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After six decades, nuns emerge in Burma.

Despite hardships, they still have hope

KYENG TUNG, Myanmar - She thought she'd come from somewhere near Venice. She arrived in Burma, now Myanmar, as a novitiate nun in 1934. The world was in a depression and Mussolini was about to join Hitler to form the Axis powers. She has never been back to Italy.

"It's better if we speak English," said Sister Victoria, 82, head of St. Mary's Orphanage in Kyeng Tung city, who speaks Shan, Burmese and three other hill tribe dialects. "I've forgotten my Italian."

This was the simple beginning to a remarkable story of religious dedication and perseverance. Two eightysomething nuns who've been serving their church in Myanmar for more than 60 years still work in their original parish, Immaculate Heart Cathedral.

Recently, they were discovered by an international news agency photographer who made a rare tourist trip into Myanmar's usually closed and remote eastern Shan state.

Traveling north from the northern Thai border city of Mae Sai, the photographer reached Kyeng Tung, a city the government recently opened up as a tourist destination. Certain Thai hotels and tour agencies have been allowed to organize small tour groups to Kyeng Tung on a trial basis.

Myanmar's tourism officials hope it will become a manageable future tourist destination, attracting travelers from the lucrative Thai tourist market and a desperately needed source of hard currency.

A forgotten land

After meeting and talking with Sister Victoria, a young Akha hill tribe nun brought a reluctant Sister Giuseppa to meet the foreign visitor. She was 85 years old and had come to the country at the same time as Sister Victoria. Another nun, Sister Vincenza, was busy and not available to talk.

Time has taken its toll, however. Sister Giuseppa, slightly stooped and frail, smiled a lot when people spoke to her. She used to take care of the orphanage foundlings but mostly sits alone in her darkened room these days, praying.

But how did these remarkable Italian nuns get to Myanmar, the land that time has nearly forgotten? And how have they survived the turbulent span of 20th-cnetury Burmese history.? Perhaps it is best to simply relate the story as I learned it from the photographer.

In 1933, Sister Victoria and a small group of fledgling nuns embarked by ship from Genoa, Italy, bound for Calcutta and then to Southeast Asia. Excited and hopeful, they were all young members of the Maria Bambina Order, cofounded by Sisters Bartolomea Capitanio and Vincenzza Gerosa in Brescia in 1832.

After spending one year in preparation at a big Catholic missionary station in Calcutta, eight nuns, including Sister Giuseppa, were finally assigned to missionary activities in the British-controlled country, specifically the rugged, mountainous hill tribe area in Shan state.

Today, Shan state, bordering Thailand, Laos and China, is well-known to drug-enforcement officials around the world for its poppy fields and narcotics smuggling trade. Epicenter of the infamous Golden Triangle, it is home turf of drug kingpin Kuhn Sa and a place from where an increasing number of young hill tribe girls are sent off to work in the sex trade in Thailand.

Kyeng Tung city, the unofficial capital of the eastern portion of Shan state, was founded by King Mang Rai. Surrounded by densely forested mountains and nestled in a luxuriant green valley of betel groves, fruit trees and yellow rice fields, it is a city of more than 100,000. For centuries, it was an important spot in the early trade route between China and Thailand.

Immaculate Heart Cathedral sits prominently on a hillside just outside Kyeng Tun's ancient walled city. Overlooking graceful, soaring Shan pagoda spires and the spreading, unspoiled city below, it is the city's solitary Catholic church and one of only a handful in the entire province.

A test of tenacity

The sisters of the Order of Maria Bambina began St. Mary's Orphanage in the 1950s to meet the needs of hill tribe children who had no access to schools or a proper education. "We have over 150 students in our trade school who are not really orphans at all," said Sister Victoria, speaking animatedly and looking delighted to greet a rare Western visitor. "They are children of the nearby Akha, Lisu, Lahu and Shan hill tribes people, and this is the only way they can learn productive skills, such as sewing, knitting and gardening. But now we have the problem of AIDS and our girls are being lured away to work as prostitutes in Bangkok."

Established by Catholic and Baptist missionaries during the last century, the religious schools and churches in Shan state are predominantly attended by hill tribes people.

Young nuns still go to the villages, where they care for hill tribe children, train them in religious studies and trade vocations. In addition, Immaculate Heart Church has a convent and a seminary that attracts hill tribe youths to work in the church.

From their perch above Kyeng Tun city, Sisters Victoria Giuseppa and Vincenzza have endured the dangers of modern Burmese history: the end of the British colonial era, surviving the Japanese occupation and secretly supporting the struggle for Burmese independence in 1948.

More recently there have been the massive student-led uprisings for democracy in 1988, democratic elections in 1990 whose results were ignored by the ruling regime, and finally, the incarceration of 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, for more than three years by the infamous State Law Order Restoration Council (SLORC), the military regime that governs the country.

But the greatest test of their tenacity came with the difficult challenges wrought after 1961. General Ne Win came to power riding an antiforeign influence movement that swept the country. He expelled most of the foreigners and Christian missionaries, created ugly incidents and, finally, set the country on the path of isolationism from the Western world known as "the Burmese way to socialism." It has lasted to this day.

In order to remain in Myanmar, the nuns had to pledge to the Ne Win government that they had arrived there before independence in 1948 and wanted to become permanent residents. "Very few of us were allowed to stay," she recalled, looking back on colleagues who were forced to leave and six who died along the way from various ailments and old age.

Due to the Burmese government's attitude toward foreigners, Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral has been virtually cut off from the rest of the world.

"Relations between the Vatican and the Burmese government have not been good," said Sister Victoria, "but we have some correspondence with Catholic authorities in the Vatican, and they know about our situation."

|Things are better'

As part of its recent efforts to present a more benign face to the world, Myanmar has encouraged tourism and only recently opened its Shan state border for limited tourist visits from Thailand.

Meanwhile, life for the original members of the Order of Maria Bambina has been difficult. "Things have never been easy for us in a Buddhist country," said Sister Victoria. "But in the last three or four years things are better. We now get support from the local business community and Kyeng Tung and religious materials from Rangoon (now called Yangon) and from Thailand. We also have a seminary and a convent."

Sister Giuseppa could only smile as we talked about the status of the church in Myanmar and the particular problems they encountered in Shan state. "We're allowed to conduct the regular business of the church - catechism, baptisms, Mass and weddings," she said, "and the nuns can go to the villages and care for the hill tribe children.

"But the nuns cannot teach in the schools because the government doesn't allow it. All the same, the church and the congregation are growing."

Sister Victoria is aware that Myanmar is embroiled in another turbulent political period. The United Nations and various international human-rights groups have censured Myanmar's ruling SLORC regime. Myanmar recently reinstated a long-promised constitutional convention that it had postponed without adequate explanation.

As the visitors prepared to leave, Sister Giuseppa smiled one last time before she was taken inside. Sister Victoria shook hands and turned to walk back to the church.

The visitors asked whether she planned to visit Genoa again someday. "Yes, I'll see you in Genoa," she said, turning slowly to walk back to the church, knowing Genoa would remain only a dim memory of a young Italian girl who left her home a long time ago to do a nun's work in the Far East.
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Title Annotation:Myanmar
Author:Gillotte, Tony
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Feb 26, 1993
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