Paying It Forward: Sister Saved by a Stranger Spreads the Mercy Mission

December 6, 2017

By Karel Lucander

Sr. Elizabeth with Pope Saint John Paul II

In 1988, Sister Elizabeth participated in a special mass with Pope John Paul II at St. Peter’s Square in Rome. Along with her uncle, who was a bishop in Vietnam, she also had a private moment with the pope. “I never dreamed in my life of this occasion,” says Sister Elizabeth. “Pope John Paul had lived in a communist country, so he knew the hardship for priests and bishops. He hugged my uncle in tears.”

In 1975, when Communist troops took over Saigon, Sister Elizabeth Bui-Thi-Nghia fled her native South Vietnam. She and 31 others left on a small fishing boat with enough food and water for five days. By the ninth day, with all resources depleted, famished and dehydrated, they said their goodbyes to one another.

“But then a miracle of God happened,” Sister Elizabeth says.

An elderly Buddhist passenger asked sister to put on her religious habit over her clothing. He took her to the bow of the boat and held her so she could stand. The captain of the Hai Lee, a large vessel nearby, saw her.

“The captain was Catholic, and he had two priests and a sister in his family,” Sister Elizabeth said. “His ship made a U-turn to rescue us, and he was the one who came and carried me onto his ship. The first thought I had was I had entered into heaven.”

Helping Fellow Refugees in Australia

After being rescued, this sister of the Vietnamese order (Sisters of the Holy Cross) went on to southern Australia. Sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy of Australia, she arrived on Mercy Day, September 24, 1976. Before leaving Vietnam, Sister Elizabeth was director of an orphanage and a teacher. She began ministering to her fellow Vietnamese refugees in Australia as a founding member of the Indo-Chinese Australian Women’s Association Inc., incorporating pastoral care and welfare support in housing, employment, education and counseling. She received additional training as a teacher, eventually establishing and becoming principal of the Lac-Long Vietnamese Ethnic School, which by 2003 had more than 2,000 students in six locations. After receiving her dual master’s degrees in social work and in family counseling, she developed educational and cultural programs for Vietnamese families, which helped them cope with prejudices they experienced as refugees. During her three decades in Australia, Sister Elizabeth was also instrumental in helping to build a beautiful Vietnamese church and community facility. While there, she received several awards for her services to ethnic welfare and the community. But it was time to consider something else.  

As she said, “After 30 years in Australia, I felt a call to serve God’s people in another capacity. I remembered my loving parents’ wishes and prayers were for me to relocate to the United States, where all my family had relocated after the war.”

Relocating to the United States

Sister Elizabeth Bui-Thi-Nghia Portrait

Sister Elizabeth Bui-Thi-Nghia. Photo courtesy of Mercy Health System.

After months of prayerfully considering this, in 2005 she visited the Sisters of Mercy in the United States. While meeting with leadership members of the South Central Community in several geographic locations, she was offered a few different ministry positions, including a chaplaincy position in Fort Smith, Arkansas. She prayed about this overnight and the next day accepted this chaplaincy ministry. She began ministering at St. Edward’s Hospital (now Mercy Hospital) in 2005 for two years. In 2007, she continued her clinical pastoral education in Springfield, Missouri, where she is now chaplain at Mercy Healthcare System.

“Before I began my chaplaincy in Fort Smith, I was afraid to be alone with a dead body. But I got over that,” she says. “God strengthened me and helped me to bring God-loving comfort to suffering people. To me, it is sacred to be with the sick and the dying patients. When I am with a patient, I feel very close to my God. He has given me the ability and compassion to be in this very special ministry for God’s people.”

Helping Others Feel God’s Loving Presence

This sister, a chaplain and woman who came so close to dying over 40 years ago says one great privilege is helping people come to know God and believe in Him at the very end of life.

“God does not question or condemn; God is loving and welcoming!” Sister Elizabeth says. “As a chaplain, I am able to bring God’s loving presence to them, reminding them death is not an ending but a new beginning. Because if we all believe in God, we will have a new life with God forever.”

As Sister Elizabeth says, “Spirituality is the most important part of my religious life. I thank God for giving me the time to be with Him daily. I meditate on His words and praise Him, asking for His blessings and wisdom for my ministry. At the end of the day, I share my Mercy mission with Him, presenting all of the suffering people I encountered. God is my loving support and He strengthens my life.”

Comments (7)

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  1. Catherine Walsh

    What a beautiful story! Thank you to Sister Elizabeth Bui-Thi-Nghia and Karel Lucander for sharing it with the world.


  2. Sr. Carole

    I was very happy reading your story, Sister Elizabeth. Thank you for all you did and continue to do for Mercy.


  3. Rev. Dr. Peter Abas

    Blessed journey and how the Lord protected you Sister. Many more blessings to you sister.


  4. Martha Larsen, rsm

    thank you for your wonderful story. I am happy that you are a part of Mercy – that you are now a Mercy Sister.


  5. Beryl Amedee

    Thank you Sister Elizabeth for sharing your story, your faith with us.it has awakened in me an even greater desire to be with the senior members in our hostels.


  6. Carole McDonald

    Thank you for your inspiring story Elizabeth. I am reminded of many stories of rescue of Vietnam refugees.

    Carole McDonald RSM


  7. Patricia Otillio

    Thank you for sharing your beautiful story with us. Thank you for witnessing your faith and courage and life in Mercy. May you come to know more deeply God’s great love for you.