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Against All Odds: Focus on Sister Eugene Marie Howard, SP

The book, “Against All Odds: Sisters of Providence Mission to the Chinese,” came out in 1990. That year was the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the foundation of the Sisters of Providence in Indiana and the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the mission in China. I had been on mission in Taiwan for three years from 1983-1986, and would be returning in the fall of 1990 to resume teaching after four years of study for my doctorate. Needless to say, the book was of great interest to me, but, to be honest, I was more focused on reading about Mother Marie Gratia at that time so I skimmed over the section introducing the sisters who accompanied her on that mission. Fortunately, I will now have an opportunity to get to know these five courageous women a bit better as we highlight each one of them over the coming months in preparation of the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the mission in China. Thanks to the assistance of Sister Marie Grace Molloy, I am able to share some of the information found in our Archives about Sister Eugene Marie Howard.

Sister Eugene Marie Howard.

We learn from the book on pages 3 and 4 that Sister Eugene Marie was from Cresco, Iowa, earned her bachelor’s degree from Iowa Teachers College before entering the novitiate in 1898, had taught in several high schools, and she was 46 when she selected to go to China.

In the Archives, there are two undated journals compiled by Sister Eugene Marie in which she recounted the events and persons relating to the early days in China. The first of these, “From the Wabash to the Hwang-Ho,” describes in nine sections the sisters’ departure from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods to their arrival in Kaifeng, Honan Provence, China. The second journal, “Providence in China: 1920-1925” contains a very detailed account of events, locations, people, and activities of the sisters. In the beginning of this journal, Sister Eugene Marie wrote:

                “To our dear Reverend Superior General, Mother Mary Cleophas, to our beloved Sisters in America whom we have left, and to those who will follow us to this field from across the Pacific, as well as to those of our dear Chinese who will in coming generations take up the work we have begun in this foundation, we give this little history of the first five years of Providence in China.”

In both of these journals, Sister writes in the third person, mentioning only the names of Sister Marie Gratia and Sister Joseph Henry, when referring to their positions as principal or superior, and of Chinese faculty, officials and/or benefactors. One of these benefactors she wrote about in “Providence in China,” was her cousin, Miss May Howard of Red Wing, Iowa, who “… sent a gift of a life-sized statue of the Sacred Heart and two smaller sized statues of Our Lady and St. Joseph. The smaller statues were made by orphans in care of the Jesuit Fathers in Shanghai” (p. 70). Beyond this familial reference, there does not seem to be anything of a personal nature to be found about Sister herself or of her own reflections or reactions regarding her experiences in the China mission during those years.

Much of the personal information I was able to find about Sister Eugene Marie came from a handwritten, undated document which may have been a commentary prepared after Sister Eugene Marie’s death. The document begins:

                “Sister Eugene Marie, Ellen Howard, was born in Cresco, Iowa, on Oct. 29, 1874, of Mary Fleming and John Howard; entered Community May 15, 1898; was professed Aug. 15, 1900; died on Feb. 16, 1942, at 11:35 a.m.” Within this sentence is a thumbnail sketch of a woman of great character and spirit and one of the members of the first group establishing our mission in Kaifeng, China.

From this document, we also learn that Sister “… was from a thoroughly Catholic family.” And that she “was the only girl of several brothers. The youngest one whom she loved very much was His Excellency, the Most Reverend Edward D. Howard, D.D., Archbishop of Portland in Oregon.” Another brother, Eugene, is mentioned in “Against All Odds,” page 73.

The commentary stated that she had earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Iowa State University before entering the novitiate, which was uncommon at that time. It continues:

                “Sister taught, as a usual thing, high school classes. Sister possessed a very quick temper which often stood in her own way of usefulness. However, she was always very zealous, left a lasting impression for good with her students. She had great devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and worked hard to establish this devotion wherever she went.

                “She was the first to volunteer for China … While there, the sisters suffered much, and had to leave home. Sister’s usefulness in China was hampered, too, by her quick temper.”

This document also related that after Sister Eugene Marie returned to the United States from China, she was assigned to various high schools, and, while on the faculty of Reitz Memorial High School, was diagnosed with “a highly malignant type of tumor.” Her brother the Archbishop arranged for her to go to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where she underwent surgery. Then, “Sister rested for two years.” After her experience at the Mayo Clinic, Sister had lost faith in doctors and refused to see a doctor on Feb. 13, when “… she complained of cold (and) was ill with temperature. (T)he superior finally prevailed on Sister seeing a doctor (who) ordered her to the hospital.” Sister died three days later after a fall. “At the time of her death, she was carrying a full schedule.”

The first SP missionaries to China prior to departure Sept. 29, 1920: (from left) Sisters Winifred Patrice O’Donovan, Eugene Marie Howard, Marie Gratia Luking, the Rev. F.X. Clougherty, the Rev. J.N. Tacconi, the Rev. H.P. Lawton, Sister Clare Mitchell, the Rev. J. Kerin, Sisters Mary Elise Renauldt and Marie Patricia Shortall.

The references to Sister Eugene Marie’s quick temper in the above document and “… her lack of success in the classroom,” noted on page 70 in “Against All Odds,” as well as the fact that Sister Joseph Henry’s desire to have her (and Sister Marie Gratia) removed from the mission, put me in mind of a song by Meredith Wilson from the 1957 musical “The Music Man.” The typecasting of the 1912 citizenry of River City, Iowa, seemed to give me a different perspective of Sister’s character. In the song, the citizens tell of their stubbornness and their “chip-on-the-shoulder attitude,” as well as their willingness to “… give you our shirt and a back to go with it, if your crops should happen to die!”

Maybe it was a bit of these Iowan characteristics that fueled her quick-temperedness and also inspired her to be the first volunteer for the China mission. In the few references to her in the book, it seems that she was willing to do whatever was necessary to support the Kaifeng mission. Also, she was a support to Sister Marie Gratia in wanting to stay in Kaifeng when the sisters were sent to Peking because of the fierce fighting (p. 70, “Against All Odds”).

Maybe her Iowan stubbornness took the form of zealousness in her prayer which “left a lasting impression for good with her students.” We know of her great devotion to the Sacred Heart and how she “tried hard to establish this devotion wherever she went,” as evidenced in her gift from her cousin to the mission in Kaifeng. This stubbornness also seemed to take the form of sticking to the task of the mission no matter what: “At the time of her death, she was carrying a full schedule.”

We will never know how Sister Eugene Marie Howard felt personally about her experience in China or whether or not she was disappointed in not being able to remain. We are grateful for the fact that she was there as one of the founding members, reminding us of how greatly she had to lean on Providence to face her own personal failures as well as the many unknowns and hardships that all of them encountered. This is her mark on the Mission.

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Sister Marilyn Baker

Sister Marilyn Baker (formerly Sister Ann Cecile) entered the Sisters of Providence in 1962. Currently, she ministers as an adjunct professor in the Intensive English Program at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

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