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Celebration of the 100th anniversary of the mission to Asia

A prayer service on Tuesday, September 29, marked the 100th anniversary of the Mission to Asia which is still vibrant today. The Congregation read the following readings from the China biography, “Against All Odds,” in English and Mandarin, followed by General Superior Sister Dawn Tomaszewski’s reflection and a blessing of the cross. View photo album. Learn more about the sisters who have ministered in Asia.

As we gather to celebrate our mission in Asia, and in particular, those first six missionary sisters, let us remember our own missionary discipleship, as we begin as we were baptized: In the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.

From left, Sisters Teresa Kang, Su-Hsin Huang, Dawn Tomaszewski, (picture of original China sisters), then Sisters Paula Damiano, Norene Wu, Jenny Howard and Jan Craven.

The first six missionaries to China (name and age)
Mother Marie Gratia Luking, 35
Sister Mary Elise Renauldt, 61
Sister Clare Mitchell, 42
Sister Eugene Marie Howard, 46
Sister Marie Patricia Shortall, 43
Sister Winifred Patrice O’Donovan, 42

The departure story from “Against All Odds”

During the summer months of 1920 there was feverish activity at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, packing trunks and crates with the most necessary articles for life in an undeveloped area of interior China … the trunks were filled with items for the celebration of Mass, with bedding, clothing, cooking utensils, medicines, a typewriter, and even a small organ.  Then, too, there were passports to obtain, pictures to be taken, inoculations, visits with family, and meetings with Mother Mary Cleophas wherein special instructions and advice were given.

The day chosen for the sisters’ departure from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods came at last. On September 29 before dawn the sisters for the foreign mission were already at prayer in the chapel of Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.  At 6:30 a.m. Bishop Joseph Chartrand celebrated Mass for the assembled community.  At 9:00 Reverend (later Archbishop) Edward Howard, brother of Sister Eugene Marie, celebrated a Solemn High Mass, at which Bishop Chartrand preached.  After the sermon, the significant ceremony of the day – the presentation of the missionary crosses – began.  Pope Benedict XV personally blessed the crosses for the missionary priests, the seminarian, Mother Mary Cleophas, and the sisters … As Bishop Chartrand bestowed each cross upon the ten recipients, he repeated this beautiful and solemn prayer:  “Take this crucifix.  May it be your companion in your apostolic labors and your consolation in life and at the hour of death.  Amen.”  At the Canon of the Mass the voices of the thirty-seven visiting priests from all over the country filled the sanctuary with song, and an atmosphere of profound reverence pervaded the most solemn moments of the Mass. Before Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament at 2:00 p.m., sisters and friends of the foreign missionaries had said their farewells.  All was in readiness for the departure.  Immediately after Benediction, the entire student body of the academy and the college, followed by the postulants, novices, and professed sisters formed a procession out the west door of the church, and in absolute silence lined the avenue on both sides down to the outside road.  The missionary band and the sisters who were to accompany them to Chicago or to the Pacific Coast entered the automobiles which were stationed on the plaza of the academy.  While the cars passed down the avenue, the students sang the beautiful hymn, “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” in full chorus.

The arrival story from “Against All Odds ”

A long twenty-five hour ride (from Hankow) completed, the travelers arrived at Kaifeng in the late afternoon on November 24, 1920. … Kaifeng was a city with a population of approximately 200,000 in the early 1920s.  This city was the place where the Sisters of Providence were to establish their foundation and begin their work with the Chinese people.  When the carriage stopped at the high gray wall surrounding a large compound on Ku Loh Street, the bishop told the drivers to allow the sisters to descend.  He proudly led the way through the high gate and into the compound where a group of women were waiting with smiling faces to greet them.  The sisters went immediately to the little chapel, and at the foot of the tabernacle knelt and kissed the clay floor.  The sisters were then taken to their living quarters which Sister Marie Gratia described a week later in her first letter to Mother Mary Cleophas from Kaifeng.

… We have certainly found poverty.  And for this we are not sorry but rejoice that we should be considered worthy to share something of the poverty that our holy Foundress and her companions suffered.  While our poverty is not so great as was that of our foundresses, considering the advance in time, it is great.  Our dwelling consists of a large room for dining room and recreation room and also chapel when the weather does not permit us to go to the chapel.  Then there is a small room on either side of the dining room, separated by a paper frame partition and also two other small cells on either side forming a right angle, giving each sister a small cell for bedroom.  If you could see these various buildings, you would smile at calling them houses.  They are really only sheds and are not so good as the houses in which cows and chickens are kept in America.  They are not made to keep out the cold.  A protection against the rain and that is all.  One would wonder how they could ever be inhabited by human beings.  The rooms we are living in have been fixed up for us – an outside lining of brick, and wood floors, and touches of paint make them much better but still very unsubstantial.  The old damp buildings close all around keep away the sun and hold moisture so that we find our rooms quite damp.

We keep our oil stoves going and the Bishop has promised to get two coal stoves, one for the dining room and one for the chapel but I believe the buildings will always be damp.  The property formerly belonged to a mandarin who had many wives, each having her suite of rooms.  After his demise, the buildings were said to be haunted and no Chinese would enter so the Bishop bought all, both his ground and ours with buildings for $2,000.  The buildings have been standing for near a century judging from the looks of them.  All one-story, bamboo roofs covered with burnt clay.  The rooms we occupy had a lining of brick, made from a part of an old building torn down and cemented inside and then painted.  The bricks must have been very damp or the dampness comes from the surrounding buildings so close together, as the walls are always quite moist.  I tell you all this, dear Mother, not to complain or worry you, but because I feel you would expect to know the conditions and, too, my duty to the other sisters and their health requires that I tell you.

When we saw the cathedral, we were dumb – such poverty!  The altar linens are so scanty and poor that we should only use them for rags in America.  We have not had an altar cloth on since we came; a little piece of cotton, tripled, covers the middle of the altar where Holy Mass is said daily in our chapel.  No linen can be procured here.  I could go in detail and tell about the poverty but it will not be necessary.

Reflection time and questions:

An anniversary moment, like the one we celebrate today, is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate what Providence has accomplished in and through those who have gone before us. It is also important, on a day like today, that we find our place in that story, that we recognize that EACH of US, and ALL of US are part of this legacy. In that spirit then, I invite you into 10 minutes of quiet for reflection on these two questions:

  1. What of these stories most inspires you?
  2. The six missionaries were asked to go to an unknown place. Where are you being asked to go now?

Sister Dawn Tomaszewski’s reflection

I am not sure where your mind and heart took you during the 10 minutes of quiet provided by the planners of this service, but as I have been reflecting on these readings the past few days and again this morning, I have spent quite some time as part of that lineup along the avenue.

In my mind’s eye, it is sunny, warm … and there is an energy in the air even before we sing Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.

There is energy in the air because, notwithstanding this event, the 1920 version of the Congregation is VERY busy about the mission of Providence. The community numbers a thousand + and is increasing yearly.  Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College is growing. From the avenue we can see the construction of the new dining hall taking place (it would open for use in 1921). At this point in the life of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, the Conservatory of Music and Guerin Hall are only six years old. They would soon break ground for LeFer—on June 4, 1921, to be exact.

In terms of convent buildings, just a few months before this fateful September day, the cornerstone was laid for the Blessed Sacrament Chapel on June 7. Construction was also under way for a new infirmary, which was completed in 1922. 

And out on “mission,” as we have always called our apostolic assignment, our sisters were sent in response to the need for teachers and administrators in Catholic parish schools from Boston to California; from Chicago to Southern Indiana. 

In Vol. 3 of the SP history entitled, “The Path Marked Out”, Sister Mary Roger Madden writes: “Between 1900 and 1920, some 160 schools from locations as distant as Los Gatos, California, The District of Panama and Lima, Peru were refused.  The reason—lack of sisters.”

Therefore, Sister Mary Roger concludes that in itself the fact that then Superior General Mother Mary Cleophas Foley would seriously consider the request to send missionary sisters to China was remarkable.

But accept this request she did and when the call went out for sister volunteers—well, we know the rest of the story — 300 women answered that missionary call.

I have always been inspired by that part of the story. Both the decision itself and the response of the community.

Many reasons have been offered as to why Mother Mary Cleophas said yes, so here is mine:

In the last circular letter of her 36 years as superior general, Mary Cleophas wrote:

“Woe to us if we depart from the path marked out for us by Divine Providence, the path wherein our holy founders and those who have preceded us have walked with so much courage and generosity.”

Sister Mary Roger says it this way:

“Not human prudence, but what some might consider a foolhardy willingness to take risks for the sake of the kingdom of God, dictated the acceptance of a mission in a remote province of China.”

And therein lies my answer to where WE are being asked to go now. Our holy founders and those who have preceded us were risk takers. They walked with courage and generosity. Should we expect any less of ourselves?

Consider this, the six missionaries met with Bishop Walsh, co-founder of the Maryknoll Mission, during a stopover in San Francisco on their way to China. He told them he was astounded to hear that they had had neither orientation nor language proficiency. He was even dismayed that the sisters had not shipped supplies of canned and dried food.

What does the young Sister Marie Gratia Luking do? From limited funds, she bought some staple foods before the sisters embarked.

Barely a week after their arrival in Kaifung and, as a result of a failed attempt to teach the children from the catechumenate an English hymn for Christmas, she wrote to the bishop and asked him to find THEM a teacher so that they would have a working knowledge of Chinese as soon as possible.

And later she would write: “Our opening of school, with so little knowledge of language, was a greater undertaking than we ever dreamed … God did it all. Education of girls is so recent that it is difficult to find a qualified teacher. The great work of the summer will be the study of Chinese. Only love of God and of souls for His sake can give one courage to undertake it.”

These stories barely scratch the surface of the many ways our sisters risked their very lives that the women in China would be educated. Is it not providential that in this 100th anniversary year, the school that Mother Marie Gratia Luking founded in China has been revitalized and renamed Jing Yi Middle School, after Mother Marie Gratia’s Chinese name, Jing Yi. (Jing means quiet, still, or silent; Yi means appropriate, suitable, or proper.)

As I recounted in the most recent issue of Hope, which is devoted to our Asia Mission:

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.

We are so very grateful for the women and men who follow in those footsteps today. Providence University, the successor to that first Providence Storefront School on the island of Taiwan, has become a thriving university that states as its single goal: “that our students bestow love and knowledge upon the society.” The sisters and staff at Miracle Home in Taipei are about to launch a building project so that services to the elderly in the area can be expanded. Three of our sisters in temporary profession are from Asia, and one of them is in the process of applying for tertianship. Our daughters—the Missionary Sisters of Providence—now have missions in China, the Philippines and Viet Nam, in addition to those ministries they sponsor in Taiwan.

And how is it that we have two building projects happening on the campus here at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods? I hope Mother Mary Cleophas is proud of our efforts to transform Owens Hall into a place of safety and affordability for those in need of housing. And I understand that one of the names being considered for the college’s new residence hall and dining room is Foley Hall.  

Where else are we being asked to go now? This is an important question as we prepare for the 2021 General Chapter.

Can the courage and generosity of those who have gone before us inspire us to find those most in need of our engagement and accompaniment—whether they live on the margins of society or next door? Will we continue to be a voice for justice and equality at a time when so many voices are screaming in pain? Will our own 100-year history of a mission in Asia teach us the ways that white privilege may still hold us fast?

These questions are the prayers I have for myself and for our Providence community. I offer them on this day for your consideration with this reminder from Mother Mary Cleophas:

“Woe to us if we depart from the path marked out for us by Divine Providence, the path wherein our holy founders and those who have preceded us have walked with so much courage and generosity.”

Our holy founders and those who have preceded us were risk takers. They walked with courage and generosity. Should we expect any less of ourselves?

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Sisters of Providence

The Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, are a congregation of Roman Catholic women religious (sisters) who minister throughout the United States and Taiwan. Saint Mother Theodore Guerin founded the Sisters of Providence in 1840. The congregation has a mission of being God's Providence in the world by committing to performing works of love, mercy and justice in service among God's people.

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