When she was 16 years old, the last thing Hae-Jin Lim expected to become was a religious sister.
She had just made the move from Korea to Canada with her mother and sisters. Her father stayed behind, supporting the family overseas, while the rest of the family tried to carve out a new life for themselves in the West.
“My parents verbally and explicitly expressed their expectations of me,” Sister Lim told The B.C Catholic. “It was a daily topic: ‘Think about your dad’s sacrifice. Think about my sacrifice. You’d better study well.’”
As a teen, she felt burdened by her parents’ expectations, a trial many children of immigrants face, Sister Lim said. “I made their dream my dream. I didn’t distinguish between what I wanted and what my parents wanted me to do.”
Her older sister went to study in the U.S., leaving Lim to become “the functional first child, translating for my parents, going to city hall, going to accountants, and renewing car insurance in Grade 10.”
Her parents insisted Lim pursue a well-paid career as a doctor, pharmacist, or accountant. So, as she studied biology at the University of British Columbia, it was three years into her degree before she realized she was unhappy and unfulfilled.
She gave up on her studies just about the same time her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Lim then became her mother’s primary caregiver, fetching groceries, serving meals, and otherwise caring for her increasingly frail mother full time.
After six months and a lot of hard work, Lim’s mother passed away, leaving Lim shaken – but for an unexpected reason.
“She was a very devout Catholic. She is the one who introduced the faith to me … (but) she died without accepting her death. She prayed, her whole life, to God but couldn’t accept her death,” she said. “That was sad for me. That made me think: ‘where can I be happiest?’”
Over the next year, Lim prayed earnestly for direction. She started going to daily Mass and heard many friends joking she should become a religious sister because she prayed so much.
“I Googled being a sister,” said Lim. “The curiosity got to me. I’m a curious type; when there is a new flavour of Doritos, I have to buy them.”
For Lim, religious life became like a new flavour of her favourite snack item – she had to try. “I wanted to get married, but this seemed so curious and interesting. I thought: ‘I can’t get married first and be a nun later, but I can try this first. If it doesn’t work out, it’s okay. I can get out and get married.”
Thanks to the support of her assistant pastor at St. Andrew Kim Parish, who affirmed she should give religious life a try, and close friend Felix Min, who had been discerning the priesthood at the same time, she applied to the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, also known as the Salesian sisters.
“When I entered, I prayed: ‘God, I will only do this for one year.’”
Eight years later, Sister Lim is still a Salesian sister. The congregation’s emphasis on serving young people had made a deep impression on her back in Korea, long before she had considered religious life.
She first heard of the Salesians during a Grade 9 youth retreat. Sister Lim remembers riding in a large school bus, pulling up to a Salesian-run retreat centre, and seeing a banner with words from St. John Bosco, their founder: “It is enough for you to be young, for me to love you very much.”
“At that time, I struggled with the idea of the free gift of love,” said Sister Lim. She had believed love was something earned as a reward for good behaviour, for doing her parents’ will. “But then, when I saw that quote of St. John Bosco, I thought: ‘This guy I never met loves me already!’”
Today Sister Lim teaches Grade 8, 10, 11, and 12 religion classes at Holy Cross Regional High School, serving young people at the same tender age she was when she first encountered the unconditional love of the Salesians.
“My aim in the classroom is to be a witness of the love of God. I can teach them, I can quiz them, and I do what I can do, but every single lesson, before I enter the classroom, I realize my purpose in front of my students is to be the witness of God,” she said.
“That is my one purpose to be there. They will learn, and if they don’t learn, I hope they remember that I love them.”
Sister Lim and two other Salesian sisters moved into a convent at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Surrey last fall, making them the newest religious congregation in the Archdiocese of Vancouver.
As of 2018, there were 96 professed women religious in the Lower Mainland. Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, thanked them for their unique service during a Mass and renewal of vows on the World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life Feb. 2.
“Your consecrated life is essential precisely because it is a sign to us of unbounded generosity and love,” he told about 175 people gathered at St. Patrick’s Parish in Vancouver that day.
Consecrated people include Catholics under vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. There are more than 250 consecrated people serving in the archdiocese: 105 priests in religious orders, 96 religious sisters, 37 brothers, 12 Daughters of the Church, eight consecrated women in the Focolare and Madonna House communities, and five consecrated virgins.
“Following Jesus in chastity, poverty, and obedience means following the way he has already taken; that is, healing the wounded who cross your path every day, and likewise, going forth in search of lost sheep,” said Archbishop Miller, having made those vows with the Congregation of St. Basil several decades ago.
“If the consecrated life were not present in our Church, how much poorer we would all be!”