My name is Isobel Loughrey. I am a Columban Sister and I come from Kerrykeel, a small village in the Northwest of Ireland. When I was in Secondary School I watched a film shown by Sisters and it touched me deeply. It was about children starving in Africa and at that moment I felt I wanted to go and help feed those children. That memory stayed with me. I never did go to Africa because Columban Sisters don’t have missions there, but now looking back I realize there are many different hungers in peoples’ hearts.
When our Sisters first came to Hong Kong in 1949 tuberculosis was rife and the great need at that time was for doctors and nurses and other medical staff. Our Sisters responded to those needs. When I arrived in 1973 the need was for education for the many children of immigrant families from China. We were asked to run a school for girls in a re-settlement estate, and that was where I began my ministry here. When local people can take over these ministries our Sisters move on to areas of even greater need. I went into parish work with outreach to prisoners and psychiatric patients. Later still I was in Hospital Pastoral Care.
Thirteen years ago we met to reflect on our ministries and on some of the pressing needs in Hong Kong at that time. Aware of the crowded conditions, the noisy and polluted environments in which people live here, and their long working hours under pressure, we wondered if it would be possible to provide a quiet space somewhere. It was our dream to find a place close to nature where people could come for quiet and prayer – an oasis in the middle of this bustling City of 7 million people. When we brought our hopes and aspirations to the Diocese they offered us beautiful retreat centre in Shek O over-looking the sea.
Sr. Anne Ryan and I began our ministry here on Dec 3rd 2003. Later when Anne was elected to be our Congregational leader, Sr. Patricia Byrne, who was working in another retreat centre, moved here. I see this place as a well, where, like the Samaritan Woman in the Gospel, people come to be refreshed. Through sharing their stories, enjoying the peace and beauty of nature, they get in touch with themselves and with God and go away with a new sense of purpose. It is a place of healing and transformation. People often come here feeling like machines, wound up and weighed down by the burdens of life. It is a joy to see them leave with light hearts having left their burdens by the well.
We receive all types of people here from all walks of life and from different religious backgrounds. We are happy to have an ecumenical outreach. At weekends we have many different parish groups and during the week individuals often come for private retreats. We have lay staff helping in the Centre and Sr. Patricia and I are available for spiritual direction and guidance. I find that inviting people to use artistic expression through art, clay and music, enables them to become quiet and listen more deeply to their own quests and to God who comes to life for them again through their surroundings and through The Word. I am always amazed at how nature touches the hearts of people and nurtures them with new insights. No wonder Christ often went up into the mountains to pray.
Besides our retreat work here, the centre is also available to the Filipino and local community for Mass every first Sunday of the month. It provides a space for them afterwards to relax and celebrate together. Our Columban Associates also come here for occasions and they have had fund-raising events here for our missions in Myanmar and the Philippines. In this way mission awareness is also heightened.
Large numbers of people have passed through our doors in the past twelve years, and from many I have heard the expression “Coming here is like coming home.” I give thanks to God for all the blessings they have received and I thank them for the blessing they have been to us and for the many ways they have enriched our lives.
As I look back on my time in Hong Kong, I am often filled with awe at how the movie I saw so many years ago has influenced my leaving my family, friends and a place I loved to cross the oceans to this city on the tip of China, where the needs are still so great. May the Lord of the harvest continue to send labourers into the harvest.