WAHPETON, N.D. — Certainly, she wasn’t the first teenager to flee her native country to evade religious persecution and communism, nor to land in America and, later, obtain a college degree.
But Theresa Nguyen can claim to be the first with such a dramatic history to end up at a small, cloistered monastery on the North Dakota prairie.
"I prayed, 'Jesus, if this is what you want for me, and if everything goes smoothly, I trust this is your will,'" she recounts of accepting an invitation to visit Carmel of Mary Monastery in Wahpeton.
It was July 14, 2018 — the same day her youngest brother would be making his perpetual vows as a Dominican religious on his way to the priesthood. Though conflicted about leaving her home in Houston and missing the solemn Mass, her mother urged her to go to North Dakota.
"In Vietnam, if you change plans, it’s not lucky," Theresa explains. "I knew we could still be united to each other by prayer."
Now Sister Theresa Marie of the Eucharist, her arrival at the cloister was the culmination of a journey begun years earlier, when she and her mother and youngest brother joined others on a boat leaving Vietnam to escape an oppressive government.
After temporary stops in Malaysia and Indonesia, they reunited in 1993 with three siblings and other relatives in San Francisco.
Theresa's father was the only one of their family of seven who stayed behind in Vietnam. He was a medical doctor, the one who had led his family into the Christian faith after befriending a priest. In the 1970s, he had served in the Army against the communists and, for two and a half years, was put into prison for that.
Sister Theresa was glad to report that despite the separation from his family and other trauma he underwent, her father, "by the grace of God, had all the last rites" prior to his death in Vietnam in 1996.
Theresa studied cellular and molecular biology in San Francisco, eventually settling into a career in research at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. But she would find the world unsatisfying, and the task of finding a husband, challenging.
"None of the relationships worked," she says.
One day, feeling bereft, she went to a nearby chapel and, through tears, prayed, and began to feel "very peaceful." Around that time, she saw the 1951 film "Quo Vadis (Where Are You Going?," about a woman who wouldn’t give up God for a man she loved.
"That movie touched me so much," Sister Theresa says, and led her to approach the nearby Dominican order. She also had a dream in which Mary, Jesus' mother, asked her why she hadn’t tried religious life.
"It was a very striking moment," she says, reminding her of other, seemingly prophetic dreams, all religious in nature, in childhood — the first, around age 10, when a statue of Our Lady of Fatima in her family’s home came to life and "flew" out of its plastic enclosure, wooing the young Theresa to the neighborhood church.
Each of these vivid dreams seemed a summons from God, she indicates, but after four years in formation with the Dominicans, mainly preparing young students to receive the sacraments, Sister Theresa was told she wasn’t a fit. She questioned why God would lead her on this path, only to be rejected. Eventually, Sister Theresa picked herself back up.
"What am I going to do, cry all day?" she says. "You need to decide your future."
Immediately, she began pursuit to join a more contemplative order, the Carmelites, and quickly discovered the door was not closed at all; it had only begun to open wide.
Answer to their prayers
Back in North Dakota, four Carmelite sisters living in a community that had dwindled through the years, from 22 at its fullest, had been praying for a fifth sister. The prioress, Mother Madonna, says she was convinced God would send someone.
When she saw the application from a Dominican sister in Texas, she responded immediately, and soon, was greeting Sister Theresa at the door of Carmel.
"I really admire her. She did not wait a minute to start searching," says Mother Madonna, noting that it was as if she had said, "'OK, God, I had all my tears, now I know I’m in your hands.'"
"I often think that tears are watering something; that they are seeds of the next step. Her vocation was being deepened (through them)," she says. "Now her rejoicing can begin in this community with all her gifts and talents that she brings."
Generosity and charity are among them, Mother Madonna says.
"She’s always ready to do whatever she can to help our community in any way," along with her love for Jesus and Mary, "which is so important to our way of life."
The formation of the young in their faith is a prayer intention Sister Theresa holds deeply in her heart, she adds. And through her knowledge of modern technology, she’s helped develop the community’s website and social media presence, also creating videos to share with those interested in their way of life.
At 48, and currently a novice in her formation — marked by a white veil — Sister Theresa will make her temporary vows in two years, and in four more, her solemn, professed vows.
"She comes from a culture that we’re not familiar with, so this is formation for her and formation for us," Mother Madonna says. "We’re all learning about each other every day."
Her spiritual director, the Rev. Peter Anderl, pastor at St. Boniface parish in Lidgerwood, N.D., says Sister Theresa’s courage stands out.
"I saw that the first moment I met her. The Holy Spirit was already revealing to me that she’d been through a very intense life," he says.
As such, Sister Theresa bears the "characteristics of a martyr," he says, someone who should have died along life’s treacherous journey.
"The fact that she was so beautifully guided, and the gift God gave her of her courage to keep persevering — there’s just a really beautiful charism there."
He’s not surprised she ended up here.
"It’s how Divine Providence works: my purpose, my plan, and the kicker, in my time," Anderl says of God’s design. "Through all the different twists and turns and crossroads, she always turned to God and said, 'Lead me Lord. Show me your way, your plan,' and, like Our Lady, 'May it be done to me according to your will.'"
Her great sense of humor also adds new life to the monastery, he says.
"She’s very alive, and she really loves Jesus. It’s no longer an intellectual exercise," he says. "He’s a real, living person, and she has absolutely and completely fallen in love with him and is here to serve him and his people."
Not long after arriving at Carmel, Sister Theresa was introduced to something unexpected — a community of Catholics in Fargo who had, like her, come from Vietnam. Though COVID-19 has disrupted her plans to get to know them better, she says, she hopes to reunite with them soon.
She smiles while talking of finding, at long last, the hidden place to which God had been leading her all along, even as a little girl in Vietnam, when her mother, a convert from Buddhism, lined up her five children to pray the rosary each night, encouraging them to stay close to God.
To friends dismayed by the world and relationships, she quickly advises, "Jesus has never failed me. Why don’t you marry Jesus? Jesus is the most faithful person!"
"What an amazing story," Anderl adds. "She just wants to be a saint — it’s written all over her."
Salonen, a wife and mother of five, works as a freelance writer and speaker in Fargo. Email her at email@example.com, and find more of her work at Peace Garden Passage, http://roxanesalonen.com/.