Recounting the story of her upbringing as the child of an Aboriginal mother and Vietnamese father, and of her journey to the Catholic faith and a deeper appreciation of her Aboriginal heritage, Louise Luu acknowledges that the history of Aboriginal people is ‘not always a lovely story’. But even in the most traumatic experiences, she says, sometimes ‘you can find the most beautiful outcomes’.

Louise is completing her studies to become a teacher, and was recently appointed to the position of Engagement Officer at the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Victoria (ACMV), a role that helps her connect more meaningfully with both her Catholic faith and her Aboriginality.

Sitting in a light-filled room overlooking the garden at ACMV’s offices in Thornbury, Louise explains that her father arrived in Australia from Vietnam by boat in the 1980s, not long before he met Louise’s mother, who was only 14 years old when Louise was born. Louise is now the eldest of seven on her mother’s side of the family, who all live in Adelaide. Sadly, she says, her mother struggles with alcoholism. Louise describes her childhood as ‘pretty rough’, with neither parent having the resources or education to give her a stable upbringing.

‘I didn’t get a mother and a father who knew how to raise me, and that’s no fault of their own,’ she says. ‘They did the best that they could with what they had.’ But whenever anyone asks her why she chose the Catholic faith, she says it’s partly because it gives her ‘that fully formed family structure’ that she missed growing up.

Her journey into the Church started when she began school at St James’ Primary School (now Trinity Primary School) in North Richmond. She went to the school ‘because my cousins went there’. Though the family was Buddhist, her Vietnamese aunties and uncles had heard that the Catholic school system had high standards, ‘so St James’ Church on Kent Street was the only church that I had ever stepped into.’

Given her challenging home environment, her schooling was ‘a little bit broken’, but starting at Melbourne Girls’ College in Year 7, she met her best friend, Thu Phung, whom she describes as ‘probably one of the strongest factors’ in her journey to the Catholic faith. While she believes she’s ‘always had a Catholic spirit’, it nevertheless took her many years to find her way into the Church.

2024 07 03 Louise Luu CAM 29
Louise Luu in front of a mural in the garden at the ACMV headquarters in Thornbury.

In her late twenties, while living on the Mornington Peninsula, Louise had her son, Romeo, now seven. When it was time for him to start school, she found herself drawn back to the Catholic values of her own primary school years. Speaking to Thu—whose daughter was in prep at Louise’s old primary school—she was reminded of how much she had loved the warm and supportive environment there as a child. When Thu praised the welcoming, inclusive approach of the principal, Nigel Rodriguez, Louise said, ‘That’s exactly what I want for my son.’

‘So I moved from the Peninsula back to Richmond,’ she says. ‘I got a little apartment there, and I sent my son to Trinity Primary.’ She describes herself at that time as ‘still spiritual’ but ‘trying to find my way’.

‘I was praying, but not quite sure who to. I prayed and I said, “Can you please give me a sign as to what is the doorway that I’m supposed to walk through?”’

I wanted to attend somewhere that was teaching me to be kinder, to show compassion, to serve others, to do things for the community. I had all these beliefs inside me, but it was great to hear them spoken about at Mass.

Looking for a place that would give her a sense of belonging and help her develop spiritually, she decided to go to Mass. The only Catholic church she knew was the one she’d attended in primary school, ‘so I walked into St James’ that Sunday. And having prayed for a sign from God, the gospel reading that day spoke to exactly what I was going through at that time.’

She began going every week, ‘and I loved it,’ she says. ‘I wanted to attend somewhere that was teaching me to be kinder, to show compassion, to serve others, to do things for the community. I had all these beliefs inside me, but it was great to hear them spoken about at Mass.’

As a young mother, Louise also began to think more about Mary, about ‘having to let go as a mother, to let Jesus do what he needed to do. The grace she must have had to watch him go through such persecution and suffering. It breaks my heart, because I have a young son. So I often prayed for Mother Mary’s grace.’

At first, Thu came along to Mass with her, whispering explanations and encouragements, helping form Louise in her emerging faith. Each week, she says, she found herself ‘developing into a much more compassionate, much more peaceful person’, until she found she was relying less on the ‘scaffolding’ that Thu’s presence gave her at the beginning. Her faith was becoming more and more her own.

‘I said to her, “I feel like I want to get baptised,”’ she recalls. ‘I felt like I wanted to belong.’

Louise approached parish priest Fr Trung Nguyen SJ, who encouraged her to enrol in RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults). Every Sunday after Mass, she would head up to the hall at St Ignatius’ Church in Richmond and ‘sit for two hours with Sr Hao and we’d do catechism classes.’

Louise was baptised in March 2023, just before Easter, along with her son. Thu was not only her sponsor but also Romeo’s godmother. ‘I felt like there wasn’t anyone more appropriate,’ she says.

Since then, she has become a reader of the Word in her parish, which she regards as a privilege. The first time she read, she says, ‘I felt so honoured to be able to relay a message to people.’ She takes a lot of care with her preparation, studying the readings’ context so that she can ‘really emphasise what needs to be emphasised’. She has also trained to be an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion.

2024 07 03 Louise Luu CAM 3
Louise Luu in the chapel of Aboriginal Catholic Ministry of Victoria in Thornbury.

It was this desire to serve that also led Louise into teaching, although even there, God is doing surprising new things. For five years, she has studied for her degree through the University of New England and is currently completing her final placement at Xavier College in Kew. ‘I thought I knew my trajectory,’ she says. ‘I would be a teacher—that was the plan.’

But her journey towards a greater understanding of her Aboriginality and a renewed sense of pride in this aspect of her identity is currently taking her in a slightly different direction.

Louise’s story in recent years has been one of gradually trying to untangle her Aboriginality from the trauma of her family history, and of reclaiming a sense of pride in who she is.

By delving deeper into her own Aboriginal heritage and family story, Louise has come to understand her mother’s alcoholism within the context of intergenerational trauma. Too often in our history, she says, Aboriginality has become intertwined with the toxic sense of shame that was imposed by policies such as Victoria’s Half-Caste Act of 1886, which encouraged Aboriginal people to hide their Aboriginality out of fear of being taken away. This stigma has often been passed down through the generations, with tragic consequences.

Louise’s story in recent years, though, has been one of gradually trying to untangle her Aboriginality from the trauma of her family history, and of reclaiming a sense of pride in who she is. She doesn’t blame her mother for the chaotic conditions of her childhood. ‘She was 14 years old,’ she says, ‘so she wasn’t equipped to know how to raise a child.’ Throughout her childhood and especially her adolescence, Louise absorbed the sense that being Aboriginal was something shameful, something to hide.

‘I was going through those years where you’re just discovering who you are and forming your identity … I had this shame inside that was not only from within myself, from my inner voice, but it was reflected back whenever I would see racism. I was blending in with the crowd. I was a chameleon.’

Her Vietnamese heritage meant she ‘could get away with not looking Aboriginal’, and when she heard people say racist things, she would hesitate to identify as Aboriginal. ‘Why would I admit it when all I’ve known is abuse and substance abuse?’ she says.

God has also given me resilience and perseverance and strength to be able to turn all of those negatives into a positive, to help other people.

Through her teaching degree and having her son, though, she ‘started recognising the cycles’ and better understanding the origins of her feelings. ‘I decided to make a stand,’ she says. ‘I said: my son is everything to me, so I will never have him say that he is “Vietnamese (and Aboriginal)”, saying the word Aboriginal in a quiet tone because he feels ashamed. I want him to say ‘Aboriginal’ alongside ‘Vietnamese’, just as confidently, because he knows that he has a mother who stands behind him, who loves and accepts him for exactly who he is.’

She made a commitment to herself: ‘I would study my faith; I would study my Aboriginality; and I would heal all of those traumas that I went through, for the sake of my son and for the sake of myself, so that I don’t project that onto my future students, or onto my future children, much less my current child.’

With all that she has been through, she says, ‘God has also given me resilience and perseverance and strength to be able to turn all of those negatives into a positive, to help other people.’

Last year, she was asked to speak at the university as part of her work with the PASS (Peer-Assisted Study Sessions) program, and also spoke to Indigenous students at the university’s Oorala Aboriginal Centre. With the confidence she had gained through reading at Mass, she found that she really enjoyed public speaking.

And through a parent at her son’s school, she was introduced to the then coordinator of ACMV, Sherry Balcombe, who was about to retire. When Louise was asked to apply for the engagement officer role, it came out of the blue, but she decided to give it a go, ‘because we don’t grow by staying in our comfort zone, right?’

She describes the role as ‘a dream come true’, saying, ‘I truly believe the Holy Spirit led me here because I would have done this work on my own anyway.’ For most of her life she felt ‘disconnected’ from her Aboriginal culture, but in her first months at ACMV, she has taken ‘a deep dive’ into her family history and Aboriginal heritage as a way of equipping herself to ‘have tough conversations with other people who are struggling on their journey’.

In the process, she has discovered that her great grandmother on her grandfather’s side, a Wangkangurru Yarluyandi woman, was stolen from Birdsville and taken down to Adelaide, and that her grandmother is Gunditjmara.

I’ve experienced these things, and they aren’t always rosy and nice, but that is okay, because that’s all a part of my story and I’m actually really proud of who I am now.

She is also deepening her understanding of Aboriginal history more broadly, which she says can sometimes be ‘quite dark’. Learning about the inhumane ways many Aboriginal people were treated, for instance, has been heartbreaking, and she has shed tears as she has come to understand that the Church she loves has at times played a role in the injustices suffered by Aboriginal people. Some of her friends have asked, ‘How can you be Aboriginal but work for the Church?’ Do you not know what the Church did?’

‘I do,’ she says, but ‘the one thing that Aboriginal people a long time ago didn’t get was choice. We have a choice now.’ Getting baptised was her choice, she says, and she would make it again, even knowing what she knows, ‘because everyone’s connection to God is a personal thing’.

Being part of the Church has given her a sense of purpose and an opportunity to serve, she says, along with a profound sense of belonging.

It has also given her the chance to participate in initiatives such as the Building Bridges program, which allowed her to join a recent Zoom meeting with Pope Francis. ‘My contribution to that conversation was getting the people in my group to just be aware that prejudice still exists, even though we think it doesn’t,’ she says.

And on Sunday 7 July, as a proud Wangkangurru Yarluyandi and Gunditjmara woman, with her son watching on, she stood at the front of St Patrick’s Cathedral before the annual Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mass and gave an Acknowledgement of Country, which she describes as ‘a huge moment’. Later this year, Romeo will also see her ‘walk across the stage and get my teaching degree’.

For Louise, it’s about ‘breaking those cycles’. She is a strong believer that ‘your history doesn’t have to define you.’ You can’t change what happened to you, she says, ‘but you can take responsibility for what you do with that … I’ve experienced these things, and they aren’t always rosy and nice, but that is okay, because that’s all a part of my story and I’m actually really proud of who I am now.’

NAIDOC Week is being celebrated from 7 to 14 July 2024. On Sunday July, Catholic Churches across Australia commemorated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday and the commencement of NAIDOC Week, focusing on NATSICCs 2024 theme: ‘Keep the Fire Burning—Strong in Faith’. Resources from the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC) can be found here.

Banner image: Louise Luu in the chapel of Aboriginal Catholic Ministry of Victoria in Thornbury.