Q & A with Sr. Grace Duc Le on the 350th anniversary of Lovers of the Holy Cross
Sr. Grace Duc Le says the 350th anniversary of Lovers of the Holy Cross congregation should be an occasion for the sisters to renew themselves, renew their community life and evaluate their calling for service to people who are poor and suffering, especially women and children.
Speaking with GSR at the Lovers of the Holy Cross’ motherhouse in Los Angeles about the community, its apostolates and its sense of future direction, Le, who was elected as superior general in the 2018 general chapter, says the chapter already spelled out directives for the sisters to follow through 2022.
Founded by Bishop Lambert de la Motte in February 1670, each Lovers of the Holy Cross congregation is autonomous and independent from each other. The Los Angeles community officially began in 1992 with Cardinal Roger Mahony, former archbishop of Los Angeles, as ordinary bishop. Le said today, the Lovers of the Holy Cross of Los Angeles have 66 professed sisters, four novices, seven postulants and seven candidates in eight communities. The average age is 48.
GSR: Marking 350 years of Lovers of the Holy Cross, what are you planning for the celebration?
Le: We have been discussing going back to our roots to renew ourselves. Our vision and sense of direction is to renew, adapt and joyfully live out our spirituality and charism.
The general chapter in 2018 also decided to provide directives for the sisters for the next four years. This year, we are focusing on the renewal part. Pope Francis called us to a life of renewal and to go out to the peripheries. We are in the midst of dialoguing and brainstorming of how to live out our charism.
Our renewal will begin with each individual sister. We are called to live a well-balanced life. As a community renewal, we are working on being more supportive and loving to each another, making it a spiritual community. As a community in society, we want to enhance and expand our services to the disadvantaged and the poor. We also want to start a lay associate inviting lay collaborators to take part in our mission and living our spirituality.
I know in our Bishop Lambert’s time, he really treasured the life of children and the unborn. He asked the sisters to go out and baptize infants. As I began my ministry as superior general, I asked my sisters to be more proactive in the pro-life movement, like going for the Walk For Life sponsored by the diocese. We asked the sisters to call on students for the walk, to go to Mass, and pray.
In the bishop’s time, abortion was unheard of. But not at this time, when abortion is more prevalent, particularly in Vietnam. In Vietnam, a number of Lovers of the Holy Cross sisters go out to collect aborted fetuses and hold a proper burial for them. We can’t do it here in the United States. However, we will try to step up with the walks and going to Mass.
Besides being proactive in pro-life movement, we also will try to do more for the youth and young adults. We know today young people have many difficulties, and we want to help them. This will be part of our mission in the next four years.
What about the actual jubilee celebration?
I have requested the Vatican to declare a Jubilee Year for us from September 2019 to September 2020. We will have two thanksgiving Masses, with the opening Jubilee Year Mass in the Diocese of Orange and the closing Mass in Los Angeles. We will have a picnic, a social and a walkathon, but we will call it a “soul-a-thon.” We will walk and we will pray the rosary to intercede for the suffering and the poor. The event will be a family picnic gathering. There will be talks on spirituality.
Besides that, we will organize workshops, like evening spiritual events with Mass included and a talk on a topic based on our spirituality as well as adoration. We will have a spiritual production on the life of Bishop Lambert and the mission of the Lovers of the Holy Cross. In November 2020, we will also participate in the annual celebration with other Vietnamese Catholics commemorating the martyrs of Vietnam, with a reenactment of the lives of the martyrs. There are over 300 Lovers of the Holy Cross who were martyred but are not officially recognized.
Your congregation has been in the United States since 1975. When did it become the Lovers of the Holy Cross of Los Angeles?
There are two sisters who came here before 1975 as students. After the fall of Saigon in April 1975, 28 sisters and novices from the Lovers of the Holy Cross Phat-Diem/Go-Vap left Vietnam from four different locations and came to the U.S. as refugees. After long and dangerous journeys at sea and months in refugee camps, they were sponsored by four women religious communities in Erie, Pennsylvania, and the Sisters of Mercy in Buffalo, New York.
After one year, with the help of the Vincentian Fathers of the Eastern Province, especially Vincentian Fr. John Nugent, the late former provincial superior, our sisters began to form the first two communities, one in Northampton, and the other in Philadelphia, both in Pennsylvania. They were offered work at the Vincentians’ seminary and infirmary.
In 1978, we began ministering to the growing numbers of Vietnamese refugees in Orange County and started the Vietnamese Bilingual Religious Education for the Vietnamese children. In 1984, our sisters accepted the invitation by Catholic Charities to staff the Good Shepherd Center, a center for homeless women, under the leadership of St. Joseph Sr. Julia Mary Farley. Our sisters continue this ministry until the present day with Sr. Anne Tran as director of the center.
In June 1989, responding to our desire to settle permanently in Southern California, with the approval of both the bishop of Allentown and the archbishop of Los Angeles, we moved our headquarters and novitiate to Sepulveda, California.
In 1992, with the consent of the archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and the approval of the archbishop of Los Angeles and the superior general of the Lovers of the Holy Cross of Phat-Diem/Go-Vap in Vietnam, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life sent a letter officially recognizing the Lovers of the Holy Cross Sisters in Los Angeles as a diocesan religious institute with its own right under ordinary superior Cardinal Roger Mahony. Thus, we became autonomous with a new name Lovers of the Holy Cross of Los Angeles, and the convent in Sepulveda, California, became our first motherhouse.
You have a good number of young candidates and aspirants. What draws them to the Lovers of the Holy Cross of Los Angeles?
Our current vocation director, Sr. Christen Thanh Nguyen, told me one of the reasons that attract young women to us is our name. They are curious and fascinated by the name “Lovers.” That’s the reason they want to come and see.
During their come and see experience, they witness the prayerful and joyful communal life of the sisters as well as their dedication to their ministries. The enthusiasm of our young sisters, novices and candidates are also the reason we continue to have vocations.
What is unique about our come and see program is that we provide spiritual direction, which is much appreciated by young discerners. We also offer a weeklong retreat to those who are serious about their vocation. The majority of our vocations are Vietnamese-Americans, but we now have one Hispanic sister and an Indonesian-American postulant. In the latest come and see event, we have a Filipina and a Caucasian who are interested in joining our congregation. We totally trust in God because sometimes we don’t know where he will lead us.
Your charism is to help people who are poor and suffering, especially women and children.
Yes. Our sisters are engaged in various ministries. For example, some of our sisters work as nurses because Bishop Lambert sent the sisters to care for the sick. We have sisters in the field in education. We have sisters working in social work.
For us as a community at the motherhouse, once a month, we go to Santa Monica Beach to serve the homeless. The number of homeless people has grown exponentially. Santa Monica Beach is beautiful, but there is a lot of homeless people, especially at Santa Monica Pier. So we cook hot food and then we stroll in the park. The homeless people know us. They come and get their food. We also distribute hats, socks and jackets given to us.
Sr. Phuong-Thao Dao, our dentist sister, also goes to skid row. There is a clinic there, and she helps the homeless with dental care. We also have sisters in prison ministry. If there is a need, especially for the suffering, we will try to respond to it. We also organize an annual mission trip to help the needy in Vietnam called Mission of Love. Many health care professionals now join us for this good cause. People respond well to our annual sale of homemade banana cake to fund the projects.
How do you feel about the Lovers of the Holy Cross in this time of history?
As Gamaliel in the Acts of Apostles said, “If their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these people” (Acts 5:38-39).
Indeed, the work of Bishop Lambert is from God. It is through the providence of God that the seed of the Lovers of the Holy Cross, once sown on the little hamlet of Kien Lao, Vietnam, now spreads its roots here in Los Angeles. Three hundred and fifty years ago, Bishop Lambert accepted the vows of the first two sisters; now, we have grown into 30 congregations in Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and the U.S., not to mention the presence of many Lovers of Holy Cross Sisters in the world.
The sisters are united in mind and heart by being faithful and living out the charism given to us by Bishop Lambert. Each year, the leaders and formators of all 30 congregations gather in Ho Chi Minh City for a conference to study, share and discuss topics related to our history and spirituality. As of August 2017, there were 6,213 final professed sisters, 2,283 sisters with temporary vows, 763 novices, 491 pre-novices, 1,669 candidates. It is our call and responsibility to continue to spread the love of Jesus Christ, the Crucified, to the world, especially to the needy, both physical and spiritual, through the spirit of love and sacrifice.
[Peter Tran is assistant director of the Redemptorist Renewal Center in Tucson, Arizona.]