By Deacon Joseph Laundy and Josh Low
Born a few hours from Saigon in a small Vietnamese village known as Dau Tieng, Sr Therese was the eldest of four children in a family that held the Catholic faith close to their hearts. She attended the local Catholic school run by the religious Sisters of the Lovers of the Holy Cross of Thu Thiem, and said the Sisters there later impacted her decision significantly as a young girl in wanting to become a religious Sister herself.
After making her final profession of vows (for the second time) at Banksia Grove Parish last week, we bring to you an insight into the interesting life of Sr Therese that led her to this momentous occasion.
When she first approached her mother at the age of 13 with the desire to become a religious Sister, she was met with opposition to the idea, with her mother expressing that her responsibility to her family was a God-given priority and responsibility in her life, due to being the eldest of the children.
After some time passed Sr Therese still had a strong desire for a religious vocation and after spending time in discernment together with the spiritual guidance of the Assistant Priest at her Parish, she made the decision to enter into the convent.
Her parents, however, were still opposed to the idea and even went to the convent in an attempt to persuade her to change her decision but eventually accepted after seeing her firm resolve.
Sr Therese made her first vows with the Sisters of the Lovers of the Holy Cross of Thu Thiem at age 21 and worked in the primary school as a teacher while journeying through her congregation’s formation program.
Nine years later she took her final vows and taught in a Catholic Secondary Boarding School run by the Convent for six years until 1975.
“To me, this was what I thought I was going to do for the rest of my life,” Sr Therese said.
However, when Saigon fell to the Communists in May of 1975, all Catholic Churches, schools, orphanages and associations were shut down, with the government taking away their schools for conversion into secular institutions.
In what Sr Therese describes as a ‘traumatic and chaotic time’, she temporarily left the convent and lived with her family but still remained in vows.
But the situation worsened and Sr Therese was forced to make a difficult decision.
“I could stay and potentially be killed or flee to another country. If I stay, I die. There was no future,” she said.
“I thought maybe I could save my convent and family if I go… but it was a very tough decision.”
She chose to flee with a friend, travelling on a boat to Malaysia with hardly any food or water.
“We got a small bowl of rice and one teaspoon of water per day and only had the clothes we were wearing,” she said.
After landing on a deserted island and setting fires around to signal for help, they were saved and taken to a refugee camp by the Malaysian High Commission, where they stayed for three months before being sent to Sydney and later to Perth in 1981.
Even though she had left the convent, Sr Therese still saw herself dedicated to God and wanted to continue her life of service to the Church even if her congregation was only in Vietnam.
“I approached Sr Mary Therese Ryder, the leader Sister of Our Lady of the Mission in Maylands, Perth to see what I could do. She was very helpful but I still wanted to know what God wanted me to do.
“I was told that I was not ready to enter and had to stay out, working and supporting my family. I accepted that as God’s will and I was happy.”
“I wrote a letter to the Mother Superior in Vietnam asking to have time apart and she was very compassionate and understanding, because many of the Sisters were in similar situations.”
“All the while, I kept asking the Lord to lead me in the life He wanted. I would say ‘Lead me Lord, please lead me’.”
Sr Therese joined the Legion of Mary in 1983 and worked among the lay members, while supporting herself as a factory machinist for a sporting clothes company and helping her family overseas financially.
“Being the eldest, I still had to support my mum and younger brothers and sisters,” she said.
Her spiritual journey continued with the Sisters of Our Lady of the Mission, whom she says were ‘a powerful source of strength’, attending their fellowship meetings and retreats, being treated like an “adopted Sister”.
She sponsored her mum to come to Australia – as a way of thanking her for all her hard work and sacrifices made for her during her life – where her mum lived for four years until she passed away.
Her mother’s passing was a significant turning point in Sr Therese’s life.
“I thought that my mum’s passing meant that my responsibility to my family was finished. I said thanks be to God, this is the time. It is fulfilled, now I can belong to you, God.”
But Sr Therese had to put her calling on hold again to care for her younger brother.
“I thought, ‘How long, O God do I have to wait?’” she said.
She said she received her reply while in prayer, explaining that she heard the words “My time is not yours.”
After her brother became independent 10 years later, she had to decide whether to join the Our Lady of the Mission Sisters or return to her congregation in Vietnam.
She reapplied for a return to the Sisters of the Lovers of the Holy Cross of Thu Thiem, with the congregation agreeing to accept her on the condition that she start from the beginning and take her first vows and undergo the formation program again.
In an interesting turn of events, the Mother Superior who approved her petition for her first vows, along with the Diocesan bishop who received those vows at the Mass, were former students of hers.
Upon returning to Australia, she lived in the community of the Convent of St Joseph at South Perth, with Banksia Grove Parish Priest Fr Vinh Dong helping to bring other Sisters from the Lovers of the Holy Cross of Thu Thiem over to Perth to establish a community.
Sr Therese made her final profession at a Mass celebrated by Auxiliary Bishop of Perth Donald Sproxton at Banksia Grove Parish on Friday 12 May, with her motto for her profession; ‘Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.’ (2 Cor 9:15)
“I would like to tell the young Sisters and young people that religious life is a very precious treasure, like gold,” she said.
“Living outside the convent makes you realise that… don’t forget it.
“Always have one love, and that is Jesus Christ,” she concluded.