The number of Catholic nuns in Australia has hit a hundred-year low, but of those choosing to enter religious life, a growing number are from multi-ethnic backgrounds.
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17 Mar 2013 - 10:14 AM  UPDATED 26 Aug 2013 - 10:48 AM

Sister Clare Dang had never met a nun before she decided to become one.

Slightly built and extroverted, Vietnamese-born Dang was still in high school when she found the number of a convent in a magazine, and made the call.

"I think it's just a calling from God, just to do something to fulfil your happiness," she says.

For Lucy Vo, an early experience boarding with nuns at a convent lead her to aspire to become one.

"Going to high school outside, I had two alternatives to choose from. I could choose the pathway of religious life, or the other way. But obviously the call was very strong," she says.

Both women belong to the Missionary Sisters of Mary Queen, a convent with Vietnamese origins in western Sydney.

Aged 34 and 33 respectively, they are among the rare few choosing to enter a life of religious devotion in modern Australia.

Although the two women had not met before entering the convent, they have similar backgrounds. Both were born in Vietnam, and moved with their families to Hong Kong before boarding a boat to Australia.

It's an experience both women say drew them closer to their faith.

"Many of the boat people do think they owe God something when they are saved," says Dang.

She can recall a particular moment that helped define the course of her life.

Her family had just left Vietnam when she was ten years old. They were on board a “tiny” boat for 11 days, when tragedy struck.

"The boat was crushed into this hidden rock under the sea. Everybody was held tight together, and not just Catholic, but all religious. Even those who don't have any religion. There was praying... they were leaning back and the promise was coming out. They were saying, 'if you do this for me, God, or heaven, or whatever they believed in, I would do this for you.'"

Sister Lucy Vo, whose family left Vietnam when she was two, may not remember the journey but she recognises the affect it had on her family. "That journey, just fleeing Vietnam and the hardships that my family has faced, it certainly has strengthened my faith."

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It was trauma, again, that led Cambodian-born sister Hun Do to discover the Catholic faith. Now living as a Josephite Sister, she sees her journey fleeing her home country as a key part of her decision to join them.

"During the time I was journeying in the Pol Pot time, and a few years wandering around, and then got into the [refugee] camp in Thailand... during that time I didn't really link with God that much because I didn't know about Christianity."

"In the camp I worked with a Jesuit priest, and I remember at the time when I heard people call him father, I didn't know what it was about," she says.

Years later, after moving to Australia and growing close to two nuns who lived nearby, Do says she felt "God's presence, really truly" must have been with her on those earlier journeys.

The number of Catholic nuns in Australia peaked in the 1960s, and has been in decline ever since.

There are fewer than 6,000 left in Australia, and with an average age of 74, the church is at risk of losing one of its most devout populations.

Sister Ailsa Mackinnon has been with the Sisters of Mercy for more than 50 years. She attributes the decline of the sisterhood in part, to rising affluence.

“Life in Australia is pretty easy, and we have a very middle-class type of an existence. So the desire to enter into this search isn't as urgent as [it is among] people who have had a lot of hardship in their lives.”

Around the world, the Catholic Church is experiencing a clear shift in demographic, moving away from its traditional European roots to a more multicultural following.

The arrival of Pope Francis I, the first from outside Europe, brings another sign the Catholic Church is embracing change.

Mackinnon says the future of the Church lies in recognising diversity. In Australia; more than 22 per cent of the wider Catholic population were born overseas.

“Certainly the church has tried to accommodate the waves of migrants who have come to Australia,” she says. “It's only going to become more multicultural.”

Mackinnon says Australian Catholics are once again recognising that the Church is "universal".

"It's only been since the second World War, and the stopping of the White Australia policy and the waves of migration since, that we've come to realise this."

While she believes numbers of the Catholic religious will probably continue to decline, “it'll probably get to a plateau,” she says.

“And the Catholic Church has recognised that you don't have to be a nun or a brother to work within the church.”

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