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Passing on the faith


Sister Cecilia Nguyen’s own faith was nurtured under the dark cloud of Communism and has survived war, displacement and resettlement in a foreign land. But when the gentle 72-year-old Dominican Sister speaks of her 50 years as a vowed Religious, it is her role in passing on the faith to Vietnamese children and young people that is uppermost in her mind.

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“If children and youths do not know God, they therefore cannot love God,” she told The Southern Cross.

Sr Cecilia

“If they do not love God then they cannot listen to their conscience and cannot spread God’s Word. Their journey through life will surely be empty and meaningless.”

Sr Cecilia was only six years old when her family of nine was forced to leave North Vietnam after the Communists gained control.

Like many other Catholic families fleeing religious persecution, they arrived in South Vietnam with “no money, no belongings, no shelter” and relied on support from the South Vietnam Government.

“After a little while, our family was amongst a group of Catholic immigrants who settled in Ho Nai, Bien Hoa province which is around 30km from Saigon,” she said.

“Soon after that a parish was established called Thanh Tam (Sacred Heart) Ho Nai; there I received my First Communion and Confirmation sacraments.

“Our family was then relocated in Go Vap district of Saigon where we were living closer to the church and school, which were more convenient as I could go to church and school by myself.

“During my primary level of schooling, I had seen Sisters in black habits and veils (Sisters of Mercy) and on one occasion when I took my sister to the hospital, I saw a nun in white habit and a black veil (Dominican). I was thinking how beautiful these Sisters were.”

After finishing primary school she expressed interest in becoming a Dominican Sister to her parents and when she was nearly 16 she entered the novitiate.

“From my early childhood, after reading the story about the life of St Therese of the Child Jesus, I was passionate about bringing Jesus and his teachings to many people through the ministry of catechesis,” Sr Cecilia said.

“I dreamt about it and put every effort into making my dream come true.

“I still remember the day when I made my final vows as a Dominican Sister…I was surrounded by God, my extended family members, my friends and all the Sisters in the priory. But the best part was I was allowed to visit my family after three years of staying in the priory without seeing them.”

In 1975 South Vietnam lost the war and the entire country became Communist. Many convents, priories, monasteries and schools were closed indefinitely.

“I could not continue my teaching and was not interested in retraining or learning a new skill. Instead I went to our large convent in the countryside and helped out with manual labour such as cooking, sewing, cleaning, gardening, visiting people in their homes,” Sr Cecilia said.

In 1982 she escaped from Vietnam in a small fishing boat.

“After two days and nights of battling with the ocean and continually praying to God and the Virgin Mary to keep us safe, we were rescued by a big merchant ship which took us to Singapore,” she said.

Sr Cecilia with young people at the Singapore Refugee Camp.

In a refugee camp in Singapore, she helped Fr O’Neil, an Australian priest who was the camp chaplain, to prepare the altar for Mass and teach catechism to children and adult catechumens.

“After a few months, there were lots of people becoming Catholics,” she said.

Through the late Fr Augustin Duc-Thu Nguyen SJ, former chaplain of the Vietnamese Catholic Community (VCC) in SA, she gained the sponsorship of the Dominican Sisters of North Adelaide to migrate to Australia.

After five months in the camp her application was approved and she resettled in Adelaide.

Sr Cecilia recalled arriving at the North Adelaide Priory where she was warmly greeted by Fr Augustin, the Superior and other Dominican Sisters.

“The atmosphere of the convent brought back my memory of an earlier time at the convent in Vietnam,” she said.

“I was so happy and emotional.”

Fr Augustin then asked the Superior if Sr Cecilia could help him with the pastoral care of the VCC at Pooraka, which had been established just a few years earlier.

Since July 1982, Sr Cecilia has been instructing young children and new catechumens in their faith and preparing them for the sacraments, as well as preparing the altar and sanctuary, arranging flowers, visiting the sick and taking Communion to them.

Children and young people from the Vietnamese Catholic community celebrate Sr Cecilia’s 25th year as a catechist.

She also has the role of assistant chaplain to the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement, the Legion of Mary and the Lay Fraternities of St Dominic. Every January she organised and attended youth camps in the Adelaide Hills, often during a heat wave. She was “lucky enough” to accompany young Vietnamese people to World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2013.

“During my 39 years of service in Australia and 11 years of it in Vietnam, I have not done any extraordinary things but was just an ordinary person serving God’s people and taking everyone on my faith journey as a family,” she said.

“To be a Dominican Sister is to follow Christ freely and dedicate myself to Him through the vows, to live a life of poverty, detachment and simplicity whilst sharing the truth of the Gospel to the wider community through teaching of the Catholic faith.”

While she is passionate about helping with the religious formation of youth, she said the role of parents and grandparents was also “very crucial on this journey”.

“Let’s do it together and the result is seeing children and youths being obedient and gracious; we are all happy.”

Referring to the papal blessing presented to her recently by Archbishop Patrick O’Regan at the annual Commissioning Mass for Catechists, Sr Cecilia said she felt privileged and humbled to receive public recognition for “simply fulfilling my call to serve God’s people”.

“I could not have achieved this without the continued love and support of my Dominican Sisters, the parents who are the first educators of their children, the catechists and, of course, the children themselves.

“I believe all of these deserve and have indirectly received this blessing.”


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