Partnering Girls with Access to Education
Loreto Toorak Students Pilgrimage to Vietnam
We turn left in our taxi, away from the noisy, organised chaos of the main road. Along with our vehicle, motorbikes with entire families on the back squeak down the narrow street, brushing past school kids making their way home weighed down with backpacks. We pull up outside a tall gate, open just far enough for us to see a familiar smiling face; it is Loreto Sister Hoa, ‘House Mother’ and host for our visit.
We have found our way to St Mary’s Hostel in Ho Chi Minh City, one of the newest works of the IBVM ministries in Vietnam, administered by the Sisters and supported by Mary Ward International Australia. We, a small group of students and staff from Loreto Toorak in Melbourne, have come to visit, to connect Loreto girl with Loreto girl, across culture, language, experience and of course food and drinks!
The shoe racks guarding the front door to the ground floor entrance of the hostel tell a little of the story of the girls who call this place home. There are sneakers, thongs, dress shoes, boots and sandals; neatly stacked two by two belonging to the young women aged between 17 and 24 who have come from mostly rural areas outside the city to study.
The hostel offers safe and secure accommodation, allowing them the opportunity to pursue their tertiary studies, where once the higher costs of living and the risks faced for young women making their own way in the big city may have proved prohibitive.
Named ‘St Mary’s’ by the Loreto Sisters, honouring the university college with the same name founded by the Loreto Sisters in Melbourne, the hostel provides meals, small individual sleeping spaces, ingenious string wardrobes, book lockers and a busy laundry in a modest, narrow, two-story house.
A lot more is met however than these basic needs in this home away from home. The sense of community and support is evident from the minute we sit down around the central dining table, sipping on sweet cumquat juice, snacking on delicious fruit and meeting the residents.
Sr Hoa welcomes us warmly and encourages each of the residents, sweetly and firmly, to introduce themselves in English to the visitors. Hesitantly at first, for there is no escaping this task, the girls do so growing in confidence as they go around the table and are joined by our Loreto Toorak students introducing themselves in English too; for them full sentences in Vietnamese is a bridge too far as we remind our hosts, praising their courage. As key similarities emerge of numbers of siblings, musical likes, food preferences the St Mary’s girls also speak of the new type of family they share at the hostel, the time for prayer and reflection they share and their love of their studies, in business, health, education and a range of other courses.
When the Loreto girls from both sides of the world drift off in small groups to chat more, quickly turning to phones and Facebook as uniting tools, a couple of students report to the kitchen to assist Sr Hoa in preparing banana fritters for afternoon tea and the beginnings of vegetables and rice for dinner. Here the routine of the day swings easily into action; study timetables and rosters line the walls, those out for classes return home and we see the difference this place is making, in ensuring the higher education of these Vietnamese girls continues, and that their personal development flourishes, supported in a new way here by the work the Loreto Sisters have always done all around the world, partnering girls with access to education. For young women who have been, in many ways, shut out of these tertiary educational opportunities, Loreto has found a way to make the once impossible, for such economically disadvantaged rural girls, possible.
The Australian Loreto students are reluctant to leave, drawn by the sense of home and warmth of hospitality at St Mary’s. This afternoon of exchange has allowed them to see another aspect of local life in this enormous and bustling city and to meet young women who in so many ways are just like them. Details are swapped, endless group selfies are taken, and mutual admiration is assured. Sr Hoa waves us goodbye and we know that this little pocket of Loreto in a laneway in downtown Ho Chi Minh City will continue where young women are ‘doing the great things’ of which Mary Ward spoke but could barely have imagined over 400 years ago.
Words: Loreto Toorak Director of Mission, Michelle McCarty
Image: Loreto Toorak girls enjoy meeting the students living at one of the IBVM Hostels in Vietnam