When Thao Nguyen was younger, she never expected to become a nun. Even though she had grown up in a Catholic family, she didn’t think her personality fit the stereotype of what a nun was supposed to be.
“My sister and I — there were only two of us in the house — and she appeared to be a really solemn person, really serious. She had that holy look,” said Nguyen, 21. “I was the opposite. I’m talkative, really loud, so I never thought I had vocation before.”
But that changed when Nguyen’s sister joined Lovers of the Holy Cross, a Catholic order of Vietnamese nuns, and invited her to visit their convent in Santa Ana. Nguyen had noticed a shift in her sister’s demeanor — “she started to laugh at silly things,” she said — and thought that going to see her sister’s new life would help her understand why.
“I found my answer,” said Nguyen. “It’s because of the sisters who lived here — they live with joy.”
After she graduated from high school in 2014, Nguyen also joined the order, trading in jeans, jewelry and her cellphone for a life of prayer, service and, as she put it, joy.
At a time when Catholic church congregations are dwindling across the country and young people increasingly choose not to identify with any religious tradition, Lovers of the Holy Cross — which is based in Los Angeles and trains its new candidates in Santa Ana — has found a way to draw young women into religious life.
“We are growing as a community,” said Christen Nguyen, vocation director for the order, which has 85 women, whose average age is in the early 30s, in Southern California.
Lovers of the Holy Cross traces its roots to the 17th century, when French missionary Bishop Pierre Lambert de la Motte formed a community of Vietnamese women who would live, worship and serve the people together.
These communities soon began to flourish across Vietnam. But after the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the Communist takeover, sisters began fleeing the country, eventually resettling as refugees in the United States.
Theresa Phan, a historian for Lovers of the Holy Cross, was 21 when Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces. She escaped to Guam with a group of sisters. From there they resettled in Pennsylvania and started to rebuild their religious order.
“We had to start from scratch,” she said.
After moving around the East Coast for many years, Lovers of the Holy Cross found a home in Southern California. As large numbers of Vietnamese refugees — many of them Catholic — began resettling in the area, William Johnson, then the bishop of Orange, recruited sisters to serve this growing population in the diocese.
In 1989, they established a motherhouse in Los Angeles; by 2000, Lovers of the Holy Cross was affiliated with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the Diocese of San Bernardino and the Diocese of Orange, where they work in local parishes, schools, hospitals and nonprofit organizations.
While Lovers of the Holy Cross began in California as a group of Vietnamese refugees, it evolved into an order that now attracts women born and raised in the United States.
To do this, Christen Nguyen travels the country, reaching out to high school- and college-age women to teach them about the order. She also hosts “come and see” events in Santa Ana, so that women interested in learning more can get a taste of what life is like there.
A typical day starts with waking up at 5:15 a.m., communal morning prayer at 5:35, Mass at one of the churches nearby, followed by meditation. The women then go to work or school and reconvene at 5:30 p.m. for evening prayer, followed by group dinner at 6:30, chores, and recreation from 8 to 8:30. After that is personal time until grand silence at 10 p.m., when all phone calls, talking and music end until Mass the next morning.
In the “come and see” sessions — which are held up to four times each year — Christen Nguyen offers women one-on-one spiritual direction and encourages them to contemplate the big questions in life: What are you searching for, what are you called to do, how would you respond, and what do you offer?
This deep dive into spirituality cuts through the noise and superficiality of the modern world, said Christen Nguyen, and instead offers meaning and the joy that characterizes the group.
“We have different gifts and talents that must be used for a purpose,” she said. “You’re not going to be sad if you don’t live up to your purpose, but you’re not going to be as happy. There are people who don’t ask themselves that basic question — ‘Why am I here?’ They just go about, then at the end of their lives, they’re not happy, they’re not fulfilled.”
Thao Nguyen, also a student at Cal State Fullerton, agreed that this focus draws young people.
“These days, with social media, youth … a lot of times have to mask their identity, put up different personalities to get likes,” she said. “It’s so much of how our society values something else other than the authentic being. Even if we go to work, we have to not be ourselves to get a promotion or to be liked or accepted. So I think just being who we are is something that is attractive to youth.”
At first, she said, giving up social media, cellphones and other modern technologies was hard. “But now I feel like I’m free,” she said.
Most of the U.S.-born women who join Lovers of the Holy Cross are Vietnamese American, but the order is slowly becoming more multicultural.
This summer, Cinthya Velasco is slated to take her final vows and become the first Mexican American sister in Lovers of the Holy Cross.
Velasco, a 26-year-old from Anaheim, said that when she joined the community in 2013, the language barrier was “a really big struggle.” She questioned whether she should be there, but after some time — and prayer — she began to feel comfortable.
She started to learn Vietnamese, and the Vietnamese sisters also learned Spanish.
Picking up Spanish wasn’t just to connect on a deeper level, Velasco said. It was also in recognition of the demographics of Orange County.
“California itself calls, at least this particular order, to reach out far beyond one’s own ethnicity,” she said. “And our community is growing in knowledge and effort to do that.”
But what draws so many young women to Lovers of the Holy Cross needs no translation.
In a world full of suffering, Velasco said, this order offers an alternative.
“When people see us sisters, they don’t see that suffering. We radiate joy,” she said.
Kandil writes for Times Community News