Sisters provide aid and solace to Hansen's disease patients who were forced out of a hillside leprosarium
Sister Mary Nguyen Thi Loi talks with Dang Van Loc outside his house in Binh Dinh province on March 2. (Photo: UCA News)
Dang Van Loc, whose toes and fingers are deformed by leprosy, warmly welcomed four visiting nuns to his ramshackle house in the remote town of Hoai Nhon in Vietnam's Binh Dinh province.
Loc, 76, asked them about other patients with whom he had stayed for decades at the old Hoa Van leprosarium in the coastal city of Da Nang.
"This is the first time I have met with the nuns since I left the leprosarium 10 years ago," said Loc, who lives alone and grows crops for a living.
The slightly built patient lacks food after he had 400 kilograms of rice and cassava damaged in severe floods last year. The nuns consoled him and offered him tea, cakes, a traditional conical hat and money.
Loc was among seven lepers and their families whom the nuns from Da Nang visited on March 2-3.
Daughters of Our Lady of the Visitation Sister Mary Nguyen Thi Loi, head of the convent in Da Nang, said their first visits aim at maintaining contact with those patients and looking at their situation in order to find ways to support them.
Sister Loi said the patients are among 362 lepers and their relatives who were forced out of the remote leprosarium surrounded by mountains and the sea in 2012, when Da Nang authorities planned to build seaside resorts on the site and surrounding areas.
The resort project worth US$130 million has not been carried out so far due to disputes over compensation between people in the surrounding area and investors.
Most of the lepers and their families were moved to houses provided by the local government in Lien Chieu district, while three patients were taken to hospital for treatment and 10 families including Loi’s returned to their home provinces, according to state media.
The leprosarium was established with 40 lepers in 1968 and named Hy Lac Vien or Happy Haven by Gordon Smith and his wife, American missionaries who were former members of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. They left Vietnam due to health problems in 1974.
After 1975, when the Vietnam War ended, patients grew crops, caught fish and collected vegetables and fruits from the forest for a living. They lived in poverty and were abandoned as they had no means of transport to other places.
After scouts in the neighboring city of Hue cleared a winding cliff path on the mountain from the national road to the leprosarium in 1980, some nuns from Da Nang started to visit and work with lepers.
Sister Loi said at that time priests were banned from offering pastoral care to the leprosarium, which was home to 100 Catholics. The nuns pretended to be ordinary people and administered Holy Communion and offered clothes, food, medicine and other basic supplies to them on a regular basis.
Loc, who had to live on the streets for years before he was sent to the church-run leprosarium in 1968, said nuns used to sing songs to entertain lepers. He helped the nuns with humanitarian aid to the leprosarium and took them to visit patients’ homes.
He said his mother died when he was six years old and he was abandoned by his father after he was infected with Hansen's disease when he was 17. At that time, leprosy was still feared as a highly contagious and devastating disease.
His wife, also a leper, died in the leprosarium in 1979, leaving him without a child.
Sister Loi said those lepers who have no jobs have sold their houses and moved to other places.
"We lose their contact because they are illiterate and have no mobile phones," she said. "Now we work with 23 families with 100 lepers and their relatives in Da Nang and Thua Thien Hue, Quang Nam and Quang Ngai provinces."
The nuns provide money, clothes, food, medicine and scholarships for lepers in Da Nang and Thua Thien Hue every two or three months since they live near their convents. They also visit and offer consolation to the dead. There is no leprosarium in those areas.
Le Van Minh said his family were given 40 million dong (US$1,740) by the government and moved to his home province of Quang Nam in 2012.
Minh, 71, said they raise poultry and grow rice on a 2,500-square-meter farm inherited from their ancestors for a living. Last year’s floods washed away all their crops. The man with deformed hands said they live on donations from benefactors.
He said Sister Loi gave them 5 million dong to cultivate crops and plans to raise funds to help him repair his shabby house built 65 years ago.
Anna Nguyen Thi My Dung, who was among 24 students whose parents used to live in the leprosarium, said they were given monthly scholarships by the nuns while they were studying in Da Nang.
Dung said they experienced discrimination from many local people, although they are free of the preventable disease.
"We built good relationships with our neighbors by introducing them to the nuns who later offered their children scholarships," she said.
Dung, 28, who teaches at a nursery school in Binh Dinh province, said she joined a group of volunteers led by Saint Paul de Chartres sisters in 2017 and looks after people with HIV/Aids at their homes in Qui Nhon. They hold workshops at local schools and parishes to reduce discrimination against lepers, tubercolosis patients and people with HIV.
She said on Saturdays they offer roses, milk and fruits to some 40 poor patients at a local public hospital.
Dung told Sister Loi that she is happy to be baptized on the coming Easter Vigil to marry a Catholic who is also a teacher. They plan to get married on May 6 at Nhon Binh church.
Sister Loi said one college graduate works with the nuns to take care of patients and one another joined the congregation.
“We try to console them and share something useful with lepers and their families in order to reduce their physical and mental sufferings because they are our brothers and sisters," the nun said.
Sister Loi said their ministries are funded by Friends of Lepers in Vietnam, a US-based non-profit organization which supports lepers in the country.
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