From rubble, ashes rises hope

December 6, 2011

HOUSTON — Two years ago, the night sky over Mary Immaculate Preschool was aglow with orange-tinged smoke and flames. The heart of the Vietnamese Dominican Sisters’ teaching ministry was being consumed in a fire. 

The sisters, who had rushed out upon hearing the fire alarm sound from their convent next door, stood together in the street where they wept, prayed and helplessly watched. There were no fire hydrants in the area and firefighters could do little to tame the inferno.

“I was at the provincial house; I could not bear to go out,” remembered Sister Bernadette Nguyen, the Dominican’s soft-spoken provincial secretary and Mary Immaculate board member. 

The next morning the school was a charred husk. Investigators have been unable to determine the cause of the blaze. 

Nearly two years to the day of the fire, the Vietnamese Sisters — spry, resourceful and in strong faith — will dedicate the new Mary Immaculate Preschool Dec. 10 and 11 with a Mass of thanksgiving and celebrations. The preschool will officially open to students Jan. 3. 

“Nobody can wait to move into the new school. We are counting each day, everyone is so anxious, so happy, so excited,” said school administrator Sister Agnes Nguyen.

Since Mary Immaculate burned down, the sisters have been teaching from a leased building a few blocks away.

Sister Bernadette, who helped lead the construction effort, said the task of rebuilding was a daunting one. The sisters had no experience overseeing such projects.

The complete loss of the building required them to start from scratch, but the calamity also opened a window to expand by almost 50 students. The new building will have the capacity to house up to 180 children, which still is not enough to accommodate all those on their waiting list.

Beloved by parents and the Vietnamese community, Mary Immaculate Preschool welcomes all children, but mainly serves Vietnamese students between 2 and 4 years old. The children are taught in English to build a foundation for their future education, but the Vietnamese language and Vietnamese culture are also emphasized as a way of preserving their heritage. 

It was to the thriving Vietnamese Catholic community, parents and the order’s many supporters that the sisters turned to for help raising the funds it would take to rebuild the facility. 

At the time of the fire, the school was covered by a basic insurance policy which did not cover the cost to rebuild. The nearly $4 million project has been underwritten almost entirely by supporters, and there is still more to raise for finishing touches on the 18,000 sq. foot building and for maintenance.

“All of my sisters in the province and the children of Mary Immaculate Preschool are very grateful for all the support from the Archdiocese and from our benefactors and friends,” Sister Bernadette said. “If anyone feels moved to help us, we are very grateful.” 

Through it all, Sister Bernadette said the help of Mary Immaculate has never been far away. 

“For the 15 years the [preschool] has been open, it has been under the patronage of Mary Immaculate. We are confident that Mary is interceding for all of our sisters and all of our students past and present,” she said. †