A Calling to Serve

Jan. 13-19, 2005
A Calling to Serve
By Claudia Mathis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
The United States Catholic Conference of Bishops reported in July 2004 that there is an increase in the number of ordinations from those born outside of the U.S. Two examples of this trend are found in the ministries of Sister Michelle Nguyen, D.C. and Deacon Thienan Tran.

Sister Michelle journeyed long and hard to reach her position of parish minister at St. Francis de Sales Church in Utica. She was born in Saigon, Vietnam, and lived there until she was 18 years old, when she escaped the country by boat. She was born into a poor family and was the only member of her family to attend church. When she was seven years old, she visited an orphanage and was impressed by the fact that the children didn’t have parents. At that point in her life, Sister Michelle vowed, “I will live for them and take care of them.” When she was 12 years old, her parish priest asked her if she would like to go and live in a community of sisters. She joined the community of sisters against her mother’s wishes. Even though she felt alone, she felt that God was calling her to help the poor. Sister Michelle believes that she has been guided by God on this path throughout her life. When she was a teenager, Sister Michelle struggled to leave her country because of political unrest. It wasn’t an easy escape, because she tried to leave nine times, with the ninth time being successful. The second attempt at escape resulted in a six-week stay in prison. While in prison, she prayed, asking God to help her with her release so that she could help the poor in another country.

When Sister Michelle escaped Vietnam, pirates raided the boat she was riding in and she survived on very little food. She was rescued by some fishermen and taken to Thailand. Sister Michelle worked for six months in Thailand as a translator for the U.N. She helped people prepare for the sacraments of baptism and marriage. After working in Thailand, Sister Michelle joined the Daughters of Charity community in Montreal. She became involved with the local Vietnamese community. She organized Bible camps for university students. After serving 19 years in Montreal, Sister Michelle settled in Utica, and is a parish minister at St. Francis de Sales Church. She enjoys the spirit of belonging and the feeling of unity that she experiences in her parish. “We share everything at Mass,” said Sister Michelle. “It’s wonderful! I pray that it will continue like that.” She is also pleased with Father Fred Daley. “We’re really lucky to have Father Daley — he really cares about the poor,” said Sister Michelle.

Sister Michelle plays a vital part in the interaction between the neighboring Vietnamese community and St. Francis de Sales Church. She takes Communion to the Vietnamese people in the hospital and also visits them in their homes. She often works as a laison with social workers and encourages families to work with the director of religious education in the church. Sister Michelle tries to encourage young people to be helpful to the church. “We should welcome and support the young — they are the future of the church,” said Sister Michelle. Sister Michelle feels very happy and fulfilled in her position of parish minister. “I am happy because it is very important to serve the poor,” said Sister Michelle. “It is a blessing for me to live in this community. I’m a missionary for the church.”

Deacon Thienan Tran was also born in Vietnam. He was ordained as a deacon in March 2004, and is scheduled to be ordained a priest in June 2005. He realized that he wanted to become a priest at 16 years old when he served as a choir director at St. Martin De Pores’ Church in Vietnam. Deacon Tran was immensely inspired by the words of the songs that the choirs sang at the Eucharistic celebration. “The words helped me to recognize how much God loved me and encouraged me to respond to God’s call,” said Deacon Tran.

Deacon Tran left Vietnam with his family in 1992. They came to Syracuse after his father was released from prison. A captain in the Vietnam Republican Military, he was put in prison in 1975. After he was released, his family applied for a program sponsored by the U.S. government to enable them to immigrate to the U.S. Deacon Tran believes his success is due to the influence of his parents. “They were great models for me,” said Deacon Tran. “They took me to church. My mother taught me how to pray when my father was in prison.” He knows that the values he learned when he was growing up in Vietnam have influenced him in his career. He learned to respect and love his parents and elderly people. “We should remember where we came from and show that we really love them for what they do,” said Deacon Tran. He has also learned to be patient in his prayer life as he waits for God’s answers. “I continue to be faithful to God, and he gives me what I need,” said Deacon Tran. He is very grateful for the help and support he received from the Asian Apostolate and the Vietnamese community at St. John the Evangelist Church when he and his family arrived in Syracuse. After arriving, Deacon Tran participated in the job training and English as a Second Language programs at St. Lucy’s Church in Syracuse. Then he attended Onondaga Community College, majoring in music education.

Deacon Tran has been studying to become a priest since 1995. He attended St. John Newman Residence in New York City, studying English as a Second Language and philosophy. He graduated from St. John’s University in 2000. He then entered Theological College Seminary to study theology at the Catholic University of America. He spent his pastoral year at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Syracuse in 2003, returning to the seminary when it was completed. He was ordained to the Order of Deacon at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

Though many people have inspired Deacon Tran, he feels that Jesus and Mary have been most important in showing him how to respond to God’s call. “They are perfect models for me to imitate,” reflected Deacon Tran. “God is using me to speak to the people. I hope I can continue to be an instrument of God to give joy and peace to the people. I hope that young people can see that the priesthood vocation is wonderful. It’s so great to be part of the priesthood of Jesus Christ.”

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