“Everything is a gift from God,” says Sister Julie Doan, as she reflects on the journey that led her to the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon. “My call to be a religious sister was postponed a couple of times, but the Sisters’ warm and welcoming spirit captured me.”
This July, during the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon’s Jubilee celebration, Sr. Julie will celebrate 25 years of service to God.
Sr. Julie’s journey to the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon was harrowing. She was born and raised in South Vietnam where she grew up in a large family and was taught by religious sisters from different orders. She enjoyed spending time with them and was inspired by the stories they shared of the saints. Their communal life attracted her, but it was not to be.
When she was 14, her parents decided it was time to escape the North Vietnamese Communists. Her parents, motivated by the desires to protect their children from the persecution they experienced and for their family to be free to worship God, divided up and fled to Thailand in 1979.
Sr. Julie, with her dad and younger sister, fled the country by boat with 42 other refugees. They were nearly captured by the Communist Navy, and their boat was attacked by pirates. They were robbed and beaten multiple times before the pirates finally sank their vessel and left them for dead. Thankfully, some Thai fishermen spotted and rescued them, but nine people did not survive the escape.
“My family survived – all six of us,” Sr. Julie recalls. “It is a testimony to God’s Providence. I still think of those who passed away; they were my inspiration to become a Sister.”
Although they were rescued, living as refugees in Thailand and later in the United States was extremely hard. The fast-changing climate, constant threat of attack by both pirates and guards and the lack of food, water, and shelter made life in Thailand difficult. Life improved when they made it to the U.S. but it was still challenging because her family was very poor and struggled with the language barrier. “God gave us opportunity to grow,” says Sr. Julie. “A young Catholic family sponsored us and Christ the King Parish in Milwaukie began to support my family.” That is where Sr. Julie first met the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon because her fellow jubilarian, Sr. Clare Vandcoevering, who is celebrating her 75th Jubilee, was a teacher there.
At this point, Sr. Julie thought being a Sister was no longer meant for her. She had to work hard to help support her family and had to study hard to learn English and get her education. She remembered the Vietnamese Sisters inspiring her to teach, so she began to focus on school and working toward teaching catechism. Her drive led her to finish high school, get her associate’s degree and begin teaching Vietnamese-American children and translating in different parishes.
That is how God brought Sr. Julie full-circle. In 1996, a friend, who was interested in religious life, asked her to accompany her to the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon campus to help translate for her. She met Sr. Catherine Hertel who invited both of them to visit the Sisters as often as they wished.
“The Sisters’ love and acceptance compelled me to join them and learn how to be a faithful and joyful servant of the Lord,” Sr. Julie reflects.
The Sisters encouraged her to complete her master’s degree in education and to continue to make herself available to the communities and parishes she served. Currently, she is a third grade teacher at St. John Fisher in Portland.
“God is graciously merciful and full of compassion,” Sr. Julie says. “He teaches me the values of emptying and receiving because He wants me to know that He is my all.”