Nine siblings join church after losing their parents
Every time the Vang children used to visit their uncle in St. Paul, they would keep their eyes to the sky for Saint Agnes’ green, onion-shaped dome. The gold cross atop it shone like a beacon, signaling that they were almost there.
Now the St. Paul church is providing them direction through a spiritual storm following the loss of both of their parents.
At Saint Agnes’ Easter Vigil April 7, all nine children were baptized and received into the Catholic Church. They were among the approximately 745 people from 90 parishes in the archdiocese who were fully initiated into the church that evening.
It was a bittersweet moment for the children, who, before the vigil, said they believed their mother would be with them in spirit.
Ranging in age from 21 months to 19, the Vang children tearfully recalled the day their mom died.
One foggy morning last February, Vanessa Vaj was driving home after working the night shift when her Toyota Corolla veered into oncoming traffic before colliding with a semi-truck.
“She called early that morning, telling us to take care of the kids,” said Vancelee, 15. “Later, when we got to school, they said she was in a car accident, and everything was. . .” His voice trailed off.“. . . really just changed from there on,” 16-year-old Cesea finished his thought.
Not long after the funeral, the children’s father turned physically abusive, they said.
That’s when their uncle, Pao Lee Her, and his wife, Mai Soua Moua, stepped in, welcoming all nine children into their St. Paul home.
Pao now serves as the children’s legal guardian, along with their eldest sibling, Venla, a 19-year-old nursing student at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.
A medical interpreter who became Catholic after moving to the U.S. from Laos, Pao started bringing the children with him to Saint Agnes for Mass. The times that his job kept him from attending, the children went on their own.
Vancelee remembers his first Mass at Saint Agnes. Although it was in Latin and he didn’t understand what was happening, it left a strong impression. “It was so beautiful. It was amazing,” he said.
“Whenever we come to Mass, there’s just a feeling that you belong to the place,” said Livia, 17.
“You’re like one big family,” Cesea added.
Last summer, Pao met with Saint Agnes pastor Father John Ubel to ask if it would be possible to send four of his nieces and nephews to the school. He said it was their mother’s wish that the children be raised with the Christian values that a school like Saint Agnes promoted.
Even though most of the available tuition assistance had already been distributed, Father Ubel accepted the children. “We just said, ‘This is who we are,’” he said. “‘We will figure out a way to make it work, not only for one year, but we will figure out a way all the way through.’”
“They make our school better,” Father Ubel said.
A few months into the school year, 10-year-old Teedo surprised everyone with an announcement: He wanted to become Catholic, and he wanted his brothers and sisters to join him.
After a discussion, they decided to join the Catholic Church as a family.
Kathleen O’Hern, a religion and Latin teacher at the school, and St. Paul seminarian Brian Park met with the children twice a week over the winter months to prepare them for the sacraments of initiation they would receive at the Easter Vigil.
“The thing that was most evident when I first met with them was their desire for truth, goodness and beauty,” O’Hern said. “They saw the beauty of this church, they saw the goodness of what was happening in the school and the truth that was being proclaimed in the classroom, and they wanted a part of that.”
“It’s coming totally from them,” she added. “I’ve never witnessed anything like it.”
Father Ubel agreed. “I’ve been ordained 23 years,” he said, “and I’ve never prepared to baptize so many in one family. It’s absolutely unique to me.”
Perhaps no one in the family was more excited than Teedo, who taught his younger siblings how to pray.
Moments after his baptism, Father Ubel and Teedo exchanged huge smiles as the boy blotted his face with a white towel.
For Teedo, baptism is just the first step. He has decided he wants to be a priest like his role model, Father Ubel, who has affectionately nicknamed him “Father Teedo.”
Teedo chose “Michael” for his baptismal name in honor of his favorite saint. Ask him why he likes St. Michael, and he’ll tell you it’s because “he’s cool” — the fourth-grader’s highest compliment.
Blessings from heaven
Although they were raised without religion, the Vangs believe that their mother would have been proud of their decision to become Catholic.
“I think my mom would love it,” Venla said. “Even though we never went to attend church or anything, she always had a Bible.”
She would have wanted the family to stay together, Cesea said. “I personally think that the only thing that will keep our brothers and sisters together is Jesus,” she added.
Pao, Venla and Sena, an 18-year-old nursing student at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, coordinate their schedules to make sure that someone is always home to care for the younger children. Venla takes night classes in addition to working a part-time job, and Sena takes morning classes.
About six months before his sister passed away, Pao had a dream, he said. In the dream, his sister owned a greenhouse full of plants, but she wasn’t watering them. So Pao asked her if he could take care of the plants. She said yes.
The next day, Pao told his sister about the dream. Her response surprised him. She said, “Maybe someday you’ll get to adopt my children,” he recalled.
Though no one could have predicted the tragedy to follow, Pao believes at that moment his sister gave him her blessing to care for her children, and that has provided him some peace.
He also has felt God’s presence in the midst of his pain.
“When my sister passed away, I just really discovered faith again,” he said. “I used to believe in God, but now I’m more convinced.
“We were in such a hard time, and the church was there for us,”?he added. “I don’t know what more to say. It’s a miracle.”
The Catholic Spirit photos by Dave Hrbacek