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Against All Odds: Focus on Sister Mary Elise Renauldt, SP

Sister Mary Elise Renauldt

It is said that when called to mission in a distant country, the Jesuits are told to expect to be buried there since their commitment is for life. Indeed, the call to our sisters in 1920 for the mission in China was expressed by Mother Mary Cleophas in a similar manner:

“… Those who go need never expect to return here – except on their way to heaven they may pass through Saint Mary’s – that would be alright. Prepare your heart: it is all sacrifice.” (Against All Odds, p. 2)

Yet even upon hearing these ominous words, Sister Mary Elise Renauldt (aka Reno) responded with great enthusiasm, zeal and an even greater determination though she was already over 60 years old and not nearly as well educated as many of her sisters for the purpose of establishing and running an academic institution. In the records maintained by our wonderful archivists, a commentary on Sister Mary Elise’s life describes her this way:

“From the time she entered the Novitiate, Sr. M. Elise was a person of pronounced individuality. She was generous, whole-souled, enthusiastic, and thoroughly devoted to whatever was assigned her. Her education was limited, but she was in many ways a genius and could put her hand to anything …” (Archives, Commentary)

Born Mary Jane Renault into a family of both French and Native American descent, Sister Mary Elise Renauldt  was the granddaughter of  “Joseph Renault, who came from France through Canada, settled at Grosse Point, Michigan,  and  married the daughter of an Indian chief …”  (The Bugle Call , Esther Pomeroy, 1921, p. 40)

Sister’s family was described as intensely religious and that they were also the leading family in their pioneer settlement, giving land for the building of the first Catholic Church in their area. Others in her family also entered religious life:  her Aunt Therese and her sister, Isabel. These women entered the orders of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the Madams of the Sacred Heart respectively. (ibid). However, Mary Jane Renault, later Sister Mary Elise, entered the Providence Novitiate in 1883 at age 24. (cf. Archives)

Sister Mary Elise is characterized as having a great love for little children, sympathy for the afflicted, and a burning zeal for souls. Eventually this great zeal led S. Mary Elise to insist that she be part of the mission to China.  Like St. Mother Theodore before her, she had a very strong attraction to the foreign missions, especially China. (The Bugle Call, p. 40)

Though she received little encouragement from her sisters, through her steadfast persistence, Sister Mary Elise was finally accepted as one of the six sisters chosen from over 300 applicants. Notwithstanding Sister Mary Elise’s strong personality, Mother Mary Cleophas also recognized that Sister had other critical skills needed for the mission: “her keen observation, her remarkable powers of deduction and her practical knowledge of medicinal herbs qualified her for the responsible position of infirmarian.(ibid). In fact, it was also noted that various physicians who attended the sick marveled at her skill and declared her a “walking pharmacologist.” (ibid). The oldest of the group chosen for the mission, S. Mary Elise celebrated her sixty- first birthday on what was called Departure Day. (cf. Against all Odds, p. 3). 

Upon arrival in Kaifeng, Sister Mary Elyse fully expected to find a very difficult and desperate living situation among the local population, yet it turned out to be far greater than even she anticipated. The district of Honan was experiencing a severe famine at the time of the sisters’ arrival. In the Saint Mary-of-the-Woods publication, the Bugle Call, it is written that Sister Mary Elise described a very heart-wrenching scene in Kaifeng: blind men were everywhere in great numbers in the streets which were also filled with pedestrians, ox carts, mule carts, rickshaws, and wheel barrows.

As reported by Sister Mary Elise, this was a very chaotic scene where the blind were trying to make their way along the road using as an aid a brass gong or a drum-like instrument to protect themselves from the street vehicles while they begged for care. Other desperately poor and infirmed people were left lying in the streets while crying out for help. Sister Mary Elise described the scene as heart-rending: “ … beggars on foot; then beggars, then more beggars! Your heart would bleed for these poor people.” (ibid, p. 41)     

During those early days, as the sisters worked hard to create a school for girls, including curricula for elementary and junior high school students, Sister Mary Elise, with the assistance of then Sister Marie Gratia Luking, set up a dispensary for the physical needs of the students. Within two months of the opening of classes, an epidemic of small pox broke out in Kaifeng. Because there was no public health service “people with contagious diseases roamed the streets,” writes Sister Ann Collette (Against All Odds, p. 21). Sister Ann Collette goes on to say that the dispensary had become well known and that  “S. Mary Elise’s loving care was experienced daily by many of the city’s poor.“ (ibid.)

Sister Mary Elise’s tomb in Kaifeng, which remains today.

Not only did Sister Mary Elise take good care of the sick, she also took time to teach habits of cleanliness and demanded that those to whom she applied bandages should return daily to have the bandages changed. (ibid.) Sister Ann Collette goes on to say that is was probably from one of these patients whom Sister Mary Elise attended when she herself caught the dreaded disease. (ibid.) Though great efforts were made to help Sister Mary Elise recover from the disease, after only 10 days, S. Mary Elise died on April 20, 1921 – just five months after her arrival.

Yet, even with all of the struggles, sicknesses, and hardships that persisted in the very short time that Sister Mary Elise ministered in Kaifeng, ending with the gift of her life for the sake of the mission, it is worth noting that in her first message home to St. Mary’s  she wrote with great zeal, “Come on over! Come on over!”  And she still awaits a response to this call as Sister Mary Elise, the only Sister of Providence, remains buried in a special tomb in Kaifeng which is still present there today.

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Sister Janice Smith

Sister Janice Smith, SP is currently Director of Novices for the Sisters of Providence. She spent two years in Taiwan teaching English language classes and Bible as Literature at Providence University (also known as Jing-yi). She has continued to teach the Bible class as an online offering for the Jing-yi students each year since 2014.

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3 Comments

  1. Janet Tosick on June 22, 2020 at 9:49 am

    Such a beautiful story of the courageous Sister
    Mary Elise. Each story I read about the sisters and their great influence in the world, makes me more aware of the sisters beautiful missions all over the world.
    Thank you for sharing !
    Janet Tosick
    On my journey to become a Providence Associate.

  2. Sister Barbara Bluntzer, SP on June 23, 2020 at 10:28 am

    What zeal and talent she had for what she was called to do! She was giving of herself to the end, to her last breath! What an example of “pouring out our lives” for others.
    Certainly, a wonderful inspiration for all!

  3. Jane Fischer, PA on June 24, 2020 at 8:23 am

    Thank you, Sister Janice. I have always been fond of the name Elise, and your article made me sit down and look it up. Elise is “a diminutive form of Elizabeth” and one site says that it means “an abundance of God.” The Nameberry site says her beautiful name means “pledged to God.” No wonder she would say “Come on over….”. If she didn’t pick Mary Elise as her name, I would suggest that it was Providential.

    Now when I hear Fur Elise, I will think of her. Viens par….. 过来

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