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Carmelite novice finds peace and happiness
in her life of prayer
By Mary Ann Wyand
Born in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, Discalced Carmelite Sister Mary Joseph Nguyen has found peace and happiness half a world away at the Monastery of St. Joseph in Terre Haute.
Her childhood years were filled with adversity, but her faith and loving family led her through the turmoil of war in Southeast Asia to safety in the western United States and later a contemplative life of prayer as a Carmelite nun in the Midwest.
Her father served in the South Vietnamese army and helped the American government, she said, but after the war communist officials detained him at a re-education camp to brainwash him with new government doctrine. She was forced to relocate with her mother and four siblings to the New Economic Zone in Vietnam.
In early 1978, when her father was released from the re-education camp, her parents decided to find a way to escape to America. But more danger lay ahead for the Nguyen family. In the summer of 1982, after she finished the seventh grade, her family and several neighbors tried to escape on a small fishing boat but ran out of water and food. On their fifth day at sea, a severe storm with huge waves forced them to return home, and they were arrested.
“I remember walking barefoot for so long before we arrived at the jail,” she said. “The police separated my mom and dad and the rest of us so they could question us individually. We had no communication with one another. Because we were very young, they let us stay outside the jail cells. … My mom pretended she was pregnant and needed medical attention badly. After a week, they released her. My father stayed in prison for three and a half years without a trial. The government confiscated our house and everything in it.”
Accused of “betraying the country,” the Nguyen family had to start a new life without any belongings.
“Having nothing left, we lived a few days here and there with my dad’s relatives,” she said. “We had to start our lives from the beginning again. No one could imagine what we had gone through. At night, I could hear my mom cry. I wept too and asked God to comfort us, to strengthen us and to take away the suffering.”
When she was in the ninth grade, her mother tried to send her to the United States with her older sister and younger brother, but they were arrested and imprisoned for a month before being released to go back to school.
“My sister and I attempted to escape a lot more times after that but never made it to America,” she said. “When my dad was released from prison in the summer of 1986, he tried to escape to America again but the police found out and searched for him. To avoid being caught and sent back to jail, he secretly moved from one place to another and eventually to a small fishing town south of Saigon. While he was hiding from the police, my mom continued to try to find a way for him to go to America. This time, we decided to split up our family. My dad took my older sister and younger brother with him in the summer of 1987. They got on a boat to escape to America. God blessed our family. That boat made it to the Philippines. A year later, they settled in California.”
In September 1992, she journeyed to the United States with her mother, younger sister and baby brother, where they were reunited with her father and siblings. She couldn’t speak English then, but was able to earn a scholarship and degree in management information systems in 1999. After graduation, she worked at a credit reporting company until God called her to religious life in the summer of 2003.
While working full time, she was an active member of her parish, where she taught sixth-grade religious education classes and participated in the young adult ministry twice a month for Bible study, reflections and service projects.
“I had a full and promising future ahead of me,” she said. “However, life was not very satisfying for me because something was still missing in the very depth of my heart.”
In October 2002, she participated in a silent retreat and spent this quiet time reflecting on her life and God’s presence in her life.
“I have come to appreciate God much more and am very grateful to him for the grace to have him in my life and for his abundant blessings,” she said. “I started going to retreats more and spending more time in prayer. I would come to church to adore Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.”
During these “wonderful vacation times with God at retreats and alone with him before the tabernacle,” she said, “I started to have a sense of God inviting me to religious life with his very gentle but persistent voice inside my heart. The feeling grew stronger and stronger each day. I tried not to think about it; however, the more I ignored the feeling the more it came back to me.”
At first, she doubted that God was calling her to religious life.
“I never thought I would be a cloistered nun because I was very active and full of energy and fashionable,” she said, “and I love my family so much that I would never have the courage to live away from them. I asked God for a sign [to] clarify the thoughts of God calling me to religious life.”
Later, she realized that “God doesn’t force me to say yes with hesitation and doubt. He wants me to return his love with my whole heart, to trust him completely and to willingly give up what he has given me with a generous and joyful heart. He won. After a few years of discerning, I decided to say ‘yes’ to him. When the decision was made, peace and happiness took possession of my soul. I happily quit my job, said goodbye to my very dear family and left everything behind to devote myself completely to God.”
At the Monastery of St. Joseph in Terre Haute, Sister Mary Joseph said, “I am enjoying my life as a young Carmelite novice in this beautiful and loving community. In silence and solitude, I embrace the whole world in my heart and present it to God in unceasing prayer. My life is more fulfilling and satisfying because what was missing inside the depth of my soul has been found. God called and I said ‘yes’ to him. I continue to ask God to guide me and give me the courage to faithfully follow his call with love and joy.” †