The elderly nun used to be mother superior of her Lovers of the Holy Cross congregation in Laos before going overseas more than 30 years ago. Two years ago she returned to her homeland after a lifetime of serving Laotian Catholics here and abroad.
She now lives in her community’s mother house in Ban Phon Souang, a village in Central Laos.
In 1975, while many Laotians were fleeing the country, Sister Tengon thought hard about serving her people overseas because she was concerned about their faith life.
“After praying to Mother Mary, I decided to leave the country,” she recalled. First she went to Thailand to minister to Laotian refugees at a border camp for two years. Then she migrated to the US and stayed for 30 years in the convent of another congregation.
In the US, she visited Laotian Catholic families, guided them, and encouraged them to go to church and learn catechism.
She also advised young Laotian Catholics to be wary of negative aspects of modern American culture. At every turn, she emphasized that they must preserve their faith under new and challenging circumstances.
Two years ago, at age 84, she decided to return to Laos. “My job is finished. I came back to die,” she said.
Teaching English and making rosaries
However, she does not appear to have “retired” just yet.
Every morning, she teaches English to novices in her congregation. In the afternoon, she makes rosaries for sale to help support her convent. She said she only started making them two months ago after a priest said his parishioners needed rosaries. Now she makes an average of five a day.
The rosaries are in demand. “Once someone has a rosary, others want to have one too,” the elderly nun said.
Other nuns said they sell the rosaries for 10,000 kip (US$1.20) in churches throughout the country. The money is used to pay the convent’s electricity and water bills.
“Now I mostly pray and work a little bit,” Sister Tengon said.
But the “little bit” goes a long way toward helping her congregation.
The Lovers of the Holy Cross congregation has 33 nuns in Laos in several communities. The nuns support themselves by growing vegetables and rearing livestock. They also make and sell household accessories such as toothpick holders, and teach pre-school children.
On how Laos has changed in the 30 years she was away, Sister Tengon said, “Before, it was very poor.”
She added that maintaining one’s faith and spiritual strength under any circumstance is the most important thing.