LEARNING to run away from the police in communist Vietnam was one of the first things Sister Agnes Dinh of the Sisters of St Paul de Chartres learnt in the novitiate when she joined in the early 1990s.
“In Vietnam, when you enter the novitiate, the doors close,” Sr Agnes said.
“For three years we have no contact outside at all, no family visits, no telephone.
“And inside we just see a garden, but beyond that there is a high wall, so from the convent, you can only look at the garden.
“On the other side are people in the street but we can’t see them, as you’re not allowed to open the windows until night time, where we open them to let the air in.
“We were afraid of the police. We were hiding.”
In Vietnam, the Sisters of St Paul de Chartres, an international congregation founded in France in 1696, cannot house novices because under the Communist government, they had no rights to live in novitiate houses.
To the outside world, the novitiate house where Sr Agnes lived for three years looked empty.
Only two older nuns who joined the Congregation before communism took over the country could live in the house.
Sr Agnes recalled the lessons they were given in the likely event of a police inspection.
“The Sisters gave us a little bag made of wool, and you had to put the rosary in that at night time, after you use it, so if it drops, it won’t make any noise.
“We didn’t have mattresses, but we use a thin mat, and we had to fold it and our blanket, fold it quickly, in a few minutes.
“And then we ran.”
More than 80 sisters would run to a small room that led to a secret area in the roof.
They all climbed up a ladder to the tiny space above the ceiling, standing upright with their gear to fit all the novices in the tiny space, waiting for the police to leave.
The two older nuns who were allowed to live in the house would turn all the beds upside down to make the rooms look like storage areas.
Sisters who got caught would be taken to the police station, paid a fine, and were returned to their family homes.
Many could never reenter the convent.
“One night we were up there, and the police were just standing outside the wall underneath, talking, and we just kept praying nobody would cough or make a noise.
“But we always put our trust in St Joseph – he protected us each time they came.
“It was very hard for us.”
Sr Agnes said the convents in Vietnam were better these days, although “not completely free”.
“I don’t know whether they still run,” she said,
“In my time, you just kept running.”
Despite the persecution and threats from the Communist government, more than 1000 Vietnamese women have answered God’s call to enter the Sisters of St Paul de Chartres.
Sr Agnes found her call just after finishing high school as one of six catechists, three boys and three girls, in her local parish.
Two of the girls tested their vocation at the convent with the Sisters of St Paul des Chartres – the first lasted one week, the second one month – and the boys joined the seminary.
Sr Agnes was the only one not interested in religious life and focused on preparing for university exams.
After one Sunday Mass, the parish priest bet that Sr Agnes would not last more than three days in the convent.
If she did, he would give her anything she wanted.
“Are you very sure Father? You will give me everything – even your motorbike?” she said.
The priest agreed without hesitation.
The motorbike would help Sr Agnes get to university where she was studying to become a doctor, a career she had pursued since she was 7 after witnessing the death of her neighbour as she was giving birth.
Her neighbour had developed preeclampsia, a condition caused by high blood pressure during pregnancy that can also kill the unborn child and the mother.
“She started shaking, all over shaking,” Sr Anges said.
Both the mother and baby died that night.
“If there was a doctor around, they could have saved the baby. That motivated to study to be a doctor,” she said.
With dreams to be a doctor solidly in progress, Sr Agnes’ next goal was to win the bet and survive three days in the convent.
After having a hard time convincing her parents, she eventually knocked on the convent door to win the bet.
On her first day she met an older nun who worked as a tailor mending old clothes for her Sisters in the community.
“Sr Marie was the one who supported me in those three days, helping me to sew buttons and other things, and telling me stories at the same time,” she said.
“She really inspired me by her example, the way she was very humble.
“I was following her like a robot as my mind was preoccupied with lessons and studies which I was trying to memorise for my upcoming university exams.”
It was an easy first day.
The next day, the convent bells rang at 4am for morning prayers.
In prayer, Sr Agnes received a Bible from Sr Marie, marked with a passage from the reading of the day.
She read, ‘Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity.’
It was the scripture passage that was always on her father’s lips.
“After the Communists, we had a very difficult time in my family, and my mum sometimes felt very bad because before the Communists took over, we had everything,” she said.
“She would say how they could raise six children much better than in their current situation.
“And then my father would say, ‘Vanity of vanity, all is vanities’.
“He said, ‘It’s pointless if you gain the whole world but lose your soul, it’s nothing. Trust in God, and he can do something for you; don’t think about the past, just let it go’.”
Reading the passage, her heart sank. She missed her family terribly.
Sr Agnes asked to keep the Bible and reopened it that night.
“When I was in my room that night, I was not happy at all,” she said.
“Reaching for the Bible, I trembled when I read the passage from John 15:16: You did not choose me; no, I chose you, and I commissioned you to go out and bear fruit, fruit that will last. And so the Father will give you anything you ask in my name.
“For me, this was a command, a challenge full of promise.
“Now the parish priest was not the one with whom I placed my bet, but God, the person who commissioned me to go and bear fruit that will last.”
After months of soul-searching, discerning, prayer and careful consultation, she readily accepted the challenge.
“From that time on, I threw myself into an exciting new bet, to win human souls, not a motorbike,” she said.
Sr Agnes has been with the Sisters of St Paul de Chartres for 20 years.
When she entered, sisters were not allowed to become doctors, only nurses because it matched their charism of service better.
So while her dream of being a doctor was over, Sr Agnes studied to save newborn babies as a midwife.
Three years after her initial vows, Sr Agnes was asked to travel to Australia to study English so that as a midwife, she could communicate with any foreigners.
But Sr Agnes, who couldn’t speak one word of English, did not want to leave Vietnam.
“I told Jesus no, that was not my dream,” she said.
“I don’t know English, and I don’t want to study English because it’s so hard for me.
“But if you want, I will follow it.”
Sr Agnes signed the paperwork for a passport and visa but shortly after, she learned “the truth” about her new adventure.
“The Sister told me I would not stay in Australia to study English, but I would stay there for a few years to be a missionary,” she said.
“She said it was God’s plan, because the paper had already gone through, and that if I said no, I would destroy everything and waste a lot of money.
“She said, ‘But you go back and pray about it’.
“After praying, I thought, God already from the beginning said you have to go, I commission you to go out and to bear fruit.”
After debating with God, she said her answer was yes and no, and just smiled.
Sr Agnes and three other Vietnamese Sisters arrived in Australia in 2004.
They now live in the Brisbane convent in Boronia Heights, which houses 20 Sisters, most from either South East Asia or Africa.
There are also 13 novices living in the house, all from South-East Asia, who hope to move into a new house in Springfield at the end of the year.
The Sisters are yet to find an Australian with a vocation to the congregation.
Sr Agnes no longer looks after the newborns, but instead, gives Holy Communion to the residents at St Paul de Chartres Residential Aged Care, Boronia Heights.
“Before I had a joy when I delivered the baby, a new born, but now for the elderly people, I have a joy in a different way,” she said.
“When you make them feel happy, I feel joy on my heart.
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