Grueling journey takes octogenarian to sisterhood

Sr. Mary Nguyen Thi Loan, center, poses for a group photo after taking her first vow on September 8. (Courtesy of Lovers of the Holy Cross of Vinh)

Sr. Mary Nguyen Thi Loan, from the Lovers of the Holy Cross of Vinh based in Nghe An Province in northern Vietnam, became the country’s oldest nun to take vows at the age of 83. She was among 52 nuns of the congregation taking first vows in early September.

Sr. Loan endured decades of intense suffering caused by communist government policies against practicing religion, and she is widely admired for bravely defending her convent against the government’s confiscation.

Her father died before she was born, and her mother died from disease when she was 2 years old. She was fostered by her uncle.

At the age of 16 Loan joined a congregation of local Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, where she helped serve the orphans they cared for. This came to an abrupt end in 1954 when French troops were defeated in the battle of Dien Bien Phu, precipitating hundreds of thousands of Catholics to flee to South Vietnam to avoid communist persecution. However, since she was not a nun, Loan was forced to return home. The communists only allowed Catholic sisters to leave North Vietnam, and Loan had not yet taken vows nor started wearing the nuns’ habit.

Sr. Loan and other nuns took their first vows last September. (Joachim Pham)

Separated from her community, she took up long days of hard farm work, even plowing fields at night, to support her uncle’s family. For years they survived on just vegetables and sweet potatoes.

Her relatives were classified by the government as landlords, so they were killed and their properties confiscated during the bloody Land Reform of 1953-1956.

In 1958 she entered the Lovers of the Holy Cross convent, based in Nghia Yen, Ha Tinh Province.

In campaigns to remove religious sites, communists forced over 50 nuns to move out of the convent to their own homes, justifying the action by saying the country was at war against American invaders and that the 1846 building was in danger because the nearby dyke had almost broke.

The nuns tried to hold their ground. Many were detained and imprisoned because they refused to leave. One died in prison. Government authorities even took away their food to try to force them out by starvation.

Loan managed to protect the convent by telling authorities that she had no home to return to.

“I have to stay here to look after two elderly nuns and a baby with physical disabilities,” she said. The baby, blind and with paralyzed legs, had been abandoned at the convent’s gate.

She begged her neighbors for milk and food and visited the detained nuns. She also started cultivating fruit trees and vegetables in the convent’s compound to start making a living.

The convent comes back to life

“I trust in God implicitly and hoped our nuns would return to the nunnery in the future,” Loan said. “God gave me good health to do various kinds of work so I could guard the building by myself for 30 years.”

In the 1990s when the government started to relax its religious policies, 13 old nuns moved back to their convent after decades of working hard to support their parents and quietly providing pastoral work for Catholics.

They started to rebuild buildings and the chapel.

Sr. Loan, who is humble and smiles gently and kindly, said some authorities who had mistreated her asked if she had any hatred of them. “I do not feel hatred for any one because God teaches me to love all people,” she said.

Asked why she was loyal to her vocation, she said, “God creates me in this world and calls me to follow him. I fervently pray to follow him until my death.”

Loan, whose greatest expectation is to take vows before her death, said she and four other old nuns aged 71 to 77 had completed a special one-year novitiate before being admitted to first vows in September.

Sr. Mary Nguyen Thi Loan spent 30 years determinedly protecting the convent from confiscation. (Joachim Pham)

“My eyes filled with tears of happiness when I made vows and received a cross from the bishop and superior in the ceremony. I thank God who has let me be alive until now so my wish could come true.”

Sr. Mary Nguyen Thi Linh, a 77-year-old nun who had been forced to leave the convent in 1964, said, “We are grateful to Loan who has been determined to protect the convent for decades. Her courage is a shining example to us.”

During the hard time, she said, “We expected to return to the convent and die there.”

The sisters said they accepted all sufferings and difficulties caused by the government – seeing them as the way God challenges them to follow him. They do not feel hatred for those who harmed them.

Thirty nuns live at the convent today. The older nuns pray, garden and produce herbal medicine to serve poor people, while younger nuns do ministries at parishes, run a day nursery and raise cattle for a living.

The Lovers of the Holy Cross of Vinh was founded in 1800 and has some 1,000 members.

A new convent built on the ground of the old one where Sr. Loan lived for decades shows signs of resurrection of religious life in Vietnam. (Joachim Pham)

[Joachim Pham is a correspondent for Global Sisters Report based in Vietnam.]

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