Against All Odds: The life of Mother Marie Gratia Luking
As we continue the centenary commemoration of the Nov. 24, 1920, foundation of the Sisters of Providence mission in China, this blog will highlight the foundress, Mother Marie Gratia Luking.
Born May 10, 1885, in Connersville, Indiana, Josephine Luking first knew the Sisters of Providence as her teachers at St. Gabriel. After completing eighth grade, because “Josie” was the oldest daughter of five children and her mother operated a millenary shop, her help was needed at home. Rather than regular attendance at the local high school, she did her studies through classes taught by the sisters after their regular school hours. The tragic death of her father when a gas main exploded in the basement of his store required Josie to assume even more responsibility. After attending business college in Indianapolis, she returned home and worked for the Connersville Buggy Company until her siblings had finished school. In spite of her mother’s opposition, at the age of 21, she entered the Congregation on Sept. 5, 1906.
Her maturity was such that she was allowed to make an early profession of final vows on Aug. 15, 1914, and the following year was named superior at St. Leo, Chicago, and then at St. Mary’s in Richmond, Indiana. After a year as superior at Our Lady of Providence Academy in Chicago, she was serving as superior at St. Augustine in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1919, when the call went out for volunteers for a mission to China. Of the almost 300 sisters who offered themselves, she was chosen to lead the group of six named to begin the first mission beyond U.S. shores.
After arriving in Kaifeng on Nov. 24, 1920, Sister Marie Gratia wrote to Mother Mary Cleophas, “We have found poverty here.” Their physical privations were compounded by the lack of cultural and language preparation, as well as misunderstandings with the bishop and faraway superiors at St. Mary’s. Sister Marie Gratia had to be creative in adapting the mission to serve refugees and wounded soldiers, and then to arrange evacuation to Korea to wait out the conflict between the two factions vying for control of China, the Nationalists and the communists.
When the sisters were able to return to Kaifeng, another group of sisters arrived and her dogged negotiations made possible the building of Ching I School. Her growing appreciation of the people motivated her start-up of a community of Chinese women, the Catechist Sisters of Providence. Her leadership was further tested when the Japanese occupied China during the Second World War and the sisters were interned in a concentration camp.
When the communist takeover became imminent, Sister Marie Gratia faced the reality that after almost 30 years, the mission in China would need to be abandoned. With no time to consult with St. Mary’s, she arranged a hasty evacuation in December 1948, to the nearby island of Taiwan. She seemed to have an inexhaustible array of coping strategies as the tiny group of Sisters of Providence and Sister Catechists brought about a remarkable refounding effort. As the educational mission grew to become Providence College, her planning and fundraising efforts earned her the title of “Successful Builder.” In 1961, her role as founder of both the Kaifeng and Taichung missions was recognized when she given the title of Mother.
The only time in her years of service that she returned to the United States was in 1956, when she celebrated her Golden Jubilee. Her heart belonged to the Chinese people and she spent her final years in Taiwan. When she died on Oct. 29, 1964, a huge procession accompanied her coffin to her final resting place in Shalu, Taiwan.