Hue, Vietnam — Over 550 girls, ages 14 and up, attended a vocation fair themed “I am here. Please send me,” held April 30 in the central city of Hue by the Daughters of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Congregation.
The young women visited the nuns’ charity clinic, day-care center, convent and kitchen; other activities included quiz games about the congregation, a cultural performance and lunch. They also had the opportunity to have private conversations with the sisters.
Dozens of them wore a sheepish smile after they watched a video clip about how students cheated at their university entrance examinations last year.
One of them, Madeleine Nguyen Thi Tuong Vi, an eighth grader, admitted that she and her classmates often copied off others in their exams.
“We never felt ashamed of it,” she said.
Tuong Vi, 14, one of 27 girls from Ha Uc Parish, told GSR,“I want to join the congregation in the future so I will follow nuns’ example by not cheating in exams.”
Mary Nguyen Thi Nga, a novice, told them,“I gave up cheating in exams after I joined the congregation last year because a nun has to tell the truth and act in an honest way.”
The third-year-student said they could cheat teachers but “cannot cheat God, who knows everything.” Nuns have to set examples of how to live a good life to others, she noted.
Nga, 22, said she wants to become a nun so she can model Christian values and basic moral standards to young people so they will lead a good life and serve others.
Sr. Agata Bui Thi Men, who is in charge of formation, told GSR that her congregation’s fair nuns allows them to establish good relationships with girls and introduce them to their activities. The sisters aim to inspire them to consider religious vocation.
She said this year’s fair attracted a record turnout, 100 more people than last year. More and more young women in Vietnam are seeking meaning in religious vocation and satisfying their spiritual needs.
Sr. Men said although her congregation, founded in 1920 by French Bishop Eugène Marie Joseph Allys, was banned from taking part in formal education after 1975 by the communist government, its mission includes providing moral values to youths and give them access to proper education.
The nun said an average of 100 girls, ages 18 and up, are admitted into the congregation each year, but only about 30 of them take temporary vows after attending a three-year course. Then they have to finish a six-year course in philosophy, theology, national culture, languages, social work and health care.
She said candidates work with sisters at their parishes, study the congregation’s history and activities, and attend courses on the Bible and faith education. They continue their studies at colleges and universities with scholarships from the congregation.
They also learn practical and artistic skills, like using computers, cooking, arranging flowers and playing musical instruments. They are taught how to behave with dignity and to act in humility.
Another formator said many novices start with bad habits – lying, stealing, dressing too fashionably, indulging in a passion for laptops and cellphones – being materialistic in general. Religious life for sisters means giving up personal possessions.
“They are educated in living in the spirit of poverty. We ask them to give their money to their superiors and ask for money when they need something,” she noted.
They are allowed to have three sets of clothes and must use no cosmetic products.
The lesson continues in a life of service. Young nuns are sent to work in remote areas and serve marginalized people who live in poverty, like lepers, those living with HIV/AIDS and members of ethnic minority groups who are illiterate.
Anne Nguyen Thi Ha, 27, who entered the congregation in 2013, said she wants to become a nun to work with youths from her home province of Quang Binh, where no nuns are sent to serve.
Ha said her parents thought that she would endure hardships as a nun and prevented her from entering the congregation.
“They (her parents) had to change their decision after I cried seven times about wanting to lead a consecrated life,” she recalled.
The Daughters of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Congregation includes 372 nuns, 56 novices, 25 postulates and 152 interested girls.
Two other congregations of Daughters of Our Lady of the Visitation and Lovers of the Holy Cross also based in Hue, have 225 nuns and 403 nuns respectively.
[Joachim Pham is an NCR/GSR correspondent based in Vietnam.]