Late deacon escaped Vietnam during war, ministered to refugees

Denver Catholic Staff

Deacon Joseph Van Tam Le, 97, passed away peacefully on the evening of July 18, 2019. Deacon Joseph was assigned to Queen of Vietnamese Martyrs in Wheat Ridge throughout his diaconal ministry.

Le Tam Van was born on March 15, 1922 in Nam Dinh, Quang Tri Province, Vietnam to Le Van Ho and Le Thi Su. He was baptized into the Catholic faith soon after his birth, where he took the name Guise or Joseph. As a young man, he attended French Catholic schools. He also attended seminary and high school at St. John the Baptist de La Salle with the intent of entering the priesthood. Eventually, he joined the Vietnam La Salle Christian Brothers and at one point was the Provincial of the Christian Brothers.

In Saigon, he taught a variety of subjects and eventually became the principal of Taberd School. He also travelled to France, England and Italy to study English and French Literature. Afterwards, he went back to Vietnam and continued his teaching career until his departure from Vietnam. Tam was fluent in Vietnamese, French, English, Spanish, Italian, Laotian, and Cambodian.

In 1974, while helping his community prepare to escape from their country, he was arrested by the Viet Cong and subsequently released for no apparent reason other than by the grace of God. Tam escaped Vietnam in a small boat with 66 other individuals on board. After three days at sea, they ended up on a small island in Singapore and were taken captive. He was released three months later and arrived in the United States on July 30, 1975.

On August 21, 1976, Joseph Tam married Terese Tan Thi Hoa at Holy Ghost Parish in Denver. They have four children: Mary, Gerard, Bernadette and Joseph. He then went to work for the State Social Services administering to the needs of the displaced refugees of different countries; predominately, the Vietnamese refugees. The couple began attending St. Ignatius of Loyola Parish where the Vietnamese community in the Denver metro met for worship.

On June 16, 1984, Joseph Tam Van Le was ordained a Deacon at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception by Archbishop James Casey. He was immediately sent to Queen of Vietnamese Martyrs parish to assist with the Vietnamese community that had escaped from the Communist regime in Vietnam and relocated to Denver.

“Deacon Joseph lived his diaconal ministry every day of his life,” said Deacon Joseph Donohoe, Director of Deacon Personnel, “He not only helped those in need, he experienced it in his own life. The deacons are blessed to have called him our brother.”

COMING UP: Machebeuf basketball star traded success playing hoops for a solitary life of prayer

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Shelly Pennefather led the Bishop Machebeuf High School girls’ basketball team to victory in every game she played in. It was not surprising to her friends and classmates that she would go on to play college ball for Villanova and then play professionally in Japan. It was not even surprising that she would have a religious vocation.

What was surprising was the order she chose. In 1991, Shelly Pennefather drove to Alexandria, Va., where she entered the Monastery of the Poor Clares. She would become a cloistered nun, living a radical life that included going barefoot out of penance and poverty and praying all of the hours of the Divine Office, even at 12:30 a.m.

This also meant she would not see her family except for twice a year from behind a transparent screen. She would not hug them until 25 years after her profession.

“I was shocked that she chose a cloistered order,” said Annie Mcbournie, graduate of Machebeuf in 1984 and a friend of Pennefather’s. “I was not at all shocked that she chose a vocation.”

Her story was recently featured on ESPN, who recounted how Pennefather gave up being the highest-paid women’s basketball player in the world in 1991 to live a life in service to the Lord as a Poor Clare.

Pennefather took the name Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. This past June, Sister Rose Marie celebrated her 25th anniversary of her solemn profession: the long-awaited moment to greet her family from outside the screen, not to happen again for another 25 years.

Villanova teammates, friends, Machebeuf classmates, and family were all in attendance. She hugged her 78-year-old mom for what will probably be the last time.

Mcbournie was not able to make it but will visit Sister Rose Marie this fall. Since she’s kept up with her via letters, she is permitted to visit the monastery.

Pennefather attended Bishop Machebeuf High School in Denver from 1980 to 1983 before transferring for her senior year due to her dad’s military job. She left Machebeuf with a 70-0 record.

“Her entire high school career, she never lost a basketball game,” Mcbournie said.

Mcbournie was a cheerleader and friend of Sister Rose Marie in high school, but a deeper friendship began 10 years after graduation. Sister Rose Marie’s brother Dick called Mcbournie before World Youth Day in Denver in 1993 since Mcbournie was still in the area.

Sister Rose Marie had just joined the Poor Clares and Dick and McBournie met up and spoke about the mourning process the family was going through, McBournie said. Dick mentioned to her that they could write Sister Rose Marie as many letters as they wanted, and one day a year, on the Feast of the Epiphany, she could write back.

Shelly Pennefather, pictured here in this photo from the Archdiocese of Denver archives, always exuded a deep spiritual life, her former Bishop Machebeuf classmates said. (Photo by James Baca)

“From that year on, I have been writing her every year,” McBournie said. She gives Sister Rose Marie updates on life, pictures from their high school reunions, and prayer requests.

“I have witnessed her journey through these letters,” McBournie said.

When Sister Rose Marie’s dad passed away shortly after entering, she was not able to leave the monastery to go to the funeral. McBournie saw how difficult these sacrifices were for her, especially in the early years of her vocation. But the letters show Sister Rose Marie’s joy.

“The last 5 to 10 years, I could just see her say, ‘I’m so blessed to be able to do this’,” McBournie said. “She’s so joyful.”

A fellow Machebeuf classmate asked McBournie for Sister Rose Marie’s address in order to have a little fun. He sent her a $20 bill with a note saying he thought she could use a smoke and a bottle of wine.

Sister Rose Marie did not miss a beat and in her yearly letter, she responded, “I bought incense, and I drank from the chalice,” McBournie recounted.

Shelly Pennefather (#15) had a 70-0 record playing basketball for Bishop Machebeuf in the 1980s, and went on to play for Villanova and then professionally in Japan. (Photo courtesy of Villanova Athletics)

But this letter sparked a friendship. This classmate has continued to write letters and even attended the 25-anniversary jubilee.

“Her letters are still hilarious, still very sarcastic,” McBournie said.

She remembers Sister Rose Marie being reserved and quiet in high school, focused more on school and basketball than anything else. Her father was in the military and the family was very disciplined, but they had a good sense of humor and quick wit, McBournie said.
“Her spirituality permeated her existence from the time she was young,” McBournie said.

David Dominguez was a few years ahead of Sister Rose Marie at Machebeuf but remembers her discipline and her talent. He called himself her cheerleader.’

“If it was really tight, we would start yelling, ‘Shelly, Shelly!’” Dominguez said. “It was one of my favorite cheers.”

Dominguez exercised at the Air Force base gym where Sister Rose Marie would train and play basketball with her dad and brother.

“I knew she had incredible skills,” Dominguez said. “It was kind of magical to watch.”

Sister Rose Marie recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of her profession of vows with the Poor Clares. She was able to hug her friends and family for the first time in 25 years. ESPN was there to cover the occasion. (Photo courtesy of Mary Beth Bonacci)

Dominguez also knew she was different.

“She was living for a different purpose than everyone else,” he said.

Sister Rose Marie’s devotion and personality remain the same, though she has traded in her jersey for a habit.
Although Sister Rose Marie can only write one letter a year, and can seldom have visitors, her friendship and influence reach far beyond the monastery walls.

Mcbournie said that their yearly letters have brought them even closer than they were in high school.

“I look forward to her letter every year,” Mcbournie said.