Thailand may be a Buddhist country with only 1.14 per cent Christian and 0.5 per cent Roman Catholic but if the diminutive Sr Ratana Sriwarakul is any indication, Catholics certainly punch above their weight.
The Daughter of Charity Sister was born and raised in a small town in the north east of Thailand, the sixth of eight children. After completing her education in a Catholic school she had no intention of becoming a nun and was considering a career in engineering or architecture.
But she went to visit her older sister Chula, who had already joined the Daughters of Charity, and accompanied some of the Sisters who were working with leprosy patients at a government-run leprosarium in Khon Kaen Province.
“I saw how the Sisters dealt with the patients…most people when they talk about leprosy they tend to get away, not wanting to be near, their faces always down. When I saw the Sisters they were so full of joy and so friendly with the patients,”
Sr Ratana, 60, recalled.
“I thought this is quite different to what I am used to seeing.”
Her spiritual director tried to deter her from joining the Daughters of Charity, saying the work was too hard, but the 18 year old insisted on trying the order founded by
St Vincent de Paul and St Louise de Marillac in France in 1633.
After the novitiate, she was sent to the Philippines to join other young Sisters from the region and remained there for 10 years while she studied nursing, returning to Thailand only once. Her sister Chula was there when she took her first vows in Manila.
She worked in an intensive care unit in a diocesan-owned hospital and then ran a medical and surgical ward in Manila.
Returning to Thailand, she worked on a pilot HIV prevention project with the Health Ministry at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
Sr Ratana said it was “a big problem” in Thailand and there was ignorance about how the virus spread.
“There were even neighbours wanting to segregate these people and not deal with them or talk with them, there was a lack of information,” she explained.
Her role in the program was to disseminate information to young people who had left school, especially those crossing into Thailand from Myanmar and Laos in search of work.
She worked with business sectors to provide training and information to their workers, in partnership with personnel from the health department.
“For the Daughters of Charity, people know we are working with communicable diseases, starting with leprosy,” she said.
“In fact, we used to be known in Thailand as the leprosy sisters.”
After about a year, she returned to the Philippines and was asked to study physiotherapy because a lay missionary working in that field had moved back to the United States.
In 1994 the congregation sent
Sr Ratana to Australia because it was concerned she had no citizenship in any country. Her great grandparents had come from Vietnam to Thailand and she and her family were still regarded as refugees.
While applying for her Australian citizenship, she worked mainly in Sandgate, Newcastle, in aged care rehabilitation and then as a pastoral worker at the Noarlunga parish in Adelaide.
After five years Sr Ratana returned to Thailand and coordinated an inclusive development project for people with disabilities in three communities, one near the border of Malaysia and the other two near the border with Laos.
A Daughters of Charity baseline survey in 2001 found that local government generally focused their disability services on a charity approach due to lack of awareness of disability-inclusive programs.
The development project involved a two-fold strategy of breaking down barriers to inclusion and addressing the empowerment of persons with disabilities and their families.
Under Thai law, a business employing 100 people must have at least one worker with a disability or pay money to a government disability fund.
Sr Ratana said many businesses thought it was easier to sign a cheque and pay the disability fund than employ someone. Yet, the money supported study tours of government employees rather than people with disabilities.
Various business sectors were encouraged to employ people with disabilities to work in public organisations near their homes or support their livelihood activities in their community. This required close collaboration with government agencies such as employment, social welfare and agriculture as well as university outreach services and local community organisations.
Sr Ratana said the approach was not dissimilar to the way St Vincent de Paul and St Louise plugged into influential people in France in the 17th century.
“One good thing is that in Thailand when they know you are a Religious woman they respect you,” she said.
“Whenever I went to a meeting or did a presentation, the host would always let me go first.
“And many of the people I worked with had been educated in a Catholic school or had a connection with a Catholic institution.
“For example, the Redemptorists had a very big technical college for people with disabilities.”
Over the 24 years she ran the program, Sr Ratana still managed to find time for her intensive daily prayer schedule but admitted she often stayed up late completing all her tasks before rising at 5.30am for morning prayer.
She said the challenge of collaborating with business and government, planning projects and overseeing 200 volunteers kept her motivated. Despite a number of approaches from the provincial to come to Australia it wasn’t until 2019 that she felt it was “okay” to leave the project in someone else’s hands.
“During my annual retreat in 2018, I was really reflecting on will I go to Australia or stay here, so finally I decided to come,” she said.
After arriving in Australia in September 2019, a few months before the COVID pandemic hit, she enrolled at Macquarie University and completed her Masters in Disability Studies in
15 months while also serving on the congregational leadership team.
Since August 31, she has lived with three other Daughters of Charity at Dover Gardens and is awaiting news on a specific ministry.
Reflecting on her 42 years as a Daughter of Charity, Sr Ratana said she was thankful for the many different experiences and “blessings” in her life.
“I never thought I would be able to do such satisfying work,” she said.
“I think I am ready for whatever comes next.”Jump to next article