By ROB HERBST
The Catholic Week
MOBILE — The Carmelite nuns in Mobile rarely depart their cloistered monastery and deviate from their life of prayer. But four nuns originally from Vietnam briefly left the monastery Jan. 29 for a memorable moment.
They became U.S. citizens.
Sister Mary Caroline O.C.D., Sister Mary Angela O.C.D., Sister Mary Agatha of Jesus O.C.D. and Sister Mary Assumpta of the Eucharist O.C.D. traveled from their Mobile monastery along Dauphin Island Parkway to Montgomery to take their Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America.
While Sister Mary Caroline is an extern sister and steps outside in order to assist the monastery, her fellow newly-naturalized U.S. citizens do not leave except for the occasional doctor’s appointment or extraordinary circumstance.
“It was a very happy moment,” Sister Mary Caroline said. “It took a very long time (to become citizens). So many people have helped us, supported us and prayed for us.”
Because the Carmelites devote their lives to prayer, they had to squeeze in time to prepare for their U.S. Naturalization test. According to Sister Mary Caroline, they studied by listening to lessons on mp3 players while they worked in their garden.
They also studied together during recreation time in the evening using American History books provided by the Archdiocese of Mobile Department of Education.
Each took their 10-question oral exam in Montgomery a few weeks prior to taking the oath.
“I cried, I was so happy,” said Sister Regina, a U.S.-born extern sister who drove the four to Montgomery. “There was so much work (to get to this point). After they came out they were all clapping.”
After discovering they had passed, the sisters kept with their humble way.
“We ate lunch in the car — we made sandwiches for the trip,” Sister Regina smiled and said.
The four new U.S. citizens were part of a group of eight nuns from Vietnam who arrived in 2011 and in essence, kept the Carmelite Monastery in Mobile open. Nine Carmelites now live in the monastery and five are awaiting to become U.S. citizens.
Prior to their arrival, four elderly nuns cared for the monastery and it became too much for them to handle. Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi contacted the Carmelite Monastery in Nha Trang, Vietnam, seeking assistance.
The nuns came, although there was some natural hesitation.
“The main thing we were worried was the language,” Sister Mary Caroline said. “(We were told) ‘Do not worry. Trust God and go.’ ”
Once the sisters arrived, they needed to wait two years before applying for a green card. They needed to wait five years before applying for citizenship.
Eventually, they were called to take their exam.
Because the nuns rarely leave the confines of the monastery, a step outside can sometimes produce a new situation.
For example, touchless automatic sinks the Carmelites encountered in Montgomery haven’t found their way into the Carmelite Monastery yet.
“When I went to the restroom, the water was not stopping and I called the manager,” Sister Mary Caroline joyfully said. “They just laughed and said you are OK.”
As Sister Regina said “We’ve been able to laugh through a lot of situations. When they pray, they pray. When they play, they play.”
The Carmelites are also able to joke about what still lies ahead. Although they are now U.S. citizens, there’s still plenty of red tape paperwork to do.
There’s a trip to the DMV to change a driver’s license, to get their foreign national cards changed and to register to vote.
Then a trip to the Social Security Administration.
Then they need to get their passports.
It’s a lot of red tape, but the Carmelites will laugh their way through it.
Said Sister Mary Caroline: “It reminds us to pray for Americans more.”