By Mercy’s Madelynn Innes
Sister Elizabeth Bui-thi-nghia connects spiritually with Mercy co-workers, patients and families in Springfield, Missouri; a chaplain, she has traveled thousands of miles – through adversity, religious persecution and even a war – to spread God’s message. It’s an incredible journey that almost didn’t happen.
“When I encounter a patient who can’t accept their life is ending, I try to listen to their concerns and share their pain,” she said. “I pray with them, and reassure them not to be discouraged or afraid but to trust in God.”
Day by day, Sister Elizabeth returns to their bedsides. “When they’ve gotten to know me, they ask me to tell my story. I share with them the story of the refugee who survived on a small fishing boat.”
“In 1975, communists troops took over Saigon, South Vietnam — my country — and we lost everything. Even in the orphanage where I’d worked as director, caring for more than 100 children for many years, they ordered us to hand over all of the children and end our ministry. My heart broke when I received these orders from the communist government.”
For the safety of “her children,” Sister Elizabeth saw to it that many of them were moved to families who were able to care for them. “The Communists were against my activities and had intentions of putting me in jail. My Religious Superior and my parents were very worried for me. They urged me strongly to escape.”
Taking enough water and food for five days, she and 31 others fled on a small fishing boat. By the ninth day, she said, “All were now very weak from lack of food, and the boat was drifting without fuel.”
In the forlorn conclusion that it was the end, she and her companions had said their goodbyes to one another and prepared for the inevitable. Then, in the distance, a ship was sighted. In a desperate, last attempt to be rescued, the passengers looked at Sister Elizabeth and asked if she had her habit.
She did. Nearly too weak to stand, she struggled into her habit, and being supported by two of her companions, stood on the deck of the tiny fishing boat and prayed for a miracle. That day, their fourth day without food, water or fuel, they were rescued. Surviving the war and the horrendous boat ride was Sister Elizabeth’s affirmation of God’s hand in her life.
“I see God’s planning and purpose in every outcome of my life. God’s using me to proclaim and share his loving kindness to others.”
While others from the boat went to Japan, she continued to South Australia, where she knew her training as a teacher would be needed among the Vietnamese refugees. She helped establish and had become principle of a Vietnamese Ethnic School, which by 2003, had more than 2,000 students and six locations. She also earned her master’s degree in social work to provide counseling for Vietnamese families. But after 32 years, “I felt a calling to step out from my comfort zone,” she said. As she’d always done, “I continued praying for God’s guidance.”
In 1988, Sister Elizabeth was invited to participate in a special outdoor Mass with Pope John Paul II at St. Peter’s Square in Rome. It was the canonization of 117 Vietnamese – the largest group in church history. More than 100,000 people attended, including 10,000 Vietnamese from around the world, including Australia, where Elizabeth provided ministry.
In 2005, the calling Sister Elizabeth awaited led her to the United States. With permission from the Mercy leadership in Australia, she accepted an offer from the Sisters of Mercy South Central Community to begin a two-year ministry as chaplain at St. Edward’s Hospital in Fort Smith, Ark. Two years later, she moved to Springfield to begin her Clinical Pastoral Education at Mercy and is now a full-time chaplain.
“For me, the opportunity to serve as chaplain is important and is a very meaningful ministry,” she said. “ I am here for our patients and their families, for our physicians and all of our co-workers. I am here to fulfill the Mercy Mission — ‘to bring to life the healing ministry of Jesus through our compassionate care and exceptional service.’”