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By Mary Ann Wyand
Two new Little Sisters of the Poor who answered God’s call to serve the elderly poor have very different backgrounds but the same love for the international ministry founded by Blessed Jeanne Jugan in 1839 in France.
Sisters Mary Grace Bates of Indianapolis and Martin Marie de Porres Tran, originally from South Vietnam, entered the order on Oct. 18, 2001, and professed their first vows on July 17, 2004, at the St. Ann Novitiate in Queens, N.Y.
The daughter of St. Luke parishioners Carl and Marjory Bates of Indianapolis, Sister Mary Grace attended St. Luke School and graduated from Bishop Chatard High School in 1996. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism at Indiana University in Bloomington and a master’s degree in library science at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis.
She met the Little Sisters of the Poor when Sister Lourdes Marie Miranda hired her to work in food service at the St. Augustine Home for the Aged in Indianapolis four years ago. And she met Sister Martin Marie during a vocations discernment retreat at the novitiate.
Sister Martin Marie now serves residents living in the intermediate care unit at the St. Augustine Home for the Aged. While a member of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Syracuse, N.Y., she felt called to join the Little Sisters after visiting their homes in Los Angeles and Scranton, Pa.
Both nuns say their love for God and the elderly poor transformed their lives.
“Ever since I was a young girl, I just had the sense that God was calling me to be a religious sister,” Sister Mary Grace explained in a telephone interview from the order’s Sacred Heart Home in Denver, also called the Mullen Home, where she began a new assignment in December.
“I could feel the Holy Spirit leading me [to religious life],” she said, “but it was not what I wanted for myself. I pictured my life doing other things … so I just tried to pretend that it wasn’t true and that was not what God was calling me to do. But when I was going to library school for a year, I started working at the St. Augustine Home and through meeting the Little Sisters I was able to see what religious life is really all about.”
Sister Mary Grace said she found “a real joy” in serving the elderly and sharing community life with the Little Sisters. She enjoys hearing the residents’ stories about life during World War II and the Depression, and feels privileged to experience the sisters’ joyful ministry.
“The residents have made all kinds of sacrifices in their lives,” Sister Mary Grace said. “I found it to be a real honor to be able to be with them.
“And I liked the joy and the humble spirit of the Little Sisters, how they quietly and simply were striving to serve God, how they live and work together for a common purpose, how their lives are centered around the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in the chapel at the home, and how they rely completely on Divine Providence,” she said. “It was like discovering the kingdom of God that I had experienced at home with my family. The sisters’ emphasis was on what God can do, on trusting God every day, and it was striking to me in this modern world.”
Before joining the Little Sisters, she said, “I was seeking meaning in my life. I was thinking that God has given me a life to live once, and I was desiring to live it according to his plan for me. I talked to my Dad about it, and he suggested that if I wanted to grow in faith to start going to daily Mass and to receive Communion as frequently as I could to strengthen me in the spiritual life. So I did, and that was about the time I met the Little Sisters. By receiving Jesus [in the Eucharist], my desire for God and my awareness of his love grew stronger and stronger.”
Sister Mary Grace’s first ministry assignment was at the St. Joseph Home for the Aged in Louisville, Ky. Last month, she received her new assignment in Denver.
“Just for myself and my own little vocation so far, I have discovered that a vocation to serve God in the religious life is really a precious gift whose value you can’t even put into words,” she said. “God does everything for us, and all the glory belongs to him. He gave me the grace [to answer his call], and I just feel a real peace about it.”
She encourages young people “to turn to God in prayer, to listen for his voice and to be open to his plan.”
Sister Martin Marie, whose family name is Binh Minh Tran, was raised Catholic in Saigon, South Vietnam, and loved attending Mass and receiving the Eucharist.
In 1975, the Vietnam War changed her life forever. Her father, Hung Tran, was “a major military officer” who helped the American efforts to overthrow the communist regime, but he was captured and imprisoned by the communists for 13 years.
When her father was taken to a communist prison, her family had to flee their home and lost all their belongings. Her mother, Kim Vu, took Binh Minh and her three younger brothers to live with their grandparents. While there, they were able to attend Mass at St. Martin de Porres Church in Saigon.
“My family was very poor,” she said. “Every day, my Mom tried to sell vegetables from our garden and repair clothes to get enough rice for us to eat. I went to St. Martin Church every day and prayed to him to help my Mom to get some food for us today.”
She chose St. Martin de Porres as her patron saint and later as her religious name because of his love for God and the poor.
“When I was a child,” she recalled, “I said to God, ‘I want to be like St. Martin to help the poor and the sick and to teach young people about God.’ I wanted to become bread for the poor and to care for them. That’s how my vocation started [at age 10]. But the communists made it hard for the young people [to learn about the Catholic faith].”
After her father’s release from prison in 1988, they were resettled in the United States in Syracuse, N.Y., in 1994 when she was a young adult.
After learning English, she attended college, served her parish as a Communion minister and catechist, and helped several priests serve Vietnamese people living in the area. Through parish involvement, she became more aware of God’s love and her desire to respond to his love.
“God protected us and let us come here,” she said. “With freedom of religion here, I wanted to become a sister. I was yearning to offer my life for God. I thought after I studied here I would go back to Vietnam to help my people. But now I recognize [that] wherever I go I can help the poor people. I love to serve the elderly people because I feel they need love and they are poor.”
She became an American citizen in 2000 then joined the Little Sisters in 2001. Last August, she was assigned to serve the elderly at the St. Augustine Home for the Aged.
“With the Little Sisters, I felt their hospitality,” she said. “I watched the way they joyfully serve the elderly … and they make the spirit of the home like family life. They respect the elderly. Our foundress, [Blessed] Jeanne Jugan—her spirit—is exactly like St. Martin, who took care of the poor and the sick people. What return could I make? Could I ever repay God for his love? [My prayer is] ‘Oh God, may I love as you have loved.’ I recognize God’s spirit in the elderly … and I feel this is God’s will for me. God helps me so much. He never fails to help me.” †