Like Jesus, whom she adores and follows, Providence Sister Gabrielle Nguyen seeks to heal both body and spirit.
Sister Gabrielle, 51, is a registered nurse who serves at Providence Laurelhurst Elderplace. There, seniors receive whatever they need — healthcare, dentistry, food, housing and social services. Sister Gabrielle — while giving injections, taking blood pressures and listening to hearts — also serves souls.
"I like to work with the elderly," she explains. "Some of them are lonely. Some have been abandoned. They need someone to love them, to care for them, to listen to them. My ministry brings me joy."
In her Vietnamese culture, elders are offered high respect. At Elderplace, she thinks of each patient as an honorable grandparent. That doesn't mean the relationship can't be jolly. Humble yet witty, Sister Gabrielle softens patients with comic moves, like holding up one standard-sized hypodermic needle and one behemoth. "Which one would you like?" she asks. That leads to a mutual guffaw and often long talks. Sister Gabrielle says the key is allowing herself to be childlike. She overcame the odds to become joyful.
She was born and raised in Bao Loc, about three hours northeast of Saigon, but still in what was then South Vietnam.
When the south fell in 1975, 13-year-old Gabrielle fled with her parents and nine siblings. She considers herself lucky, compared with refugees who starved or were lost at sea for weeks. But it was a harrowing time. Her father, a low-ranking South Vietnamese soldier, faced probable execution. He calmly ushered the family to a ship, but the engine failed. Amid deafening fighting, a mechanic made repairs and the vessel set off into the night, the crack of gunfire slowly receding.
Sister Gabrielle cannot forget. Fixed in her mind are images of entire families, with heads ducked, running through Bao Loc amid sniper fire and the sickening flash of exploding mortar rounds.
Second oldest of the family, she had childcare duties during the hurried exodus. Her mother was pregnant.
"Being a boat person changed my life," Sister Gabrielle recalls. "You are trying just to survive so you have to be strong. You also need patient endurance."
The ship made it to The Philippines and then Guam, where the family expended its energy just to survive. Finding a sponsor to bring a family of 12 to the United States took some time. Finally, the Archdiocese of New Orleans welcomed the Nguyens. There, they became accustomed to America. Other members of the extended family also had escaped to the United States, and everyone wanted to live closer together. The Nguyens trekked to Flint, Mich. to be near grandparents and the father got a job assembling General Motors cars. Eventually, seeking warmer climes for the grandmother's arthritis, the clan settled in Wichita Falls, Texas, a town of 100,000 in the flatlands 140 miles northwest of Dallas. There, young Gabrielle finished high school.
Since fourth grade in Vietnam, she had considered religious life off and on, inspired by her teachers. "God lit a light a little bit in my heart to have a vocation," Sister Gabrielle recalls. But she kept the feeling to herself until graduation, when her family asked her what she planned to do with her life.
Some of the family was supportive while others hoped she would get married and stay close to the clan. She felt the bonds of family obligation, but the call to serve God's people was stronger.
"I had a vocation to follow," Sister Gabrielle says.
In 1982, at age 20, she entered the Sisters of Mary Queen, a Vietnamese-American congregation located in Springfield, Mo. Her parish priest had introduced her to the community, which she joined before looking at any others. She professed vows, earned a nursing degree and served in nursing homes and taught Sunday school in Missouri, Nebraska and Kansas. It was during her ministry in St. Louis that she met the Sisters of Providence and was utterly inspired by their mission.
"They focus on the poor, the marginalized, the outcast," she says.
In 2004, Sister Gabrielle transferred and has thrived. She moved to Oregon and began at Elderplace in 2010. She has no plans to relocate, but does hope to receive training as a spiritual director.
Her mother still lives in Texas, as do all her siblings. She is the one who has ventured.
Her father died four years ago, with Sister Gabrielle tending him in his final months. She thinks of him as a kind of St. Joseph, ushering his family on a perilous journey patiently. She weeps when she recalls how he worked his whole life for his children.
Sister Gabrielle lives in a Southeast Portland house with one other Providence Sister; the pair often host visiting nuns. Sister Gabrielle likes to offer the beauty of her culture to her religious community. In February, she organized a party for Tet, the Lunar New Year, including Vietnamese delicacies.
Day in and day out, she looks for guidance to Mother Emilie Gamelin, a French Canadian who founded the Sisters of Providence of Montreal in 1844.
"Her heart was for the poor," Sister Gabrielle says. "She was full of compassion."
Those who work with Sister Gabrielle say she is a fitting follower of Mother Gamelin, and of Jesus.
"What gifts doesn't she bring?" says Diane Christensen, operations supervisor at Elderplace. "She's so kind and warm and human. She truly cares about each and every one of the participants and staff. She's so grounded, so honest, so pure."