Intercom Feature Articles
Life's Mysteries: Remembering Operation Babylift 40 Years Later
S. Kateri Maureen Koverman (front, second from left) united a group of Amerasian adults and some of their parents directly involved in the 1975 Operation Babylift Mission at the Mount St. Joseph Motherhouse in July to remember and reflect.
“Life is more a mystery to be reverenced than a problem to be solved.” - Flannery O’Connor
In July 2015 a special group of individuals united at the Mount St. Joseph Motherhouse to remember and reflect. The group were Amerasian [Vietnamese-born] adults and a few of their parents directly involved in the 1975 Operation Babylift mission, the mass evacuation of children (ranging from babies to young children) from South Vietnam to the United States. Sister of Charity of Cincinnati Kateri Maureen Koverman brought the group together. Sister coordinated the evacuation of the Vietnamese children through Catholic Relief Services. The gathering comes 40 years after the initial mission, and offered prayer, reflection and insight for those attending.
The stories of all those involved are compelling. Intercom will feature many of them in upcoming issues of the publication.
At the age of 30, fresh off the completion of her master’s thesis in social work and approaching fi nal vows, S. Kateri Maureen Koverman found herself longing to go to Vietnam. “I felt certain God was calling me to Southeast Asia,” she said in an interview in 2005. It was then Bishop Edward Swanstrom, who headed up Catholic Charities in New York, that helped her dream come true. He wrote Mother Mary Omer Downing and requested permission for S. Kateri to serve as contractor for the U.S. military, and so, after completing her graduate work, Sister headed to Vietnam to minister to the homeless, elderly and orphans in 1970 and from 1973-1975, and eventually at the time of the fall of Saigon in April 1975.
Monsignor Andrew P. Landi, a longtime official of Catholic Relief Services, visits the nursery where S. Kateri Maureen Koverman (right) ministered in Vietnam during the fall of 1973.
“I was compelled to go,” she said, “and just do what I was asked. I felt it would make sense, but I didn’t understand it. The Lord was behind it all.”
It was while she was working for the Vietnamese government’s repatriation program, as the war intensifi ed, that she became aware of the large numbers of children appearing in hospital maternity wards and along the main roads and rivers. Their parents were either killed or had left them where they could be found and taken in.
“When things became very bad, around September of 1974, there was a hint that there might be an international adoption. So Catholic Relief Services, since in the country for so long, was one of the places that was given the approval/license for international adoptions,” she remembered. “They didn’t have anybody but me. I was the trained person, so I was taken from the social welfare part and brought over to international adoption.”
With Saigon under attack and being shelled, on April 3, 1975, President Gerald Ford announced that the U.S. government would begin evacuating orphans from Saigon on a series of 30 planned fl ights. The urgency and volume of children caused a change in the organization of the process.
S. Rose Cheng (left) joined S. Kateri Maureen Koverman in 1974.
“At first, we had children who were adopted; we had a real birth certificate for them. And the parent or grandparent who had the child wrote and gave them up to the orphanage, the orphanage gave them to us and we had another legal document for that; not all children, but children they had concern about – mostly Amerasian children. As things continued, there was no organization. You had to have the same thing whether you went out in 1974 or in April 1975. To get those documents in 1975 [I did what I could]. If the government found out, I didn’t know what they’d do at that point, but it was the only choice I had to keep the adoptions moving.”
As director of the Adoption Program for Catholic Relief Services, S. Kateri coordinated eight babylifts out of Saigon in April 1975. She saw the safe passage of 350 Vietnamese babies (most were less than three months old).
One of those adoptions developed into a special relationship between S. Kateri and the family. During her time in Vietnam, the director of migration/refugee services asked Sister to briefly return to the United States to talk with prospective adoptive families about the Amerasian children they were trying to find homes for.
Golden Jubilarian S. Anne Darlene Wojtowicz came to Vietnam to minister in 1974.
“I went to many cities and talked to people and explained to them that [the children] were not well, they weren’t the best, but they needed help,” she recalled. It was during this visit that S. Kateri met the Yaley family. Bill, a former Marine lieutenant in Vietnam, and his wife, Arlene, had three biological sons and were hoping to adopt a girl, and as S. Kateri says, she knew they would give a child a good home. She told the Yaleys she would mark a child for them, and kept her promise.
“Kateri [as she was eventually named by Bill and Arlene] came along, and I knew she was somebody that could get their love,” said Sister. “Some kids could get fat and they’d smile, she was not that. She was just there. She seemed to have been exposed to something before we got her that was very terrifying. I figured if anybody was going to be able to do something for her, it was them.” (An interview with Bill Yaley will be included in the winter issue of Intercom.)
Upon her return to the United States, S. Kateri said, “[The Community] put me in retreat and I cried the whole time. I called my professor at The Catholic University and Golden Jubilarian S. Anne Darlene Wojtowicz came to Vietnam to minister in 1974. S. Rose Cheng (left) joined S. Kateri Maureen Koverman in 1974. 20 Intercom asked what was wrong with me; she said you’re crying for the death of a country. That helped me because it was overwhelming. Catholic Relief Services reassigned me to Africa, and it sounded like a great idea. I went and left Vietnam and all that over there and I concentrated on Africa.”
In August 1989, S. Kateri started to think about the adopted children she helped, and that they should be going through adolescence; she felt the additional questions and concerns about knowing who they were might be difficult on them. She, her mother and two sisters tried to locate as many families as possible to have a gathering at the Mount St. Joseph Motherhouse. The result: 56 people from 14 families living in six states responded to her invitation. They had a chance to meet each other for the fi rst time and to share common concerns and questions.
“It was during this gathering that one of the families – mother, father and son – asked me if I would go back to
Vietnam with the son,” she recounted. “He was Amerasian, had been in and out of psychiatric wards and they felt it would be benefi cial for him to return and help him fi nd his roots.” S. Kateri asked the Community and was initially told no. “My heart was getting strong that I wanted to go back and to do this,” she said. Eventually, with much persistence, she returned in 1992 with the young man.
In an interview in 1992, S. Kateri recalled the journey, “We walked on blood-stained, chemically destroyed land where the poor struggle in hope despite the continued economic devastations wrought by the U.S. embargo… My young traveling companion still does not know his Vietnamese mother nor his GI father. However, now he has a memory bank of a wonderful and indomitable culture and people against which he can bounce off his questions of identity and purpose. I am left with new levels of inner healing, compassion, and renewed conviction to work against all forms of oppression, be they drugs or any form of sinful social structure which denies us our solidarity as people of God.”
S. Kateri was awakened to something else at that time as well. “I knew I had little signs of PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder],” she recounted, “but when we landed at the air force base in Ho Chi Minh City, it just came fl ooding in. So when I got back I realized I needed some help. I sought that help and got it over a long period of time.”
That help she has also been providing to veterans since 1993. S. Kateri founded the Joseph House, a residential treatment facility for homeless veterans diagnosed with PTSD, and then Them Bones Veterans Community, an organization that helps veterans reconnect with others while trying to work through their PTSD. Her years in Vietnam have enabled her to relate to the struggling veterans, and help them to feel comfortable sharing with her. Two additional gatherings at Mount St. Joseph and a second trip back to Vietnam, this time with veterans, followed before the most recent gathering in July. Participants arrived at the Motherhouse for a weekend that included prayer, refl ection, listening and connections being made.
“I knew we wouldn’t get everything in their lives settled,” S. Kateri said, “and I have such a dream for their potential and what they can do, so my fi rst meeting with them I gave them Flannery O’Connor’s quote: ‘Life is more a mystery to be reverenced than a problem to be solved.’” S. Kateri explained that as they have grown up, the former orphans have a hunger for learning more about their Vietnamese roots – and even more so now that they have children of their own.
The time together allowed the adoptees to talk about what it means to be transracially adopted; to learn more about who they are; and to get to know each other. They realized the connection they had – they were all in the same place, and were with the same people who took care of them.
“Maybe they don’t have a birth certificate but they have some other people who are from the same setting,” Sister said. “So that’s what we were about.”
S. Kateri Maureen Koverman (left) with Jenny Januszewski during the July gathering at Mount St. Joseph.
S. Kateri said she left the nights for them. They were involved in serious talks, and they hoped to stay in touch after leaving the Mount and to eventually return for another gathering.
As she refl ected on where they have all come in the 40
years since leaving Vietnam, Sister says, “It was just a joy to
sit and watch them talking. Back then I didn’t have any idea
where the next 40 years would take us. It was day-to-day; you
just prayed for that next day. I didn’t think about the future.
To see them around the table together, talking and enjoying
themselves, it was so good.”
“When I think about all the staff people, when I look at
each of them, I don’t think about me; I just think God did all
this. It’s beautiful to see that you are part of something that
is so much bigger – but you had to do your part. Sometimes
God did it totally. The night we were supposed to leave fi rst,
and the other agency paid under the table to be the fi rst one out, the plane went down and we thought it was sabotage. I said to the director, a former Marine who eventually became a priest, ‘I don’t know about tomorrow.’ I don’t know if I want to send them out. He smacked me hard across the face and said, ‘You have to, you can do it.’ It was something that I needed. It’s all a mystery.”