Meeting needs far and wide
Sister Josephine Bryan volunteers as a chaplain once a week at a Veteran Affairs (VA) Clinic’s hospice program. One day she was asked to visit a Vietnam veteran who had seen a Vietnamese priest shot in the face. “It so traumatized him that he gave up on his faith. He was angry over his experiences in Vietnam and how poorly the Vietnam vets were treated when they returned home,” said Sister Josephine. She offered him Communion and he declined. She then shared a few of her own experiences as a nurse and sister in Vietnam, and the man began to open up. He softened a bit as they talked. Before she left she asked him if she could give him a blessing, and he agreed. Sister Josephine learned later that he died that night.
“I felt so peaceful for him that he had accepted the blessing,” said Sister Josephine. “I was so blessed by my encounter with him.”
Accompanying sisters in need
Sister Josephine’s current title is Director of Holistic Health for the Sisters of Providence. Her ministry is to companion sisters who are having surgery, a diagnostic evaluation or assessment. She’s a traveling therapeutic partner for the sisters. When not traveling she volunteers two days a week at the St. Clair Health Mission in LaCrosse, Wisc., a medical center for the uninsured, and at the VA Clinic.
She has been a registered nurse since 1967 and a Sister of Providence for 58 years. She holds bachelor’s degrees in education and nursing and a master’s degree in medical and surgical nursing.
“My mission is to bring the word of God, to evidence His presence in this world. Service is an indication of what we believe, what we hold true, and it gives me an opportunity to do this ministry,” she said. She quickly adds, “I’ve never been in a ministry that I wasn’t served in my serving.”
The children of Vietnam
Sister Josephine ministered as a nurse from July 1969 to August 1971 in Vietnam during the war. She had seen in an article in the Boston Pilot newspaper that sisters were needed in Vietnam to work with civilians. Sister Josephine’s dad had been in the military, and a Sister of Providence who had been a WWI Army nurse encouraged her to inquire.
Sister Josephine first studied the Vietnamese language in Saigon and ministered in the afternoons at the Go Vap Orphanage which housed over a thousand children starved for affection. Some children had been found in trash cans because they were sick or American-Asian and not wanted by their families.
After several hot and humid months, she was assigned to the bomb-ravaged city of Hue, located 35 miles from the demilitarized zone. Rockets and gunfire were constant near the French-built house in which she lived. A bunker was located out the back door, but it was occupied by rats so Sister Josephine would lay on the floor by her bed with the mattress pulled over her. She and another sister walked to a seminary to attend early morning mass, which was risky since land mines were planted during the night.
Sister Josephine ministered in both Catholic and Buddhist orphanages. “I brought in supplies like food, clothes and medicine, and I helped care for children with diseases and who suffered from malnutrition,” said Sister Josephine. The orphanages and day care centers were in areas considered unsafe for the American military. “I am proud of the peacemaking that was accomplished in Vietnam, and I hold all GIs who ever served there with gratitude for the risks they took,” Sister Josephine said.
Serving the homeless
Sister Josephine’s nursing career has also included serving with Health Care for the Homeless in the inner city of Washington, D.C., as outreach nurse and family clinic coordinator. She worked with drug addicts and others who were homeless.
“I thought I was going to bring Jesus to that ministry but when I got there, He was already there. I met Him in the people that I served.” She also worked many years ago at the Sisters of Providence Infirmary at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods as supervisor and director of nursing back when they did surgery, lab work and x-rays on site.
“Love, mercy and justice” to Sister Josephine means action, not just words. “In order to make it a lived reality, it has to be obvious. We just can’t say it. We have to really make it come alive if it is our mission.”
Sister Josephine has shared her experiences in a book titled, “My Touchstones of Providence as a Sister of Providence in the Vietnam War.” It can be purchased at The Gift Shop at Providence Center. She was recently asked to share her story at “Vietnam: In Their Own Words Story Telling at the Vietnam Women’s Memorial” event in Washington, D.C., in May 2013.
(This article originally appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of HOPE magazine.)