Vietnamese sisters assisting people with Hansen’s disease
Religious sisters in Vietnam refuse to give up their mission of helping people afflicted by Hansen's disease (also known as leprosy), despite the closure of a leprosarium in 2012 to make way for a seaside resort.
The Daughters of Our Lady of the Visitation are persisting in their mission of ministering to sufferers of Hansen’s disease, or leprosy, in Vietnam’s coastal city of Da Nang.
Their ministry began in 1980, after the Vietnam War, when a road was cleared to a leprosarium which had been founded in 1968 by a pair of American missionaries.
The “Happy Haven” institution was abandoned in 1974 when its founders left the country due to health problems.
Its residents suffered the same fate, and were left to fend for themselves. They survived by growing crops, catching fish, and collecting fruit and vegetables from the surrounding forest.
Nuns in lay people’s clothing
That’s when the Daughters of the Visitation stepped in. They pretended to be ordinary people, and brought Happy Haven residents whatever clothes and food they could find, and administered Holy Communion to the 100-odd Catholics who lived there.
They had to hide their religious identity because the government had banned priests from offering pastoral care in the leprosarium.
Make way for progress…
Fast-forward 30 years to 2012, and those suffering from Hansen’s disease were forced to leave the hillside institution.
Authorities in Da Nang announced plans to build a US$130 million resort on that exact spot. The local government provided the former residents with houses in Lien Chieu district.
Ground has yet to be broken on the resort project due to compensation disputes between investors and those who live in the surrounding area.
Mission in evolution
After all these years, the Daughters of the Visitation have continued with their ministry.
However, the nuns lost contact with many former residents when they were dispersed in various areas.
Sister Mary Nguyen Thi Loi, head of the Order’s convent at Da Nang, told UCA News that it has been difficult to track them down, mainly because many are illiterate and lack mobile phones.
“Now we work with 23 families with 100 [Hansen’s sufferers] and their relatives” in several different areas, said Sister Loi.
Offering consolation in suffering
She added that they seek to provide money, food, clothes, medicine, and scholarships to those who live near their convents.
“We try to console them and share something useful with [them] and their families in order to reduce their physical and mental sufferings, because they are our brothers and sisters,” said Sister Loi.
The nuns’ ministry is supported by a US-based non-profit organization called Friends of Lepers in Vietnam.
So, despite the closure of the Happy Haven leprosarium, the Daughters of the Visitation have adapted their mission and still seek to offer spiritual support and consolation to any Hansen’s disease sufferers they can find.
Vatican News staff writer