Despite the active role Vietnamese women have played in the more turbulent times of the country's history, when peace breaks out, the patriarchal order returns. Women are often seen as nurses, homemakers, shop assistants, administration officers and secretaries, while men manage them.
One quiet exception is the work women do in the Catholic church. While the stereotypical role of the nun could be perceived more as yin — cloistered, veiled, hidden, passive — one where they pray all day, many nuns in Vietnam take on a yang role — positive, active, open, confident — and are visible in society. One such nun is Sister Marie Thecla from the congregation of Notre Dame in Ho Chi Minh City.
Nearly 70 years old, Sister Thecla has devoted her life to the Catholic church. Her career has taken her to 80 percent of the Catholic church parishes throughout Vietnam, including a stint in the Philippines where she graduated with a PhD in Counselling and Psychology from De La Salle University in Manila in 1993. She has also practised in the US and has written seven books in her field and says she has five or six more in the pipeline.
“I see my job as not only spreading God’s word, but also as helping people understand the human aspect of life,” says Sister Thecla. “It’s not just all about the spiritual.”
In addition to her work with the Catholic church in Vietnam, Sister Thecla has spent the past 20 years lecturing at universities and advising NGOs on matters relating to family, education and health. She was the first Catholic nun in Vietnam allowed to teach at university. In fact, Sister Thecla’s work is an example of the type of employment nuns can pursue outside their traditional commitments.
“We have nuns who are trained teachers, doctors, and lawyers, who have the blessing of the church to contribute to society through practice,” she says.
While her work is far-reaching, Sister Thecla wields bigger influence within the inner sanctum of her order, and the Catholic church overall, whose adherents are said to make up 6 percent of the Vietnamese population. She offers seminars to nuns and priests that act, in effect, as in-house training and development similar to the way regular workplaces might hold training and development for their employees.
“Naturally I teach theology to both the nuns and the priests. But I hold classes separately because they’re a different audience,” says Sister Thecla. “There’s a different message.”
She doesn’t reveal the content of the seminars she delivers to the priests, only to say some priests are “more open” than others. However, she says that her seminars for nuns and other women in her congregation centre on self-esteem and confidence building.
“I aim to strengthen their confidence so they aren’t afraid of men,” she explains. “If they’re more aware of their potential and value themselves, they’ll be more confident and freer.”
When asked if the engine behind the work of the Catholic church in Vietnam is the women, she chooses her words carefully.
“Like everywhere, the priests have the most influence, but (she emphasises the but), the nuns’ work has great influence in the community. It spreads out like grassroots through their classes and through counselling couples, visits with families and helping people.”
Sister Thecla’s answer steers our discussion towards the problems that women in Vietnamese society face today. She identifies development as being a major cause of difficulties in Vietnamese families, particularly in rural areas. As Vietnam develops and becomes more attractive as a manufacturing hub for industries such as the textiles and garments industry, men and women are migrating to Ho Chi Minh City for work in unprecedented numbers, often leaving their children and families behind.
As a result, Sister Thecla says she’s seeing an increase in cases of autism in urban areas among children attending the kindergarten at her Nam Ky Khoi Nghia chapel. She says most of the children who attend her kindergarten have autism.
“There are likely two reasons for this,” she says. “One, parents are busy with work and have little time for their children. Two, society is opening up and becoming less ashamed and less worried about face, and therefore, more likely to seek support.”
Not too far from Sister Thecla’s church is another Catholic establishment across the Saigon River at Thu Thiem. Like its fellow church in town, it’s observing similar changes in society, but is having to deal with one as a matter of urgency.
The Lovers of the Holy Cross convent at Thu Thiem is struggling to maintain the status quo amid development and forced relocation. While Sister Thecla’s church remains healthy and robust, the Holy Cross convent appears to be waging an almost daily battle to hold its ground, despite its resilience.
Already parishioners have moved to other parishes, leaving behind 300 nuns living and training on site with at least another 300 dispersed throughout the Catholic dioceses in Vietnam, mostly in the south. There are also 60 retired nuns living in the nursing home on the grounds that need support. And the recent contamination of its small, but once productive fish farm, has damaged the convent’s sustainability.
Sister Alma (not her real name) is a 73-year-old nun who has been at Holy Cross since she was 14. She says that she and the other nuns have refused to relocate on a number of occasions despite pleas from their families.
“We staged a protest last year over two or three days because of plans to demolish some of our buildings. We are still here though,” she says.
Much like the sisters of Notre Dame, the Holy Cross sisters rely on income from their kindergarten, but due to restrictions on size, it has a cap on the number of children who can attend.
Nevertheless, they are still able to derive income from teaching at elementary schools and other social activities. However, they have one alternative source of income in the form of dairy cows.
The church has a small dairy with around 30 Friesian cows producing somewhere between 200 and 300 litres of milk each day which is then sold on to Vinamilk and other buyers. Although the income isn’t significant, the milk is also enough to meet the daily requirements of the convent. In addition, the dairy produces enough biogas to satisfy the cooking requirements of the kitchen, which feeds 300 people three times per day.
Still, the threat to the nuns’ way of life looms large. Perhaps most symbolic of this is the earmarked felling of the original tamarind tree that has stood on the grounds of the convent since its establishment around 1840.
“I don’t think much about the future,” says Sister Alma. “I’m leaving everything up to God to decide. Right now I’m just trying to do my best.”
Sister Thecla and Sister Alma are unanimous that they would do it all over again. Their chosen vocations have not only afforded them important opportunities to serve the community in a spiritual sense, but have provided them with opportunities to be influential in what is often seen as a male-dominated space.