‘Against All Odds’ – Sister Clare Mitchell, SP
As the small caravan of automobiles rounded the fountain in front of St. Mary’s Academy and turned up The Avenue on September 29, 1920, one of the six missionaries, Sister Clare Mitchell, was especially moved. The sight of the students and sisters lining their route and the sound of their voices raised in song awakened memories of her own student days at the Academy. Over the years she had exited the gate many times on her way to other faraway missions, but for her this was the fulfillment of a long-held desire to serve in a foreign land.
Indeed, travel had marked her from birth. Rather than presenting a baptismal certificate at her entrance, she had a sworn statement that she was born in Caruthursville, Missouri, on February 9, 1878 and baptized in Spotsville, Kentucky, then confirmed at age 12 at St. Ann in Terre Haute. Had her parents, Isabel and Joseph, been making a hasty trip through the Mississippi/Ohio river valley toward a specific destination? Had her father simply found a job and stayed in Terre Haute? There is no mention in her file of siblings, or of any family, even in her obituary.
Nonetheless, she had certainly found a home amid her sisters when she entered in 1895 at age 17. Her novitiate formation under Sister Basilissa Heiner included a year of student teaching at Our Lady of Sorrows in Chicago. Following her 1898 profession, she had honed her teaching skills as a multi-grade teacher for two years in the tiny St. Ambrose mission parish in Seymour, at the junction of southern Indiana railroad lines. A considerably longer train trip took her to her next assignment at St. Rose, Chelsea, Massachusetts. After marking the turn of the century with second novitiate and final profession, she again traveled to the East Coast to teach at St. Ann, Washington, D.C., living across the street at the newly established Immaculata Seminary.
An undated newspaper column, apparently later penned by a student from this time, bears witness to her fervent zeal for the missions. “In those days we were taught by a nun whose heart was set on going to China. She was perpetually launching a propagation of the faith drive of her own. Literally she read everything about that vast and fascinating country, with its teeming missions, its poverty and starvation. Ultimately she digested it for us. This generally meant another drive for pennies, tin foil and stamps. As if it were yesterday, we can hear her say: “five dollars will save a Chinese baby girl.’ We never knew what happened to the baby boys, whether they were lost or not. But Sister Clare really took care of the baby girls. We helped her. It marked the beginning of our interest in the missions.
Sister Clare then returned to Chicago for a year at St. Agnes and another two at Our Lady of Sorrows before being named as founding superior to open Our Lady of Mercy in 1912. She and the other two sisters had to commute from the newly founded Our Lady of Providence Academy for three months until one floor of the new school building would serve as convent. To her fell the challenge of managing the rapidly expanding enrollment and steady increase of sister faculty. She then spent a year on the faculty of her alma mater at the Academy before resuming superior duties at St. Catherine in Indianapolis, commuting from the nearby St. Joseph Industrial School. It was during her 1919 assignment at All Saints, Hammond, Indiana, that the invitation to volunteer for the China mission brought her dream within reach. As the automobile rounded the gate, her heart echoed the hymn of praise and gratitude for her readiness to bring her 25 years of religious life as an educator in many different settings to the work of bringing the faith to a people as yet deprived of the gospel message.
From Sister Ann Colette Wolf’s account in “Against All Odds” we learn of the little band’s shock when they arrived and saw the poverty and suffering of these people. Their missionary fervor was sorely tested as they lived with daily physical discomfort and the frustrations of cultural misunderstandings and their inability to communicate even as they struggled to learn. Although their small dispensary exhibited a compassionate outreach to the immediate needs of suffering neighbors, the small Hua Mei school had been open for only two months when Sister Mary Elise contracted smallpox and died, throwing the band into grief. Soon after, just as the semester ended, refugees from a nearby civil war outbreak crowded into their courtyard. Nonetheless, they intensified their studies during the intense summer heat to prepare for the 1921-1922 school year. Realizing the appeal of Catholic beliefs and practices, in preparation for teaching religion, Sister Clare focused her studies on the catechism.
The September 1921 launch of “The Bugle Call,” a publication of the Irma Le Fer Chapter of the Catholic Students Mission Crusade, provided an avenue to invite the support of the China mission from all Sister of Providence schools. Sister Clare was a regular contributor of articles which show her delight in the children she taught as she related anecdotes of her interactions with them. She described a phonetic alphabet and included dialogue for them to try speaking Chinese for themselves: “Hsiu tao!” (Sister, sister!)”Shen-mo, shen-mo?” (What is it? What is it?)” “The Bugle Call,” October, 1922.
In addition to relating the difficult circumstances of mission life, Sister Ann Colette’s account includes comments by Sister Clare which reveal an undercurrent of criticism of Sister Marie Gratia’s leadership. Given that Sister Marie Gratia was the youngest member of the group, Sister Clare inevitably compared her 25 years of eleven different mission experience–including two as superior–with Sister Marie Gratia’s 14 years with in five missions. Since the sisters were operating in uncharted waters at a distance from superiors who could hardly appreciate their situation, Sister Clare felt an urgency to speak up regarding significant decisions. Even after Sister Joseph Henry Boyle arrived to take up the role of superior in 1923, the group was unable to achieve a strong spirit of unity.
Of course, China itself was far from united. The violence of the warring factions created such a dangerous situation that in April 1927 the sisters were ordered by the American consulate to leave Kaifeng to take refuge in Peiping. Because of her mother’s illness, Sister Eugene Marie was allowed to return to the United States in June, with Sister Winifred Patrice as companion. The seemingly never-ending civil war made the path ahead for the mission so unclear that Sister Joseph Henry returned to the United States to confer with Mother Mary Raphael in September. With Sister Clare as her companion, the two took ship from Kobe, Japan on September 15, 1927 and arrived at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods on October 9. The realization that only two sisters remained in China of the six who had bravely set out seven years before raised significant doubt as to whether the mission could ever succeed.
As for Sister Clare, that decision was out of her hands, as she was immediately given a new assignment stateside. Over the next nine years she taught in three parochial schools similar to her earlier missions. While she enjoyed her work, for her, something was missing. Then, in the midst of the Great Depression, a new mission opportunity came her way. Two Sisters of Providence had staffed the tiny “colored mission” of St. Rita School in Indianapolis since 1929. Even in its earliest days, the “Irma Le Fer Mission Unit” of the national Catholic Students Mission Crusade which sponsored the “Bugle Call” had included “the colored missions” as an element of their outreach. (December 1921) However, the China mission, especially after the April 1929 return of the sisters to Kaifeng, had become the main focus of the publication.
In 1936 Bishop Ritter arranged to combine St. Rita School with nearby St. Bridget School and Sister Clare was named superior to carry forward this plan. She went on to serve as principal and 7th and 8th grade teacher there for six years. The Le Fer Unit took note of the Sisters of Providence involvement in the home missions in the October 1938 issue of the “Bugle Call.” Featuring a photo of a St. Rita first communion class, the story invited students to join the St. Rita Guild to support the work of “helping the Negro to know God and His Church.” The facing page featured St. Therese in Wilson, North Carolina where the “lamentably small Catholic population” was fewer per square mile than in China. Surely Sister Clare delighted to know that right in her own country she was once again regarded as a true “missionary.”
Yet more missionary endeavor awaited her activity. In 1941, when Bishop Ritter established St. John the Evangelist Parish for African-Americans in Evansville, Sister Clare again took up role of founding this mission, welcoming the 52 students who arrived in September 1942 to open the school. After commuting for three years, a small house behind the school became a more convenient convent. This seven-year assignment was to be the last mission for Sister Clare. In 1950 she was attacked by Parkinson’s disease which made rapid progress, forcing her to retire to the Infirmary. After suffering the extremely debilitating effects of this disease for several years, she died June 27, 1954. The necrology describes Sister Clare as a “gentle devoted religious, one very faithful to all her obligations. Many of the Sisters were very devoted to her, and this affection was noticeable even in their remembrance of her.”