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The remarkable life of Mother Marie Gratia Luking

Mother Marie Gratia Luking led the Sisters of Providence mission to Kaifeng, China, in 1920.

By Sister Mary Roger Madden

On Oct. 29, 1989, in Shalu, Taichung County, Taiwan, a group of clergy, lay people and women religious gathered at the burial site of Mother Marie Gratia Luking. They were there to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the death of a simple woman religious from the United States known throughout Taiwan as a missionary; educator; builder; helper of the poor and the refugee, the widow and the orphan; and foundress of a native Chinese religious congregation for women. Nearby on the scenic campus of Providence University, a group of students and faculty united with them in prayer for their foundress, who 69 years before had left her homeland and all she held dear to educate young Chinese women and spread the good news of Jesus Christ.

Nothing in the early life of Josephine Luking could have predicted her destiny. Born in Connersville, Ind., on May 10, 1885, she did not enter the Congregation of the Sisters of Providence until she was 21 years old, somewhat later than was common in those days of early vocations. She received as her religious name Sister Marie Gratia. In the summer of 1919, five years after her profession of perpetual vows, Bishop Joseph Tacconi from Kaifeng, China, visited at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Ind., and requested sisters to begin a school for young women in Kaifeng. Mother Mary Cleophas Foley promised to speak with the sisters about his need. This was an era of ardent missionary fervor, but even she was amazed when hundreds of her sisters volunteered for this most daunting mission.

The pressure of demands upon the sisters to staff parish schools in the United States meant that only six of these courageous volunteers would be chosen. The following year, on Oct. 29, a band of missionaries from the Sisters of Providence left Saint Mary-of-the-Woods for China. Despite her protestations, Sister Marie Gratia was appointed leader of the group consisting of Sister Mary Elise Renaud, Sister Eugene Marie Howard, Sister Marie Patricia Shortall, Sister Clare Mitchell and Sister Winifred Patrice O’Donovan.

The founding years

It would be Nov. 24 before the intrepid band of missionaries arrived in Kaifeng. Shortly thereafter, they opened a medical dispensary and Hua Mei School for Girls, where most of the students were not Catholic. An epidemic of smallpox in Kaifeng brought many patients to the dispensary where Sister Mary Elise was in charge. In the course of treating these patients, Sister Mary Elise contracted the disease and died shortly thereafter. This first loss less than a year after their arrival aggravated what was already a painful situation fraught with misunderstandings because of the unfamiliar language, customs and climate.

In December 1924, the civil unrest raging throughout China reached the walls of Kaifeng. The sisters were told to send the students home to make room for the refugees who were fleeing the conflict in the north. By 1926, the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-Shek were engaged in a full-fledged war against the Communists under Mao Tze Tung. On March 17, 1927, the army reached the walls of Kaifeng, and the sisters were told to be ready to leave the city at a moment’s notice. Given a choice of Tientsin, Korea, or Kobe, Japan, the sisters decided on Korea, where the Maryknoll Sisters gave them hospitality.

It would be two years before they could return to Kaifeng, but by April 6, 1929, they were back in their compound, although the Hua Mei School was not reopened. Instead, the bishop, responding to one of the inevitable consequences of the war, requested that the sisters open Holy Childhood Home for orphans and abandoned babies, primarily girls. Amazingly, in view of the unsettled political situation, the sisters chose at this time to open a novitiate, and three young women were accepted to begin their probationary period. The Congregation in the United States had agreed to accept any Chinese postulants who had completed high school. These first three young women subsequently traveled to the United States and entered the novitiate there. The last one of these, Sister Agnes Joan Li, died Jan. 19, 2004, in the infirmary at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods after a long and fruitful life as a Sister of Providence.

Many women who felt called to religious life could not meet the requirements of the U.S. superiors. Sister Marie Gratia decided to found a native congregation to meet the pressing needs of the Chinese mission. She called them the Providence Sister-Catechists. This native congregation has continued to flourish and in 1932 received canonical approbation from Rome.

Meanwhile, the new Ching I Middle School prospered, and on June 26, 1935, the first graduations were held. The same year, Sister Marie Gratia, as foundress of the Providence Sister-Catechists, established a summer school for the sister-catechists modeled after the summer school held at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. The sister-catechists received instruction in religion, teaching methods, church singing, first aid, private organ lessons and daily instructions on their rule and religious life.

Despite the unsettled political situation, Sister Marie Gratia, with the support of the Sisters of Providence in the United States and their generous students, as well as Bishop Tacconi and many of the missionary clergy, was able to embark on an extensive building program for the school and the novitiate. Through fund-raising efforts in Peiping, Hankow and Shanghai, she procured financial assistance from foreigners and wealthy Chinese.

The threat from Japan (1935-1941)

Japan soon became an increased threat to the peace of China. Throughout 1935 and 1936, this situation worsened so that by the summer of 1937, all over Honan Province, there were air raids, bombings and attacks by foot soldiers. By December of that year, only 100 of the 500 resident students remained at the school. Again in 1938, Sister Marie Gratia was offering hospitality to women and children refugees at the school and the novitiate. The sisters were sheltering more than 400 people in these two refugee camps, feeding them and caring for the sick among them.

Mother Marie Gratia (left) rides a rickshaw with Sister Ann Colette Wolf, who wrote the book, “Against All Odds,” about the Sisters of Providence mission to China.

On March 25, 1938, the Japanese bombed Kaifeng. The sisters joined with the Benedictine Sisters and the Protestant missionaries in giving aid to the injured. Trainloads of wounded soldiers stopped in Kaifeng daily, and the sisters went to the train station to bandage wounds and give what basic medical help they could. They also assisted at the overcrowded hospital in Kaifeng and baptized many dying soldiers. On June 6, Kaifeng fell to the Japanese, and the looting began. At one point, soldiers arrived at the gate of Ching I where 1,400 women and children were sheltered. Sister Marie Gratia met them at the gate and asked to see a letter from their officers authorizing them to enter. They left and none of them ever came back. Sister Marie Gratia managed these camps of 1,400 refugees, caring for their physical needs and keeping them occupied in the day-to-day running of the camp. One area was set aside as a maternity ward, and 10 babies were born there in a two-month period.

When, toward the end of August, the refugees began to return home, Sister Marie Gratia and Sister Theodata accompanied some of them, seeing them safely back to their home regions. Meanwhile, the novices and the sisters began cleaning in preparation for a new school year. However, rumors of a cholera and typhoid epidemic delayed school opening while the sisters assisted by giving the vaccinations ordered by the government.

By the summer of 1939, there were more than 60 professed sisters among the Providence Sister-Catechists. They were engaged in new and widespread missions, and Sister Marie Gratia — following the example of Mother Theodore Guerin, foundress of the Sisters of Providence at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods — visited them on a regular basis. Since the long, drawn out war with Japan had destroyed roads and railroad tracks, she often traveled by ox-cart or even by wheelbarrow.

The sisters adapted themselves to the demands of the invading Japanese government as well as they could. When they were told that they could not reopen Ching I unless it acquired a large endowment and was formally registered by the new Board of Education, Sister Marie Gratia persuaded the authorities to waive the endowment requirement. She established a Board of Directors and served as one of the trustees with the power to make decisions when the board was not able to meet.

In all these exigencies Sister Marie Gratia was sustained by her faith in God’s Providence. During this time, she wrote to Mother Mary Bernard Laughlin:

“When my mind becomes occupied about the future of this foundation, it seems a matter of such importance that I can almost sink through weakness and can only get strength by casting it all into the arms of God’s Providence, living one day at a time, expecting everything from him. I often upbraid myself, when approached by some difficulty, for my want of courage and my anxiety when we had had so many proofs of his care and orderings, which have all proven that it is his work. He has taken care of it from the beginning until now and will never fail us.”

The Japanese Board of Education continued to harass the sisters. The U.S. government, foreseeing a worsening situation, had ordered all U.S. citizens to leave China while they could safely do so. Bishop Tacconi was soon to leave for Rome, where he had been appointed to an administrative position. His 40 years as a missionary in China had left him physically exhausted and in need of rest. Although his departure would deprive them of a friend and protector, the Sisters of Providence, along with the Benedictine Sisters, decided for the sake of their ministry to remain in China. Little did they realize that that Christmas of 1940 would be their last one in Kaifeng for seven years.

World War II and its aftermath

On Dec. 8, 1941, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Japanese soldiers stormed the sisters’ compound in Kaifeng. The United States and Japan were now at war. The U.S. sisters were given 20 minutes to prepare to leave their school, their students and their home. Soldiers took them first to the Baptist Mission compound where other enemy nationals were already assembled. Since the Chinese sisters and the Providence Sister-Catechists were not enemy nationals, they were not imprisoned. Although the separation was painful, the Chinese sisters tearfully promised to keep the mission alive.

Eventually, the Sisters of Providence were placed under house arrest at the Benedictine Sisters’ compound in Kaifeng. After a year, Sister Marie Gratia and her sisters were notified that all United States missionaries would be interned with other enemy nationals in an internment camp at Weihsien in Shantung Province. Leaving Kaifeng and the Chinese sisters was a “death blow,” as Sister Ann Colette Wolf wrote in her history of the Chinese mission, “Against All Odds.” The sisters did not know when they would see one another again. Nevertheless, Sister Marie Gratia proved once more to be the daughter of Providence, evincing a joyful acceptance of God’s will as expressed in this terrifying situation. In order to guarantee the continuation of the mission, she appointed Chinese sisters to assume for the time being the roles of superior and novice mistress.

On March 22, 1943, the sisters arrived at the large concentration camp, a former Presbyterian mission compound, where approximately 2,000 prisoners had been assembled. Among these prisoners were about 400 Protestant missionaries and many Roman Catholic priests, monks and sisters. There were six bishops, 332 priests including five Trappist monks, 162 sisters and about 100 lay Catholic men, women and children. The story of the sufferings of these valiant men and women is documented in “Against All Odds.”

In August 1943, word came that the United States internees would be removed from the internment camp and put under house arrest in Peking. Sister Marie Gratia and her sisters, along with sisters of six other United States congregations, went to stay with the Spanish Daughters of Jesus in Peking.

On Aug. 17, 1945, the sisters learned that the war with Japan had ended and they were free. By Sept. 13, 1945, the sisters were once again back in Kaifeng. Although the damage to their property was extensive, Sister Marie Gratia rejoiced that the Chinese sisters were all safe.

The sisters immediately set about repairing the damage to Ching I and the novitiate, Nan Kuan. In addition to reopening their school, Sister Marie Gratia initiated a new ministry, a hostel for women students attending Catholic University in Peking.

The political situation in China continued to be hazardous. With the war over, conflict between the Chinese Nationalists and the Communists resumed. The communist forces were advancing, taking over city after city and coming closer and closer to Kaifeng. The novitiate especially was in a dangerous position.

In the midst of these hazardous conditions came word of the arrival of five Sisters of Providence from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. On Christmas Eve 1946, Sisters Mary Evangela O’Neill, Ann Colette Wolf, Elizabeth Cecile Harbison, Theodata Haggerty and Mary Liguori Hartigan docked in Shanghai where an eager Sister Marie Gratia awaited them.

The years 1947 and 1948 were to be tragic ones for Sister Marie Gratia and the sisters. Two of the sisters who had arrived with so much hope on Christmas Eve 1946 were to die tragically within 13 months. On Jan. 5, 1947, a plane carrying Sister Elizabeth Cecile on her way to her mission in Peking crashed, killing all on board. The following Jan. 24, Sister Theodata, while convalescing from surgery, was asphyxiated by the fumes of a malfunctioning charcoal stove. Mother Marie Gratia who had endured stoically the hardships of the war and internment, was devastated by these blows to her little community.

As the communist armies advanced closer and closer to Kaifeng, the United States Consulate General advised all U.S. citizens to leave. The Religious of the Sacred Heart in Shanghai invited the Sisters of Providence to come to Shanghai and to teach in their International High School and Aurora University. In June, Kaifeng fell to the communist army, and it was reported that Shanghai, too, would soon fall. None of the sisters wished to return to the United States and were determined to continue their mission.

Sister Marie Gratia consulted with the native sisters and local clergy and made the decision to move the community to the island of Formosa (Taiwan), where she was advised the needs of the Church were great. After a miserably hazardous journey by ship and train, the 23 Sisters of Providence and Providence Sister-Catechists arrived in Taichung where they found shelter in a house with six small bedrooms. Soon Sister Marie Gratia and Sister St. Francis found a house with 30 rooms where they could live and receive students.

For Sister Marie Gratia, the l950s was a decade of construction of a new college building on the campus on Fu Hsing road, later to become Providence University. She again lived up to the name that had been given to her in Kaifeng, “Kai Hsai,” summer builder.

In 1960, the 40th anniversary of her arrival in Kaifeng, Sister Marie Gratia received many accolades, not the least of which was the recognition of her role as foundress both of the China mission and the native community of Sister-Catechists. Mother Rose Angela Horan, on behalf of the Sisters of Providence, awarded her the title “Mother,” traditionally reserved for the superior general of the Congregation.

Mother Marie Gratia, exhausted by 40 years of unstinting labor for the Chinese mission, would live only four more years, dying on Oct. 29, 1964. Genuine grief, as well as sincere praise for this extraordinary woman, was expressed throughout the region. News of her death saddened many who knew her only through her work.

The following passage published in The China Post contains one among many commendations:

Mother Marie Gratia carried out Jesus Christ’s spirit throughout her whole life. Forty years in China seemed to her only one day in the work of mission and education. She welcomed poverty, nourished virtues and upheld justice. She bore hardship with patience and always worked for ideals. Many projects she started were hard, but she succeeded. Never would she boast about what she had done nor would she claim fame for herself. With confidence she worked and planned until today Providence College has reached a high status in the history of education. She helped countless young women to receive a good education. Besides, she performed many [other] services for the good of society.

For more information about the Congregation’s mission in Taiwan, click here.

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Sisters of Providence

The Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, are a congregation of Roman Catholic women religious (sisters) who minister throughout the United States and Taiwan. Saint Mother Theodore Guerin founded the Sisters of Providence in 1840. The congregation has a mission of being God's Providence in the world by committing to performing works of love, mercy and justice in service among God's people.

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