Columban Sisters in China: November 15, 1926 until 1952,
Hong Kong 1947 …to China again 1989
The work of the Columban Sisters in China began in 1926. A few years previously, the Columban Fathers had begun their mission in China, a country chronically threatened by famine, war and natural disasters. From the outset, the priests realized that service to the women of China could be done only by women. It was out of this realization that the Columban Sisters came into existence.
On the completion of their training, the sisters joined the Mission and began their ministry of healthcare and education in various parts of China. In 1938, they opened a school in Shanghai for Russian refugees, and in order to better serve them, they adopted the Byzantine Rite of the Catholic Church.
For 30 years the Columbans shared the hardships of the people. In the 1950’s, they were all expelled from China by the new revolutionary Communist government.
Prior to their expulsion from China, the Sisters realized that the major political changes happening in the country were going to have immense repercussions in Hong Kong where the Sisters were invited to work in 1947, a small British colony on the south coast of China. Because of the many wars raging in China and in Hong Kong, refugees were streaming back and forth from one country to the other. Food was scarce, housing unavailable, and as a result thousands of adults and children died, mostly from T.B. In 1948, the Columban Sisters opened a simple hospital for the poor. In time, the hospital grew and expanded and became a world- renowned centre for the study of T.B.
Further developments in the medical field followed and in the mid-70’s the Columban Sisters became involved in the educational apostolate when they took on responsibility for a secondary school for girls in a densely populated area of Hong Kong where most people were recent immigrants from Mainland China. A few years later a second school followed.
But more major changes were ahead for Hong Kong and the Columbans who worked there. The Colony, governed by Britain since 1897, was handed back to China in 1997. This major event together with the Sister’s General Chapters of the l in 1981, which called for a full review of our institutionalized ministries, started a rethinking of the Columban Sisters’ way of being present to the people of Hong Kong. The medical and educational establishments were handed over to other organizations and groups. The Columban Sisters were now freed up to become involved with sectors of society often hidden from view. This involved work in parishes, ministries to people with AIDS, Hospice patients, prisoners and with women forced into prostitution. The last mentioned ministry still continues as an organization called ReachOut with the management handed over to lay staff.
The key ministries in Hong Kong today are: The Holistic Retreat Centre (offering Retreats, Spiritual Direction and facilitation for different Christian groups, prison visitation, Legion of Mary Presidia, committee work and Training Programs in relation to Special Needs Children and Young People especially in passing on the Skills of Conductive Education.
China Mainland…re-entry to a changed China
The gradual implementation of the Open Door policies of Deng Xiao Ping in the early 80’s allowed for the re-entry to the China Mainland but in quite different ways to those experienced by the first groups of Sisters in the 1920’s. A China Entry Visa is available to those who bring with them some skill or expertise that China is seeking for the development of the country and its people.
So for the Columban Sisters currently entering the Mainland, the key involvements are Ministry to Children and Youth with special needs, particularly those severely physically handicapped, together with the Teaching of English as a Second Language in State Run Universities are. While contact with the local church can be quite limited in some places, the Sisters make use of every opportunity to build relationships and understanding with local Catholics, clergy and religious. While the Catholic Church in China has numerous members, both in the Official (Registered) Church and the Unofficial (Unregistered) Church the approach of the Sisters to both is equal. Given the more frequent contact between China Mainlanders and the citizens of Hong Kong due to more relaxed Visa policy for foreigners as well as locals both sides of the border, it is a case of availing to opportunities for making contacts as they arise.
The Sisters leave the future in God’s hands as did the first groups of Columban Sisters who went forth on mission to this vast land. And whichever side of the border our sisters are working and serving , the needs of the Chinese people, is a great joy because it was that dream that first motivated the pioneering Columban Sisters and Fathers to leave all and pitch their tents in China almost 88 years ago. And the double 8 is a good omen for the future of the people and the Church.
for larger images, please click on the images