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There is a Providence and the Sisters of Providence in Asia are truly its daughters

The first SP missionaries to China prior to departure Sept. 29, 1920: (from left front) Sisters Winifred Patrice O’Donovan, Eugene Marie Howard, Marie Gratia Luking, Sister Clare Mitchell, (back) Sisters Mary Elise Renauldt and Marie Patricia Shortall.

How is it that the Congregation of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, a community of Catholic sisters with headquarters in rural Indiana in the USA, is celebrating the 100th anniversary of a mission in Asia?

And how can it be that six women, who knew little of the culture of China not to mention the language when they left Indiana in 1920, were able to:

  • found a school in Kaifeng, China, that continues today as the Kaifeng City 8th Middle School;
  • establish a native order of women religious that now thrives on the island of Taiwan and in various mission sites; and
  • re-establish their educational mission in Taiwan and see it flourish today at Providence University in Shalu, Taichung, and at Miracle Home in New Taipei City, Taishan District?

The answers can be found in the name this community bears and the charism with which God has entrusted to its sisters and associates — Providence!

Following in the footsteps of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin

Sisters of Providence helped to manage the orphanage in Kaifeng in 1929 after the Civil War. Sisters pictured front from left: Sisters Marie Patricia Shortall, Marie Gratia Luking and Mary Margaretta Grussinger.

In 1920, Bishop Joseph Tacconi of Kaifeng in the Honan Province of China called upon the Si sters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, to help him establish schools for Chinese women. From the 300 sisters who volunteered for this daunting mission, Mother Mary Cleophas Foley chose six: Sister Marie Gratia Luking, superior of the group, and Sisters Mary Elise Renauldt, Eugene Marie Howard, Marie Patricia Shortall, Clare Mitchell and Winifred Patrice O’Donovan.

The sisters arrived in Kaifung on Nov. 24, 1920, and were overwhelmed almost immediately by the dire poverty of Kaifeng. Within two months, however, assisted by native Chinese teachers, they opened Hua Mei School (Chinese-American School), a boarding school for girls. Though the sisters themselves were students, using every waking moment to learn Chinese, they were able to teach such classes as English conversation, penmanship, mathematics, music and catechism.

Establishing a native sisterhood

Mother Marie Gratia Luking

Mother Marie Gratia believed that the missionary should “aim, whenever possible … to enter into the thought of the people … to feel for and with them, to gain their confidence and sympathy.” Because the missionaries felt that they would never be able to speak the language or understand the culture of the Chinese people as completely as native sisters could, in 1923, she sought permission to receive women for a native society of sisters. In 1962, after both the Providence Sister-Catechists and the Sisters of Providence had moved their mission work to Taiwan, the Catechists were given complete autonomy as a religious community. Today 48 Missionary Sisters of Providence minister in Taiwan, China, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Living interrupted lives of service

Sisters Loretta Therese O’Leary and Mary Pius Regnier,at back on either side of the priest, gather with the Sisters of Providence ministering in Taiwan and the newly baptized while visiting Providence College in 1966

In the years between the establishment of Hua Mei School in 1921 and the move to Taiwan in 1948, the Sisters of Providence and the Providence Sister-Catechists would endure civil war between Chinese warlords, succumb to Japanese control and occupation, and seek escape from the Communist forces that eventually overturned the Nationalist government of China. In each of these situations, they responded to the needs of those around them — offering themselves as God’s loving care by providing nursing assistance and refuge for those fleeing violence and oppression.

Moving the mission to Taiwan

When World War II ended, the Sisters returned to their work in Kaifeng. But the defeat of the Japanese in 1945 did not bring peace to China, nor to the mission of the Sisters of Providence in Kaifeng. Americans in China were in grave danger from the Communist forces. And in 1948 the sisters took flight, first to Shanghai, and, ultimately, to Taiwan, arriving there Dec. 15, 1948.

By February of 1949, they had purchased a storefront building and were open for business. A knock on the door had brought two young Taiwanese women asking if the sisters were going to teach English lessons. The sisters have been teaching in Taiwan ever since.

Mother Marie Gratia (left) rides a rickshaw with Sister Ann Colette Wolf, who wrote the book, “Against All Odds,” about the Sisters of Providence mission to China.

By May of 1949, a more suitable location was found to accommodate the growing number of students wishing to both study and board with the sisters. In 1954, the school was moved to a new building on Fuhsing Road, and the enrollment was increased. What followed was a decade of building. During this time, the institution was accredited and renamed Providence Junior College for Women. In 1963, it was reconstituted as a four-year college and became known as Providence College of Arts and Sciences for Women.

In 1973, the Sisters of Providence turned the school over to the school’s board of trustees and it became an institution of the Taichung Diocese. Since that time, the college was moved to its present campus in Shalu, attained university status and opened its doors to male students. Today Providence University serves more than 12,000 students.

What will the future hold?

Throughout the 100-year history of the Sisters of Providence mission in Asia, Sisters of Providence have stayed true to the call from a Provident God to provide loving care and service to people most in need. They began in 1920 with zeal in their hearts to teach the young women of China. Over the years, that passion for mission enabled them not only to teach but also to bind up wounds, hide refugees, endure separation and isolation. In the process, they shared life with members of other religious communities, with co-workers as dedicated to the mission as they were, and with young women who took their place alongside them as Sisters of Providence or Missionary Sisters of Providence. Throughout 100 years, these women have witnessed with their lives — there is a Providence and the Sisters of Providence in Asia are truly its daughters.

Mother Marie Gratia Luking’s tomb as it looks today

Find more information about the Sisters of Providence mission to Asia in the book “Against all Odds: the Sisters of Providence Mission to the Chinese” by Sister Ann Collette Wolf, SP.

(Originally published in the Fall 2020 issue of HOPE magazine.)

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Sister Dawn Tomaszewski

Sister Dawn Tomaszewski was elected General Superior of the Sisters of Providence in 2016. She has been a Sister of Providence since 1975. Previously she ministered as a teacher, as communication and development director for the sisters and their ministries and as a member of elected leadership on the general council of the Sisters of Providence.

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