A few days ago, I saw two or three friends from Seattle years posted on Facebook a tribute on Raymond Hunthausen, former archbishop of Seattle, on his death at 96 years old. (The writer is Fr. Michael Ryan, rector of the Cathedral parish and one of the spiritual chaplains of the L’Arche community that I belonged.) By a coincidence, the next morning  I came across two items while looking at some old issues of a magazine by Vietnamese Catholic refugees, and one of them shows a photo of the late archbishop presiding over a mass among Vietnamese refugees in 1978.


The occasion was the confirmation of sixty-five children in May 1978, and the refugees had a procession of Our Lady of Fátima prior to the mass. As I’ve written in another post, there was an intimate association between Our Lady of Fátima and anticommunism in Western Europe, North America, and other parts of the world. This association was certainly familiar to the Catholics in South Vietnam, thanks in part to the promotion of devotion to her by many Vietnamese in the clergy, religious orders, and the laity. Even though I don’t know specific contents of this procession, it is a fair assumption that it included some direct or indirect expressions against communism along with many prayers for the Vietnamese country.

Anyway, the one name that caught my eyes wasn’t Archbishop Hunthausen but a refugee nun by the name of Lê Thị Lý.  Sister Lý was in charge of catechism and Vietnamese language classes for Vietnamese children in this community, and her name also appears in a list of ads published by the same magazine. Because separation was very common after the Fall of Saigon, there were many of these ads in periodicals published by Vietnamese refugees during the 1970s and 1980s. In this case, Sister Lý’s ad is #23. Her patron name is Agnes, which appears in this ad. As you’ll see soon, she was commonly known as Sister Agnes Ly among Americans. (Per Vietnamese custom, she’d be known as Sơ Lý–Sister Lý–among her co-ethnics.)

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Well, it blew my mind partially because Sister Lý was living on the same street where I’d live some years later. In fact, St. Joseph’s Convent was only three blocks away from the house where I lived for seven years during the 1990s. The convent was next to St. Joseph’s Church, which has been administered by the Jesuits for decades. By the time that I came to Seattle, the convent was no longer there and the building became, I think, the Jubilee’s Women Center to help homeless women. Because of the largely white population in Capitol Hill, the church drew mostly white parishioners even when I was living there. (It might have been different since the 2000s.) Some of the people I knew went to the same parish school then high school at the Jesuit-run Seattle Prep not far away. Looking back, I think the 1980s was the end of St. Joseph’s as a neighborhood parish. The 1990s probably saw its transition to the common reality among many Catholic parishes today that many parishioners do not live in the neighborhood.

The ad also blew my mind because there were few Vietnamese, if any, living in Capitol Hill in 1978: a reality that must have been very hard for Sister Lý. At the time, Vietnamese Catholic refugees worshiped at the Immaculate Conception Church in nearby First Hill: the site of the procession and confirmation above. Sister Lý probably walked or took the bus there for work. Immaculate Conception was much more racially mixed due to a number of Filipino and black Catholics, and I’d guess that this parish served as a temporary center for Vietnamese Catholics until they moved to a small mission church in, I think, the Yesler Terrace neighborhood. In 2010, the Vietnamese eventually had their own parish at the Church of the Vietnamese Martyrs in Tukwila, a suburb to the south of Seattle.

In any event, the ad made me think about how awfully lonely it must have been for Sister Lý during those years. Since the Vietnamese report does not mention any other nun, I assume she was the only Vietnamese nun living at that convent–perhaps with one or more American nuns; perhaps not. My assumption on her status as the only Vietnamese at the convent was confirmed when I looked into the archival documents gathered from my last trip to Washington, DC and found one that mentions her by name.  Here is a portion of the document, a report written by the liaison between the refugee nuns and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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This document was dated almost a year before the Archbishop’s visit to the Vietnamese community. Which means that Sister Lý might have left the community shortly after that visit. Or maybe she stayed longer. I hope to find out more about her and the two other nuns.

Even without further knowledge, this portion of the letter actually says a lot about the difficulties faced by the Sisters of the Holy Cross and other religious refugees during their initial period of resettlement in the U.S.  Not only they lost everything, including their noncommunist nation and their beloved Vietnamese Church, but they were also separated from loved ones in Vietnam. Further, circumstances led to their experience of internal separation among their own community in America. Let that sink in for a minute.

This point is especially poignant when we look at the list of ads. According to ad #23, Sr. Lý simply looked for “family and friends.” That’s it. No specification. No particular names.  Let that sink in for a few moments too.

As for the rest, here is a brief summary of each one:

  • #20. Mr. Tích is looking for Mr. Giám with wife and four children (four names).  Were Tích and Giám related? It doesn’t say, but they had the same last name.
  • #21. Mr. Công looks for “relatives and friends” who may be “stuck in refugee camps, please contact his address above immediately so he could get sponsorship.”
  • #22. Godparents Hồng and Dieu lookf forgodson Phú.
  • #24. This one has an American looking for two possible refugees: Major James Bigelow looks for Major Thanh and Lt. Colonel Châu, who had trained at Fort Benning.
  • #25. Mr. Huỳnh looks for Thu and her son Tuấn. This ad isn’t clear… Was she his sister or his older cousin or unrelated? Was it he or she (and the boy) that were at Fort Chaffee?

In my American survey course, I often train students to analyze a wide variety of ads: tobacco ads in the colonial South, ads looking for runaway slaves and indentured servants, ads of bicycles in the 1890s and automobiles in the 1950s, so on and so forth. These Vietnamese refugee ads have become a part of American history. Perhaps they will be useful for teaching US history some day.