Sister Catherine didn’t give up on our mission to find the second Sacred Heart orphanage site, although the search wasn’t the sedate journey you’d think a nun might lead. It was a careening caper through the streets of Danang, resembling a mad romp on the Partridge Family bus rather than a night portly jaunt on a tour vehicle.
Initially, we headed toward the sea. We knew the site of this former orphanage was on the beach and we also knew government officials had taken it over. But then we started south a bit, a direction we didn’t expect.
“I don’t think it’s this way,” Sister Susan said in the back. “What is she saying?” she’d ask Xe, our Vietnamese translator and companion. “Where are we going?”
Sister Catherine, seated up from next to the driver, would make a few motions, back and forth, saying a few words.
“This isn’t the right way. She doesn’t know where she’s going. What is she saying? Xe, what is she saying?”
“I can’t hear all of it. She thinks it is this way.”
“I don’t think it’s this way at all. We’re going the wrong way.”
This went on for about 15 minutes as we drove through the streets, new streets and old, past new construction and unrecognizable buildings. Then we turned north again, on another busy street, then started to go east and cross over the bay on a bridge.
“Is this it?” Susan asked, craning her neck to look around outside. “This doesn’t look familiar at all.”
“The roads have changed,” Xe said, echoing what Sister Catherine apparently said from up front.
“Yes, everything has changed. It has changed so much.”
We careened around a large roundabout, a traffic circle that spit up back in the opposite direction again. But after only a few hundred feet, we turned right into a small roadway, barely wide enough for the bus. About a quarter of a mile in, amid tall trees and worn buildings, we stopped.
“I can’t believe we found it.”
Yeah, we found it, although I couldn’t tell you how to get back there.
We tentatively got off the bus. We weren’t sure of our welcome. As you might surmise, Sister Catherine and the church had a somewhat prickly relationship with the government and this property in particular was a sore point. The sisters still had an operation in the next-door building, although I’m not sure what it was, but the orphanage was now a retirement home run by the government.
Still, Sister Catherine talked with another nun, who talked with the people next door, and surprisingly they let us in. We slowly walked through a wide entryway, under a roof and into the courtyard.
“This is it,” someone said under her breath, I think it was Laura.
“There’s the tree,” Sister Susan said in a hushed tone, pointing to our right. She was searching for a particular planter with a particularly tree, the same tree and planter depicted in a decades-old picture of an adoptee who couldn’t come on this trip. Someone sat on the planter, in the same exact spot, and we took another picture. And laughed at the discovery.
We walked up one side and down the other, Sister Catherine showing us the room where they cooked, and the room where they did laundry, and the room where they washed and diapered the babies. A couple of older people stepped out of their rooms to watch, smiling and returning our bows, but someone apparently bristled at the picture-taking because the manager came out and told us to stop.
Then we came to a particularly point in the walkway, a point where the sunlight hit a certain pattern on the wall, illuminating the doors in a familiar war, familiar to Laura, at least.
“This is where my dad was,” she said, holding up a picture of her dad holding her, years ago, at this place, when she was a baby. The pattern on the doorways and window shutters matched, the colors matched, everything matched. And Laura fell silent. And we smiled a bit, watching her reconcile her history.
We soon left but we weren’t done. Laura wanted to find the gravesite of the sister who had put her together with her father. After he’d left Vietnam to return to the States and his wife with Laura, she’d sent them Christmas cards every year. Tucked away under the trees was a graveyard for the old orphanage and convent, a place where the babies who’d died and the sisters who’d died could rest. But there rest is going to be disturbed soon. The sisters are moving out of Danang finally, after all the travail over the past decades, to the mountains, creating a place for older sisters to retire and taking their dead with them.
But this day we found those who has passed under small headstones and statues with name plates. One was a raised box of a structure, about the size of a mattress, with small name plates circling its edge. Laura searched and searched and there, with a white flower bursting from the ground in front of it, was the resting place of the sister who had been so instrumental in Laura’s life. She kneeled, caressed the flower and took a picture. She stood, took a deep breath and smiled. We all turned and walked quietly away, back to the sisters facility.
Sister Catherine then motioned for us to follow her and we did, passing doorways and gardens, finally going through a large iron gate to walk among pine trees and fallen needles. Then the path opened up and we beheld the sea stretched out before us, a wide brace of white sand and a roadway – a new roadway – dividing us from the beach ahead. Sister Susan talked of the days when they’d bring the children down to the beach to play, seemingly carefree days that didn’t resemble wartime. To the right was a statue of a saint, I think, with flowers and memorials and a few people praying. While we were there someone pulled off the road to place something in front of the statue and then drove on, curious but not too curious about the Westerners standing there.
We returned to the front of the building, finding Jacob, one of our group, sitting with a couple of the nuns. One periodically punched him in the arm, smiling and chattering. Xe said that he reminded the sister of her nephew. Big, burly Jacob, with broad shoulders, reminded this tiny woman of her nephew. So she kept punching him in the arm. Jacob looked pretty bewildered by the experience, although he continued smiling and nodding at the woman. But he couldn’t help but rub his arm as he got on the bus to leave. We all waved as the bus drove down the narrow road again, leaving behind the quiet, the past and the sea.