"Like the delayed rays of a star": Photographs of Eurasian women “repatriated” to France (1947-2020)
Growing up in the Saint-Rambert Abbey
Despite the isolation of the abbey, former Saint-Rambert boarders feel that they were “safe” there, although very restricted. Any deviation from the rules was met with punishments that ranged from not being allowed to have dessert to being whipped. Mother Jeanne insisted that the FOEFI immediately remove the most recalcitrant boarders and send them to the Bon Pasteur congregation, which specialized in the correction of “bad girls” (1). It seems that as time went by, things changed. The thirty or so girls who arrived from Seno in 1963 (including Hélène M.) did not receive exactly the same kind of education and treatment as the boarders of the 1950s: “the sisters had already backed off.” The time the girls spent at the abbey played a major role in their individuation. Whereas those who arrived when they were older spent two or three years there before going off to other establishments, the youngest stayed much longer. Josette, the youngest of the L. siblings, spent 10 years there. After the death of her mother, she first went to a children’s home (fig. 41), before arriving at Saint-Rambert at age 3 (in 1965), where she joined her three sisters. The four of them can be seen together in this photo (fig. 42): Christiane (age 12), Claire (age 8), Marie-Christine (age 6), and Josette (age 5). Josette left the abbey in 1974 to join her father: “there was not a lot of love at the abbey, but you can’t expect love from a boarding school. In spite of everything, I think I had a good childhood, but I know it took a toll on some of my friends.”
Sisters who could not replace mothers
The girls kept in touch with their families in Vietnam—and especially with their mothers—through letters. But the FOEFI and the nuns sought to keep letter-writing to a minimum, citing the cost of postage. The girls wrote similar things: “I miss you”, “I am doing well”, “I am working hard at school”, and so on. With a few exceptions, the rare letters that the girls—and not all the girls—received could not serve to maintain a true connection, or even an idealization of one. Sometimes, the girls were able to send a photo. Marie-Simone and Ginette L. arrived at Saint-Rambert in 1949, aged 10 and 8. They can be seen in fig. 1 (Ginette is in the first row on the bottom, 6th to the right; Simone is in the 2nd row, 8th from the left) and posing together in this image (fig. 43): “I had sent this photo to my mother, and despite the wars, she always kept it with her.” And it was because of the stamp of the Saint-Rambert photographer on the back that one of her maternal half-brothers was able to find her many years later, thanks to the abbey nuns.
The activity reports found in the FOEFI’s archives describe “maternal and attentive” nuns and “docile and studious” boarders. This is not the opinion one finds in the testimonies of those boarders, which are much more mixed. While the girls do feel that the nuns took fairly good care of them, they did not find the Sisters and Mothers—nomenclature notwithstanding—as particularly motherly, sisterly, or affectionate. The practice by which the “big girls” (who were also referred to as “little mothers”) took care of the “middle” and “little” girls served as a palliative to this. These three levels were always distinguished from one another: in the dormitories, in the classroom, and during activities (fig. 44). For example, the “middle girls” would take the “little girls” to the bathroom in the middle of the night so that they wouldn’t wet the bed; when the “big girls” came back from vacation, they brought with them a breath of fresh air from the outside world.
“One is always guilty before God”
The religious education the girls received was very strict, and required that they forget the Taoist or Buddhist teachings they had previously learned. Binta B., born in 1950, was baptized as soon as she arrived at the abbey at age 11 and given the name Marie-Hélène—the name of a little girl who had died shortly before Binta’s arrival. All the girls learned the catechism, took their first communion, and were confirmed; the most receptive even became “Children of Mary.” Hélène M., who arrived from Seno in May 1963, was baptized and took communion in March 1964. In the photo here (fig. 46), she is in the first row, third from the left.
There were many religious activities: prayer several times a day, confession on Saturday, Mass on Sunday. One of the former boarders reports: “We were true believers. It was every day.”
The notion of sin was omnipresent: anything that was forbidden was a sin. It was not a religion of love that was taught, but rather one of inescapable guilt: “God knows everything, hears everything, sees everything, even in the dark.” Penitence was very important, because “one is always guilty before God.” Nudity, which was customary in Indochina, became a sin, as did everything having to do with the body. One former boarder explains that she wanted to study nursing in order to finally learn about her body. At Saint-Rambert, showers were taken once a week, in undergarments. It was forbidden to touch or look at oneself. The girls were only allowed to wash their hair on rare occasions, but many got up in the middle of the night to do it anyway, in cold water. A fashionable outfit someone might receive in a package was a sin, as were makeup and hair removal (which the big girls taught the younger ones). Any sign of interest in one’s appearance was considered vanity.