A brief history of the mission to the Chinese
Since 1920 the Sisters of Providence have had a presence in Asia, commencing that presence in China. Six Sisters of Providence responded to a call to this foreign mission field, echoing Saint Mother Theodore Guerin’s response to go to a foreign land in 1840.
In the summer of 1919, Bishop Joseph Tacconi of Kaifeng, China, met with Mother Mary Cleophas Foley, general superior from 1890-1926, to request sisters for a school for young women in Kaifeng. The women who were chosen were Sisters Marie Gratia Luking, Mary Elise Renaud, Eugene Marie Howard, Marie Patricia Shortall, Clare Mitchell and Winifred Patrice O’Donovan. Sister Marie Gratia was selected to lead this foreign mission. The women left Saint Mary-of-the-Woods Oct. 29, 1920, and arrived in Kaifeng Nov. 24.
Soon after arriving in Kaifeng, the sisters opened a medical dispensary and the Hua Mei School for Girls. The sisters ministered here until 1927 when the Communist army of Mao Tze Tung reached Kaifeng. The sisters were forced to leave, taking refuge with the Maryknoll Sisters in Korea.
Two years later, the sisters returned to Kaifeng and opened an orphanage. In addition to this, a novitiate for women wanting to enter religious life was opened. Sister Marie Gratia soon realized that for religious life to grow in this area that a native congregation had to be founded. Thus was the birth of the Providence Sister-Catechists. This congregation received papal approval in 1932.
On Sept 12, 1932, the sisters opened Ching I (pronounced “Jing Eee”) Middle School with 87 girls. The sisters’ compound (as it was called) underwent a major building program for the school and the novitiate.
By 1935, the Japanese were threatening China. Two years later, air raids, bombings and attacks by soldiers were commonplace. Kaifeng was bombed March 25, 1938. Soon the school and novitiate became a place of refuge for people seeking a safe haven. The sisters, other religious and Protestant missionaries provided as much medical help and other assistance as they could. After Kaifeng fell to the Japanese June 6, 1938, life became even more unbearable for the sisters and residents of this area.
On Dec. 8, 1941 — one day after Pearl Harbor — the sisters’ compound in Kaifeng was attacked by Japanese soldiers. Soon the sisters from the United States were forced to leave the compound and the native Providence Sister-Catechists. The U.S. sisters were taken to a Baptist mission compound where other enemy nationals were relocated. The Sisters of Providence were then relocated to a Benedictine Sisters’ compound in Kaifeng. On March 22, 1943, the Sisters of Providence and all other U.S. missionaries were interned at a concentration camp in Weihsien in Shangtung Province. Five months later U.S. internees were again relocated, this time to Peking where they were placed under house arrest with the Spanish Daughters of Jesus.
Aug. 17, 1945, two days after V-J Day, the Sisters of Providence learned that the war had ended. A month later, they returned to Kaifeng, surveying the great damage to their compound. Soon, the compound, including Ching I Middle School and the novitiate were repaired. However, China was soon politically plagued by internal strife between the Communists and the Nationalists. As the Communist armies advanced to Kaifeng, the U.S. Consulate General advised U.S. citizens to leave. The sisters spent some time with the Religious of the Sacred Heart in Shanghai. As China fell under Communist rule, 23 Sisters of Providence and Providence Sister-Catechists moved to Taiwan, then known as Formosa, and settled in Taichung. Here, Sister Marie Gratia tirelessly worked to build a college, now known as Providence University.
In 1960 Sister Marie Gratia was honored by Mother Rose Angela Horan with the title of “Mother,” which was generally reserved for the general superior of the Congregation. Mother Marie Gratia died Oct. 29, 1964.