Vietnamese family’s outreach stuns retired schoolteacher

Mary Jane Matejka knew she'd made an impact on her students, but this was way beyond her imagination.

Health issues forced Matejka to retire in 2009 after teaching in the archdiocese for 25 years, a career she enjoyed very much.

About 20 years ago, while teaching at St. Pius V School in south St. Louis, she had a student in her second-grade class, Minh Thu Pham, one of many who were from Vietnamese immigrant or refugee families.

Matejka remembers Pham as quiet, athletic and good at math and art. However, the "sweet girl" as Matejka called her, struggled with English.

In February, through friends from grade school, Pham connected with her former teacher on Facebook. Matejka was glad to hear that she was Pham's favorite teacher, that Pham remembered her efforts to help and that Pham delighted in reconnecting with her.

"I'm happy for all the students who find me, and we talk on Facebook all the time," Matejka said of Pham and other students.

Pham invited Matejka to her wedding on Oct. 8. The retired educator, a member of St. John the Baptist Parish in south St. Louis, agreed until she learned that the wedding was in Dallas. Pham's family had moved to Fort Smith, Ark., and her now-husband, Johnny Vong Tran, is from the Dallas area. Matejka, who uses a walker, is unable to drive such a distance.

"I said, 'I'm sorry to disappoint you. And I'm honored that you think that much about me that you'd want me to be at your wedding,'" Matejka said. The plane fare and hotel costs would be too much for Matejka, a widow whose husband, Jerry, also was a Catholic school teacher.

Not that she's complaining about her financial status: "Your treasures are in the joy you had when you were teaching and in the ripple effects like this," Matejka said.

Matejka was stunned by what she heard next in a phone call from Pham. The bride-to-be told the former educator she didn't need a ride to the wedding because her parents wanted to pay for airfare and hotel accommodations for her and a guest. Matejka agreed after some urging.

"I was so honored and amazed and delighted," she said, noting that she confirmed it with Pham the next day to make sure the offer wasn't a dream.

Matejka traveled with a friend, Linda Harrison, a fellow teacher who also had taught Vietnamese immigrants. They were met by Pham and her cousin.

Matejka recalled that the Vietnamese families at St. Pius, mostly working-class people, showed they value teachers in various ways, including with expensive gifts. Nevertheless, Matejka was taken aback by the royal treatment she and her friend received at the wedding. Matejka was introduced right after the bride and groom's parents and grandparents, and the guests showed their appreciation for her.

She's no different than other Catholic schoolteachers, Matejka said. "I'm one of a million wonderful Catholic school teachers, including all the sisters who've done this all these years."

Pham said she came to the United States when she was about 6 years old and attended a public school at first. She struggled there, and her first teacher at St. Pius was Matejka. "My English wasn't very good, and she would stay after school and help me with my spelling, pronunciations and more," Pham said. One of the words she kept getting wrong was "church," getting the "u" and "r" mixed up.

"She was one of the teachers who made an impact on my life," Phan said. "All these years she was always on my mind."

Teachers may not be aware of their influence because "it's not the big things they do, it's the little things," Pham said.

God brought her and her husband together, she said, and they dated a year and a half. She has a nursing degree from the University of Arkansas in Fort Smith but now owns and operates a small business.

Her former teacher was impressed by the Vietnamese Catholics' traditions. The groom's family processed to where the bride's family was staying and prayed to their ancestors, thanking them for all the gifts they've received. They prayed that the couple will have a strong marriage, as their ancestors have had. And they prayed before statues of Mary and Joseph in the home. The procession next went to the groom's family home for another ceremony. Accepting the bride's family means they will care for them as well, Matejka said.

The wedding Mass at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Carrollton, Texas, and the Mass on Sunday were packed. Matejka particularly enjoyed the music and choirs and the admiration people had for their faith.

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