For a generation of Americans, some of the most indelible images of the fall of Saigon is of South Vietnamese men, women and children clinging to the last American helicopters to leave the city 40 years ago this past April. For some, though, the end of the Vietnam War was not only the end of a story — but also a new beginning.
by Jessica Langdon
OVERLAND PARK — Born into a devout Catholic family, and the second of eight children, Oanh Pham was the daughter of a South Vietnamese soldier. Originally from central Vietnam, the family moved to Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, in the early 1970s, where the children attended Catholic schools.
At the age of 17, young Oanh already knew that she was being called to become a nun. She joined the Lasallian Vietnamese Sisters as a candidate when she was just in 12th grade.
But the following year — at the end of April 1975 — Saigon fell to the communist regime.
Chaos engulfed the capital, and her father urged her to get out of the country any way she could. She would have to leave him behind, he said, as well as her mother and siblings, who were living outside the city.
Oanh managed to join a group of Lasallian Sisters and Christian Brothers already planning to leave Vietnam together; they took care of all of the arrangements.
Her journey aboard an American ship to the United States involved none of the horrors or struggles experienced by others.
Then, sponsored by the Christian Brothers, the small group of Sisters settled in Fresno, California, where Oanh studied English in high school by day, and prepared for a career in nursing through college classes at night.
People said it wouldn’t be easy . . . and it wasn’t.
“They said there are two languages you have to deal with: medical terminology and English,” she said.
Oanh spent those first few years in America in California, in both Fresno and San Jose, studying, tutoring Vietnamese students and working with the Vietnamese communities there.
But eventually — especially as members of the group she’d traveled with left to reunite with family or friends — she began to experience culture shock for the first time.
“I realized I left my family,” she said. “There’s a possibility I may never see them again . . .
“From that time [on], culture shock hit me hard.”
Starting over — again
It’s difficult being an immigrant in any country. But Oanh found that the delayed shock of leaving her native land and her family, coupled with the lack of a clear vocational option, also weighed on her.
But then she caught a break.
At the encouragement of a visiting Benedictine Sister from Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison, Oanh began to think about making the move to an American community.
She decided to look into it and, if it didn’t work out, she would consider leaving religious life entirely.
When Oanh contacted Sister Noreen Hurter, the Benedictine prioress in Atchison quickly arranged for the young woman to move to the Kansas monastery — to both discern her vocation to religious life and the possibility of joining their order.
For a young woman who had already started over once in this country without friends or family, the move was a daring choice. She’d be going to a place where she didn’t know anyone and would be starting entirely over.
“When my friends heard about the news,” she said, “they said, ‘Are you crazy?’”
“I don’t know if I’m crazy or not,” she admitted to them.
But she put this decision, as she had every other major decision in her life, in God’s hands.
“God, help me with this,” she prayed.
She knew that doing God’s will was the way to finding happiness and peace in her heart and mind.
Now, looking back on that troubled juncture in her life, she feels God’s presence.
“So I think God’s helped me,” she said. “He’s given me encouragement.”
Oanh was immediately drawn to the hospitality and prayer life of the Atchison Benedictines.
And when she discussed with her formation director her dream to be a nurse, she was encouraged to pursue it.
By now a U.S. citizen, and after making her temporary vows to her new order, Sister Oanh went to Topeka with a group of Sisters and studied nursing at Washburn University.
When she became a registered nurse, she went to work at St. Francis Hospital in Topeka.
But she could not forget the family she’d left behind in Vietnam.
Inspired by another family that reunited in the United States and became like a second family to her, Sister Oanh began to think about what it might take to bring her own family to the United States.
She then submitted applications for her whole family to see if it would be possible to bring them all — parents, brothers, sisters — to a place where they might know greater opportunity — together.
Again, she turned to God.
“If it is your will, it will happen; if not, I will accept it,” she said.
The paperwork on the United States side wasn’t a problem. Although it was a long process, she eventually learned she would be able to bring her family members over to this country.
The question now was: Would the Vietnamese government let them leave?
So she started the paper chase again. And prayed.
A baker’s dozen — and more
Corresponding by letter with her father, Sister Oanh began to work the details.
Even the good news that her family could eventually join her in the United States didn’t really simplify things.
In fact, she now knew that she would need to help them get settled and find jobs in their new country, while guaranteeing through her sponsorship that they wouldn’t become a dependent of the American government.
It was going to take a lot of work.
And it was going to take a lot of money.
“So I considered maybe I [will] ask for a leave of absence to get the things ready for them when they come,” she said.
It seemed the only way.
Once her leave was granted, Sister Oanh moved to the Kansas City area and its larger Vietnamese community, hoping that it would cushion her relatives from some of the culture shock she had suffered.
Then the real work began.
The young nurse took multiple jobs, working seven days a week and saving every penny she could — enough to buy a house outright within a year.
“She was very determined to help her family get a better life, and she worked extremely hard to be able to . . . bring them over and provide while they got situated,” said Sister Mary Agnes Patterson, OSB, the community’s prioress when Sister Oanh took her leave of absence.
All her hard work paid off.
The first to arrive were Sister Oanh’s parents and the siblings who were not married at the time — including a brother who was born after she left Vietnam.
A few Benedictine Sisters were there at the airport with Sister Oanh to greet them when the family’s flight arrived.
“Hugging is not my custom,” admitted the reticent nun, “but when they first came, I hugged everyone. I can’t believe that it could happen like that. I always say it’s a miracle that happened to me.”
But Sister Anne Shepard, OSB, now prioress of the Atchison Mount community, said Sister Oanh’s example reminds her of St. Paul’s promise: “Nothing is impossible with God.”
“If you want something strongly enough, and you put your will and your hard work in line with God, it will happen,” said Sister Anne. “That’s the takeaway.”
Sister Oanh, she said, while always pleasant, professional, friendly and strong, is “amazing in her steadfastness.”
“One by one by one, she brought her family here,” said Sister Carol Ann Petersen, OSB, director of the Keeler Women’s Center in Kansas City, Kansas, and a housemate of Sister Oanh.
And not only her immediate family, but some extended family as well.
All 16 of them.
Together at last
Sister Carol Ann sees a lot of strength in Sister Oanh and believes it stems from her family.
“She had a loving, kind family that — even in the midst of war — was very true to their religion,” she said. “Religion was always so important to them, and I know it got them through a really hard time.”
It got Sister Oanh through her leave of absence from the community as well — an absence that lasted 10 years.
As her relatives settled into the area and began working in their own jobs, Sister Oanh continued to work to support them in their transition.
Sister Carol Ann knows Sister Oanh made tremendous sacrifices and had to have been exhausted, but reuniting her family was important to her.
“Staying together as a family meant coming across the ocean,” said Sister Carol Ann. “So often our [American] families can be so disintegrated and apart. It’s a wonderful testimony that what they do, they do as a family. They contribute so much to the community, the church [and] the economy.”
Community and family
Benedictine Sisters take a vow of stability, said Sister Anne.
Now that Sister Oanh’s family is safe and settled — mostly in the Overland Park area, but one of her sisters is now a nun in St. Louis — Sister Oanh has returned to her Benedictine community. There, she celebrated her silver anniversary last summer.
But she continues working in her longtime position as a nurse at Shawnee Mission Medical Center.
Sister Oanh loves the people she meets there, but especially enjoys seeing the people she cares for get well and go home.
“I learn from them, too, and [they] make me realize how blessed I am,” she said.
As time allows, she also helps some elderly members of the Vietnamese community with things like doctors’ appointments.
‘Just an instrument’
By most measures, the road from Saigon has been long and hard.
“She has been through a lot of suffering in her life,” agreed Sister Mary Agnes.
But Sister Oanh doesn’t see it that way.
“I am blessed [by] what I’ve been through,” said Sister Oanh. “I always think God is behind this. He just used me as an instrument to help my family come here.”