Sister Winifred A. Behlen was so moved by the chaos and death she read about as thousands of Vietnamese fled their homeland in the late 1970s after the Vietnam War that she founded Friends of Refugees.
Under her guidance, and with the support of a large volunteer community in Winchester, the nonprofit helped more than 70 immigrant families settle in the Boston area and gave rent assistance, furniture, clothing, and advice to more than 200 others.
Refugee advocacy also provided Sister Behlen with an experience none too common for a nun. She served in a motherly role to two children, for whom she was a legal guardian, to help a Vietnamese immigrant who was trying to raise four children on his own. Sister Behlen was 70 when Hao and Hang Pham, a young brother and sister, moved into her Arlington home.
“She was just like a mother,’’ said Hao Pham of Dorchester, who is known as Peter. “She was strict when she had to be, but she treated us like her own kids. She was the kindest person I ever met. She helped anyone who needed help and wouldn’t turn anyone away.’’
Sister Behlen died of an intestinal ailment Jan. 7 in the Elizabeth Seton Residence in Wellesley, where she had lived for the last few years. She was 95.
In a 1991 interview with the Globe, Sister Behlen said she did not set out to be a “self-made social worker.’’
Born in New York and raised in Cambridge, she attended St. Peter School in Cambridge and the Marycliff Academy, which was then in Arlington.
At 18, she entered the convent and joined the Religious of Christian Education, a small, conservative teaching order. For most of her life, Sister Behlen served contentedly as an educator, teaching at a private Catholic girls’ school and as an English teacher in the Arlington public schools.
Through less traditional ventures such as ministering to a Gypsy community, teaching adult education in Roxbury, and serving as a Montessori and Head Start teacher, Sister Behlen became more aware of and passionate about social activism, said her niece, Caren M. Connelly of Winchester.
“Winifred was kind of atypical,’’ she said. “It was a teaching order, and she taught for many years, but really in the end what motivated her wasn’t the order’s passion, but her passion.’’
Sister Behlen “really lived the word of the Catholic Church and believed it was our responsibility to take care of people on this earth who, for whatever reason, aren’t able to do it on their own,’’ Connelly said.
In the 1960s, Sister Behlen became an active supporter of César Chávez, the late leader of the farm workers union, and by the 1970s was a strong opponent of the Vietnam War.
At the time, she was working as a pastoral assistant at St. Eulalia Church in Winchester. Her order was shrinking, and its members were encouraged to find and pursue an area or project in the community where they felt they could best serve.
When Sister Behlen suggested to a priest at St. Eulalia that the church find a family in Winchester to sponsor a Vietnamese refugee family, he suggested she was just the person for the task.
Sister Behlen’s “fierce determination’’ shined, Connelly said, as she launched Friends of Refugees.
“She had probably the strongest will of anyone I’ve ever met,’’ Connelly said.
Sister Behlen raised enough money to purchase and maintain a home in Medford, where two refugee families at a time would stay at minimal rent for a period of up to 18 months.
In the mid-1980s, she met the Pham family, a father and four young children who arrived in the United States after fleeing Vietnam in a fishing boat and staying in refugee camps in Malaysia and Indonesia. He had left behind his pregnant wife and their youngest child because they thought it would not be safe for them to travel. Sister Behlen helped the family find housing.
Hao Pham said his father “didn’t really know how to take care of all four of us’’ and thought it would help if his sister Hang had Sister Behlen’s influence.
Hao was about 7 at the time, and very close to his 11-year-old sister, and so he, too, went to live with Sister Behlen.
“I never dreamt that one up in all my days,’’ Sister Behlen told the Globe in 1991, as she described the experience of becoming a mother to two children.
“It has been very enriching,’’ she said. “I think that all clergy persons who are going to be engaged in any kind of family counseling should have that kind of experience. They should find out what happens before 8 o’clock in the morning, getting the kids off to school and getting their lunches.’’
Friends of Refugees reunited the Pham family in Massachusetts in 1991. Hang and Hao, then 19 and 15, remained with Sister Behlen and maintained a close relationship with her for the rest of her life.
Sister Behlen shut down Friends of Refugees in 1995, when the flood of boat refugees had slowed.
“Working with that community really became the focus of her life,’’ Connelly said.
A funeral Mass was said last week in St. Eulalia Church for Sister Behlen, who was buried in St. Patrick Cemetery in Watertown.
Many refugees she had helped settle in the Boston area visited regularly, bringing food and gifts such as 85 long-stemmed red roses on her 85th birthday.
“They never say goodbye,’’ she told the Globe in 1991. “They have such a concept of friendship and gratitude.’’