Sister Stephana Choong is our Korean sister. When she joined our Benedictine community in 1960, she hoped to be a foreign missionary in the Far East. At that time, our community had dependent missions in Taiwan and Japan so, with Korea’s proximity to Japan, S. Stephana’s dream seemed possible. That dream wasn’t fulfilled until 10 years later when, by wonderful surprise, S. Stephana became an “at home” missionary to her Korean community in St. Paul and the surrounding area. She says, “God has His own mysterious ways of calling us, leading us and helping us as His own instrument.”
Sister Stephana’s life can be defined in two special ways: the evangelization of people in knowing and living the Gospel and working in the sciences. At Saint Benedict’s High School and Cathedral High School in St. Cloud, she taught biology, chemistry and physics. In the School of Nursing in St. Cloud, she taught basic chemistry and physics. S. Stephana was a recipient of several National Science Foundation scholarships to pursue graduate studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, the University of Minnesota and St. Thomas University in St. Paul. She also studied pharmacology at Fordham University in New York. Her doctorate is from the University of Minnesota focusing on the study of plant cell membrane physiology.
While studying at the University of Minnesota, S. Stephana met Korean graduate students who approached her about starting a Korean Catholic Church. Under her leadership, St. Andrew Kim Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis was founded. With S. Stephana’s organizational skills and her knowledge of liturgy, much of the foundational work fell on her shoulders: procuring the worship space, the altar needs, vestments, liturgies, music and financial needs. At that time, there were no Korean translations of liturgical texts and music which had to be made available. S. Stephana recalls, “It was hard work but those were very exciting and joyous moments in my life.”
Many students came to the church and accepted the Catholic faith. Those returning to Korea became witnesses of the Gospel through their Christian lives. Some students remained in the U.S. where they and their children advocate for the poor and marginalized. One example S. Stephana sites is the Youn family who were the first couple to be married at St. Andrew Kim parish as graduate students. Their son, Andrew Youn, is the founder and CEO of One Acre Fund, a nonprofit governmental organization helping millions of people in several African countries to become self-sufficient economically. S. Stephana says she is so proud of Andrew; he and his parents are like family to her as they care for the welfare of people. Andrew is following the Christian call by giving priority to the poor and he is an example of the outstanding Catholics coming out of St. Andrew Kim Church, S. Stephana’s precious legacy.
After finishing her doctoral studies, S. Stephana briefly taught cell physiology to undergraduates at the University of Minnesota-Morris then spent the next 20+ years doing research at the University of Minnesota Medical school in Minneapolis working in immunology, biochemistry and hematology. One of the highlights was being able to visit the Holy Land when she was invited to do research on sickle cell anemia in Jerusalem.
Stephana is the eighth of nine siblings born to Joseph and Maria Choong in Seoul, Korea. She came to Saint Benedict’s College shortly after the armistice was signed between North and South Korea. While she was at college, the Benedictine sisters were her role models, so after graduation, she returned to the U.S. to enter the monastery. She says, “I truly learned the meaning of the Gospel of Christ from the sisters who guided me, and I certainly didn’t know that my dream of being a missionary would be in my own ‘backyard’ in St Paul, Minn. The Universal Catholic Church is bringing us together as one family. God is so great!”
Profile written by Cynthia Schmit, OSB