Against All Odds: Focus on Sister Winifred Patrice O’Donovan, SP
Nov. 24 commemorates the centenary celebration of the foundation of the Sisters of Providence mission in China. Because of this, we wanted to share with you highlights of the band of sisters who began this mission through blog posts. This first blog, written by Sister Marilyn Baker, will focus on Sister Winifred Patrice O’Donovan, SP.
After the Annual Meeting in July 2018, a group was gathered to begin the planning for the 100th anniversary of the Mission in China, founded in 1920. It was suggested that one of the ways that we could prepare for this celebration was to have the Community read and reflect/share ideas from the book, “Against All Odds,” by Sister Ann Colette Wolf. Being one of the members on the book committee, I thought it would be interesting to learn a little more about the five sisters accompanying Sister Marie Gratia on this journey in 1920. During the upcoming months, our committee will be focusing on each of these companions. I will start by sharing what I have learned about Sister Winifred Patrice O’Donovan.
Sister Winifred Patrice is mentioned about six times in the book: In the introduction of each of the sisters who were in this original group, noting that she was the second youngest, followed by Sister Marie Gratia, (p. 20), that she taught penmanship and English conversation, (p. 20), and that she “… could not make herself understood in the classroom and sometimes lost her patience” (p. 24). Reference is also made to a letter Sister Winifred Patrice wrote to Mother Mary Raphael on March 17, 1928, regarding the fighting at Kaifeng’s city gates, (p. 67), and of her being assigned as companion to Sister Eugene Marie Howard to return to St. Mary’s (p. 73) and their departure from Kolbe, Japan, on July 15, 1927, (p. 74). With the help of Sister Marie Grace Molloy in Archives, I was able to glean these additional facts about Sister Winifred Patrice.
Sister Winifred Patrice, Bridget O’Donovan, was born in County Cork, Ireland, on Aug. 15, 1878, to Mary O’Mahoney and John O’Donovan. She had three sisters: Mother Marie Finbar, a Franciscan Sister of Mary who had spent 13 years as a missionary in Africa, Sister Francis Assisi, SP, and a married sister, Mrs. L. Moylan, who remained in County Cork, Ireland. Sister Winifred Patrice left Ireland in April 1903, at the age of 25, to enter the Sisters of Providence.
In the commentary after her death on Dec. 27, 1960, it is mentioned that she taught in the elementary grades in Indianapolis at Holy Cross, St. Anthony and St. Agnes schools before going to China in 1920 and that, after her return in 1927, she taught for 27 years in various parish schools in Chicago and in Terre Haute, residing for the last few years of her life in the infirmary at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. She was described as “… a slight, delicate-looking Sister, (and) she surprised everyone by living to the age of 82.” It also noted that “she possessed a gentle and deep piety which was evident in speech and action.”
Additionally, I learned from various incidents related by Sister Mary Liguori Hartigan, SP, in her undated “Untitled account of 1920-1924,” that Sister Winifred Patrice seemed to be plagued with poor health and was unsuccessful in her endeavors both in and out of the classroom.
These various references from the book, from the commentary at her death and from incidents related by Sister Mary Liguori all give a thumbnail sketch of Sister Winifred Patrice. However, it was a copy of an extensive form which Sister Winifred Patrice filled out on Jan. 6, 1950, shown to me by Sister Marie Grace that gave a more personal picture and better understanding of who she was.
“It had to be a foreign Mission, but where, I did not know.” A confessor at the African Missionary Seminary there in County Cork suggested “… a community in Indiana that was well founded.” She continues, “I had never heard of Indiana, but there I will go wherever it is, some part of India probably.” Inquiring at the Presentation Convent, the Superior told her that Indiana was in America. The Superior, having a relative who was a Sister of Mercy in America, gave Sister Winifred Patrice a letter to take to her then asked her why she did not enter there in Ireland. When Sister replied that she wanted to go to the foreign Missions, the Superior, … directed me to ‘… go to the chapel and make the Way of the Cross and whatever the Lord tells you, then do it.’ So I made the stations and she asked me what I was going to do, so I simply said, ‘Mother, I am going to the Foreign Missions’ and so here I am, thank God for He did it all …”
Besides being a “foreign missionary” in Indiana as a Sister of Providence, she also became a missionary to China. At the time that she was chosen to go to China, Sister Winifred Patrice wrote “Sister Marie Gratia was my superior for three years. When I was chosen to go, Sister asked me if I had a good stomach. I smiled and said, ‘I have good will, Sister.’ Then she said ‘Well, that’s all God wants.”’
Reading of the dire conditions in which the sisters were living those first years, of the adaptations to the Chinese culture, language and customs they had to make, their struggles with the bishop over finances and administration of the school, and the isolation and misunderstandings they endured from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, not to mention the tragic loss of Sister Mary Elise five months after their arrival must have been very difficult for each of the sisters. Add to these hardships, the turmoil of civil wars occurring in the country and the intense fighting from 1924 to 1927, when the sisters were told to evacuate Kaifeng. Sister Winifred Patrice did not mention any of these conditions and hardships, either for herself or for the community, but instead wrote of caring for the sick:
“Sister (Marie Gratia) and I had a little room where we cared for the poor suffering Chinese for two hours daily and on Sundays always after Mass. When a mother brought a dying baby, I would ask Sister if there was danger of death and if so, I would (ask to) baptize the child warning her to come tomorrow and let us see the child. When the mother returned, she would say the child died at such an hour. Then we would offer our sympathy in Chinese to one another. ‘Thank God another soul in heaven.’”
For Sister Winifred Patrice, the hardships, the dire conditions, the personal inconveniences and suffering were endured as a missionary for the spread of the Gospel to all corners of the world and for the salvation of souls.
Sister Winifred Patrice O’Donovan, “… slight and delicate-looking …,” plagued with poor health and seemingly unsuccessful in your endeavors, yet possessing” … a gentle and deep piety which was evident in speech and action,” we thank you for your dedication to God in your missionary zeal and your witness to Providence during your seven years in China.