you well, perhaps a good friend, parent, or spiritual director who can help.

“And be happy for your final decision,” she said.


'Daughters of Charity recall early days of their vocation'
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