As a mother superior working in Myanmar's Kayin State
, Sister Deborah Ann's daily routine involves managing a nursery school, looking after girls from a boarding school, helping to arrange meals, assisting priests with their work and joining prayer meetings. But Sister Deborah, one of the Sisters of St. Francis Xavier, also sees the launch of the nursery as paving the way for greater engagement and dialogue with parents who are Buddhists. St. George's Nursery is situated in a Buddhist majority neighborhood that is just five minutes' walk from the nun's house in a quiet ward in Hpa-an, the state capital
. During a recent visit, two teachers were seen performing songs with about 30 children in a one-storey concrete building. Sister Deborah said the nuns invite all of the parents to the nursery's Christmas party each year.
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"This is a way to build inter-religious dialogue
through interacting with them," she said. The nun said the nursery is open to all young children regardless of their race or religion. She said Buddhist parents don't appear to have any prejudice or negative feelings about the Catholic nuns, who are generally held in high regard because of their good deeds and hard work. "Buddhist parents have a good impression about the nuns as the church has played a prominent role in education in Myanmar," Sister Deborah, an ethnic Kayin, told ucanews.com. Most of the students at the nursery come from Buddhist families and range from two and a half to five years of age. Here they are shown singing action-based songs on May 25. The nursery is run by the Sisters of St. Francis Xavier. (ucanews.com photo)
She said the nursery, as a rule, accepts kids aged 3 years and older but some of the parents ask if they can send their younger toddlers there. "We usually can't turn down their requests as they are so eager to send their kids here," she added. As a school fee, the nuns collect 10,000 kyats (US$7.5) per month. The nursery has enrolled about 50 children a year since it opened six years ago. Four nuns from the Sisters of St. Francis Xavier divide the tasks. These range from helping out at the church's office, teaching at the nursery, instructing and caring for children at the boarding school, decorating the church and other parish activities. Sister Deborah was assigned to Hpa-an three years ago. She said she is ready "to serve wherever she is sent and do whatever she is asked to." St. Francis Xavier Cathedral is situated beside the living quarters of the nuns, the clergy and the local bishop in a Karen Buddhist majority city where some 200 Catholics reside. They are mostly government and company employees. In Kayin, Christians make up 9.5 percent of the state's 1.5 million population, including about 20,000 Catholics. Buddhists represent the lion's share, or 84.5 percent, with Muslims accounting for another 4.6 percent and Hindus just 0.6 percent, according to a 2014 census. However there are many impoverished families in the region who cannot afford a proper education for their daughters, and this is where the church-sponsored boarding school plays a key role. "The church's aim is to help give them a formal education, especially the children of needy families as many can't afford to send all their kids to schools in their respective villages," Sister Deborah said. Last year, the school saw 89 students from a range of backgrounds — Buddhist, Catholic, Baptist and Anglican. The family of each needs to pay 150,000 kyats (US$111) a year for food, stationery and other necessities. Hpa-an Diocese also provides financial support. The girls are aged 12-18 and come from various parts of the state including Hlaingbwe, Kamamaung and Myawaddy. Some of the older students have already passed their matriculation exams and also attend computer, sewing and English courses. Today, there are only two secondary schools and four primary schools run by the Catholic Church in the country. However, it also operates about 300 boarding houses in parishes across the 16 dioceses that provide children with lodgings and supplementary classes. Those who attend these mostly come from local villages and are registered at state-run schools. Hpa-an Diocese has 24 priests, 37 male and female religious workers and 73 catechists serving about 20,000 Catholics, according to the church's Myanmar directory. Church records show that Bishop Alexandre Cardot of Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon), who served the Paris Foreign Missions Society, founded the Sisters of St. Francis Xavier in 1897. Pope Paul VI granted diocesan status to the local congregation in 1964. It now has 432 nuns in 14 dioceses who teach catechism and help with various church duties including assisting the bishop, carrying out pastoral duties, providing education and helping out with basic health care.