COLORADO SPRINGS. About one of every 500 people in El Paso County claims to be of Vietnamese heritage, according to the Census Bureau. That amounts to fewer than 1,400 people, and for the Catholics among them who want to celebrate Mass in their native language, they have one parish in Colorado Springs from which to choose: Vietnamese Holy Martyrs.
It was natural, then, that Salesian Sister Phuong Nguyen, born in Vietnam, educated since childhood in the United States and a newcomer to Colorado Springs, eventually would settle into a pew at Vietnamese Holy Martyrs.
“I like to go to a Vietnamese Mass when I can, you know, so I can go with my culture,” she said. I can go with my culture,” she said.
To say she was warmly received would be an understatement. In the year since Sister Phuong first walked into Vietnamese Holy Martyrs, she has breathed life back into its confirmation-preparation program and was instrumental in securing a full-time teacher for a parish that is chronically short of resources. Sister Phuong may be one out of 500 in Colorado Springs, but at Vietnamese Holy Martyrs she has been more like one in a million.
“Without the presence of Sister Phuong, I would only have a limited kind of program for religious formation,” said Father Joseph Vu, pastor of Vietnamese Holy Martyrs. “Now I have two of them on Sunday Mass run the Liturgy of the Word for children. That’s an awesome program that the kids really love. Otherwise, I would have to spend 10 minutes to give a short homily for the kids during the Vietnamese Mass, and it makes the Mass 10-15 minutes longer than normal. It’s a tremendous help in the celebration of the Eucharist.”
Sister Phuong was born in Vietnam in 1968, in the midst of the country’s civil war. Her family made it onto a boat two days before the fall of Saigon in 1975 and was rescued at sea by an American ship. They started their new life in Fort Worth, Texas, under the sponsorship of a Catholic parish. She and her four siblings grew up in Texas, and each of them went on to earn degrees — four in engineering and one in education.
“Ever since I was little, my parents have instilled a compassion for the poor in my heart by their examples of helping the less fortunate,” Sister Phuong said. “Through the mysterious way of God, I stumbled on a little booklet that described the ministries of the Salesians, especially for the young that are poor. It was a dream come true when I decided to give my whole life to God serving the poor in the Salesian Congregation.”
Sister Phuong is a member of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, an order founded in Italy in 1872 by St. Mary Mazzarello, who worked with St. John Bosco. Informally, they are known as Salesian Sisters, because St. John Bosco wanted his priests, brothers and sisters to emulate the kindness of St. Francis de Sales. Today, more than 13,000 Salesian sisters are working in 94 countries. In the U.S., they are active in eight states.
The order is dedicated to youth education, especially the poor. Several years ago, the order had provided one of its sisters to Vietnamese Holy Martyrs to help grade-school children, many of whose parents had limited command of English, with their American academics. Health problems forced her to step away, however, and the parish has been without an educator since.
Until, that is, last year, when Sister Phuong — who was assigned to Colorado Springs to teach 8th-grade religion at Corpus Christi School — arrived for Mass one Sunday.
“When I went here last year, they begged me to be the catechist for confirmation because they didn’t have anybody,” she said on a recent Sunday at Vietnamese Holy Martyrs. “So, as I helped them last year, I see the need. They have no (director of religious education), just a volunteer. There’s no program, no textbooks, nothing.”
Vietnamese Holy Martyrs gets by on very little. The parish is home to about 70 families and “250-ish” total members, Father Vu said. Many of the oldest parishioners, about one-third of the entire community, fled Vietnam in the 1970s, arriving in the United States in their teens. Without much education and even less English, they found what work they could. Today most of the parishioners work in nail salons, Father Vu said, and a handful with some technical skills work on electronics assembly lines.
“(These are) hard-working families,” Sister Phuong said. “They even work seven days, with very minimal education. Definitely you can see there’s no resources.”
“Financially, this parish cannot really support itself, because of the limited number of parishioners,” Father Vu said. The community helps raise funds by cooking up and selling Vietnamese food after Sunday Mass, but the budget is so tight, he said, that on some winter Sundays the offertory is enough to cover only the building’s utilities for the week.
The church building at the city’s center is more than a century old. Its brick Greek Revival stature gives the impression of a Masonic hall, and a variety of religious denominations have gathered under its roof through the decades. The Diocese of Colorado Springs bought it in 2002. It is a well-used building; the coats of paint have piled up and the corners have worn smooth.
And on a recent Sunday, it is full. The rosary, in Vietnamese, is in progress 15 minutes before Mass. A dozen young girls, in satiny white dresses, are assembled at the entrance to the nave. A solo voice begins to sing and the girls approach the altar, genuflect, and move in formations, rosaries draped over their upraised hands. It’s a parish tradition, Sister Phuong says, in honor of Mary. Then the Mass begins.
Following the Gloria, Sister Phuong joins 24 children in front of the altar, where they receive a blessing and are dismissed for study of the Word. She leads them out of the nave, down the stairs into the basement, and into a room too small to hold so many people.
“Hands in lap, prayerful. That’s beautiful,” she croons to the children as they drop into a jumble of chairs. “Today in the Gospel we have a great story,” she says, and reads from Mark about Bartimaeus, the blind man who asks Jesus to restore his sight.
“What is Jesus trying to teach us today?” she asks. “How many people have a perfect day? Or maybe not so perfect?” Hands go up. “Like Bartimaeus, what can we do?” A pause. “Ask Jesus.”
“Think of one thing Jesus can help you with right now,” she says. The kids put their heads down on their desks, and close their eyes.
She leads the older students to another room, where worksheets titled “Blind Bartimaeus” are waiting for them. They work quietly, attentively through the exercises, under Sister Phuong’s steady stream of encouragement. These are American-born youngsters, native English-speakers preparing for confirmation. They conclude by reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Vietnamese before returning to Mass upstairs in time for the Universal Prayer.
Providing religious education to the youngest children and confirmation preparation to the older ones is a lot for a single volunteer, even a trained educator. It wasn’t long after she began to help that Sr. Phuong sent out a call for reinforcements to the mother house in San Antonio.
“I told my provincial, ‘There’s really a need here for this parish with faith formation. There’s no guide, no formation, no books.’ So she was very generous to provide one sister to come here,” she said. This year, Salesian Sister Tuyet Nguyen took on religious education full-time at Vietnamese Holy Martyrs, while Sister Phuong continues to volunteer on the weekends.
During the week, her regular job is teaching middle-school religion at St. Paul School — a new assignment following her work for Corpus Christi School. An educator for 15 years, Sister Phuong has been a school administrator, a foster mom, and a summer camp director. She has done immigrant outreach and serves as religious superior for the local Salesian community. In Colorado Springs, she has supported the young-adult discernment program under Salesian Sister Bernadette Mota’s direction.
While juggling all of those ministries, Sister Phuong also is part of a team of Salesians that run vacation bible schools for six parishes, including two on the Eastern Plains.
“She’s one of the joys” of VBS, said Father Jason Keas, pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Cheyenne Wells and St. Augustine Parish in Kit Carson. “You can see how their charism for their community is for youth and the underprivileged; you just see it come out with the kids.”
On the plains, VBS occurs during the summer wheat harvest, an all-hands-on-deck time of intense community activity, and involves more than just the youngest children, Father Keas said. Kids as young as 10 or 11 might be singing Bible songs in the morning and driving tractors on the farm in the afternoon. Older siblings volunteer with the Salesians to help run the program.
“Even other churches, they come to our VBS, too,” he said. “It’s probably the most-liked out here because the sisters. They bring joy, and games, and they’re really enthusiastic.”
(Jeff Thomas is a member of St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish.)