50 Years: AnnMary Vu, SP
Given name: AnnMary Guong Vu
AnnMary Vu, SP
Born in 1947 in northern Vietnam, Sister AnnMary Vu had a mother of strong Catholic faith who taught herself to read and write and then taught her children using Bible stories. In 1954, when the Geneva Treaty divided Vietnam into North and South, the family was among nearly one million Catholics who went south to continue to practice their faith. If caught by Communists, they faced arrest or death.
Both parents worked day and night to afford an education for their children. As a third grader, Sister AnnMary was introduced to religious life at an Adorers of the Holy Cross convent and then sent to a Saigon boarding house for special studies. When she transferred to a high school run by the same religious community in Dalat, she discovered that she loved and excelled at mathematics.
Sister AnnMary’s father died when she was 13, and her mother raised their five children, all but one of whom became nuns or a seminarian.
Sister AnnMary entered the novitiate in 1962, right after her junior year. After first vows, she finished her senior year studies in the afternoons and taught 70 fourth graders in the morning. Next she earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and chemistry at Dalat University and was valedictorian in 1972.
Felt like caged bird in Saigon
When she was assigned to teach at her religious community’s boarding house for young girls and also at the regular high school for girls, the future looked bright. But on April 30, 1975, Saigon fell to the Communists and Catholics began trying to flee the country. All the members of her religious community gathered inside their biggest convent and school in Saigon. “I felt as if I were an active bird being caged,” Sister AnnMary recalled. “I kept praying harder and harder.”
She learned later that her family had gotten on a bus headed home from Saigon, but found everything in their house and her mother’s fabric store gone. Meanwhile, at the convent there was little food. Sister AnnMary recalled a book she had read and its advice to “thank God for even an unlucky thing, a loss, and a pain, etc. … for all are God’s graces.”
Sister AnnMary was assigned to stay and run the school. She discovered that while the Communists had the power, the people had the knowledge. Then nuns were prohibited from teaching and had to work in factories or fields. For six years, Sister AnnMary worked in a bamboo curtain factory, or taught piano to children and tutored. Her married brother was sent to a Communist prison for three years. Her younger brother, who already had finished theological studies, was not allowed to be ordained. He fled the country after several failed attempts, traveling to a refugee camp in Malaysia and then to Canada.
Family survives dramatic sailboat escape
Sister AnnMary’s family decided that they needed to escape together for the sake of the children. It was all or nothing; if Sister AnnMary stayed in Vietnam with her religious community, the rest would stay, too. “I discussed it with my superior and my spiritual director, and I prayed to God to help me decide,” Sister AnnMary recalled. Finally, her family escaped in a small sailboat in 1981, 11 people ranging from a 71-year-old to a 2-month-old. There was no food or drink.
“We put our faith and trust in God,” Sister AnnMary said. Despite a thunderstorm with strong winds and heavy rain, they floated until they were rescued by a German ship and taken to a Philippine refugee camp. Three months later, she and her mother were sent to Germany, and two years later Sister AnnMary was reunited with her religious community in Portland, Ore., in January 1983. She learned to speak English in community college classes and then enrolled in computer science at Portland State University.
Helped organize canonization of Vietnamese Martyrs
After graduation she worked on Catholic publications in Vietnamese in New Orleans, helped organize the canonization of 117 Vietnamese Martyrs by Pope John Paul II in Rome in 1988, and set up a print shop for her religious community in Portland in 1992. She was sent to the Washington (D.C.) Theological Union for two years, and then to the Institute of Religious Formation at St. Louis University for a year before returning to Portland to become formation director.
In 2000, Sister AnnMary requested and received permission to enter a transfer program into the Sisters of Providence, Mother Joseph Province, and prepared to move to Seattle in June. She suffered a stroke and a second one four months later. She completed her transfer in a ceremony in Seattle in October 2003.
“During three years of my probation, I did find that the Sisters of Providence community’s charism perfectly matched mine,” she said. The words of Mother Joseph (“Whatever concerns the poor is always our affair.”) and of St. Vincent (“When you no longer burn with love, others might die of the cold.”) have been two beacons leading her tirelessly toward the poor and the needy wherever she goes. “The more I’ve served, the more I’ve gained energy; nothing could stop me,” she recalled. Serving others has brought her closer to her God every minute daily.
Recently, Sister AnnMary moved from Spokane to St. Joseph Residence in Seattle. She is taking it all in stride. “I truly believe that Provident God let things happen along the way of my life to guide me to choose His plan for me where He could show His loving care to me.”