Sr Damien, now in her nineties, remembers a gift of roses at a tense time in China, roses that have forever bloomed in her heart.
Every day the tension increased in the city of Hanyang. It was 1949, the Communists had taken over China. No one knew what to expect but the signs did not bode well. As foreigners our situation was perilous; as women religious missionaries, even more so. There was no room for the Catholic Church, or for any belief except in the communist ideology.
Nevertheless our small group continued our work with the poor, visiting them and doing what we could to relieve their hardship. The Columbans, with Bishop Edward Galvin, from Co Cork, at the helm had been in China since 1912. The Bishop had asked for Sisters to help on the mission and the newly founded congregation of the Missionary Sisters of St Columban had sent the first group of six Sisters to China in 1926. By the time I arrived in 1946 a vibrant pastoral plan was in place with many people coming to believe in Christ. Our Sisters had a catechetical centre for women, they looked after an orphanage and took care of the sick and wounded, including many of Chiang Kai Shek’s soldiers, in a small hospital.
I was working in the hospital in Hanyang when the communists first arrived. Soon our freedom was curtailed, our movements constantly checked. Funds were low and it was a constant challenge to find enough food and clothing for our various ministries. One day a new order was posted: all surplus money was to be handed over by a certain date or else people would be severly punished. Our superior, Sister Kilian Lynch, from Co Meath, had kept a small sum of money for emergencies but now it seemed this would have to be handed over. She decided she would seek Bishop Galvin’s advice.
The two of us went the short distance to his compound. Sister Kilian met the bishop and after about half an hour came out of his office reassured and comforted by his words. With a smile, he said to me, “Sister Damien, this is a very hard time for you.
Let me get you a bunch of roses.” With that, he cut a large bunch of beautiful roses from his garden, all different colours, and gave them to me. “Aren’t they lovely?” he said as he pressed them into my arms.
They were, I suppose, as I look back over the years, the most beautiful roses I ever got. Beautiful in themselves, but more beautiful as a gesture from a man who was harassed on every side, yet could reach out to me, a young, inexperienced missionary, and with a bunch of roses uplift my heart and my spirits.
As we went home my heart was singing and I knew that no matter what happened all would be well.
Sr M. Damien Rooney worked in China, Hong Kong, Ireland, U.S.A and Britain.