Plum blossom-China’s national flower

I entered the Congregation of the Columban Missionary Sisters at 19 years, my mother used to get the ‘Far East’ every month and from my mid teens I had great interest in the Sisters account of life in China as Missionaries and that is what I wanted to do with my life. I applied for admission to the Columban Sisters and I was accepted. My entrance date was 1st October 1940. On that day 6 young women entered from different parts of Ireland, we were given a nice welcome by the superior who wished us happiness. Postulancy of 6 months started where we learned the aspects of religious missionary life. Novitiate of two years followed after which I made my religious profession of poverty chastity and obedience for the three years duration. After this period if one is happy with the religious life and superiors are happy with the vocation, final profession takes place. By this time we knew that besides telling people in the missions about God’s kingdom some profession was needed to help the especially the poor and try and make life easier for them and their children. I chose to become a nurse. I concluded the three year period in Cork Mercy hospital. That was 1943 when World War II was in progress. There were many hardships in three years in our training which we accepted. The patients would give us news of the War from their daily papers which were terrible for the people affected in these lands. At last the final exam came and went with success. I returned to Cahircon and made my final profession.

First Sisters who travelled to China in 1926

Hanyang was my mission in China where 6 of our sisters were working since 1926. I was allowed home for 10 days and said my goodbyes, not knowing when if ever I would see my family again. I was very lonely for my 5 year and 2 year old brothers. At that time 1946 there were few ships going to China. They were still in War service. In England an aircraft carrier ‘The Victorious’ was leaving shortly for Hong Kong so we registered on that ship.

On leaving Dun Laoghaire port we strained our necks looking back at Howth head as that spot was the last one saw on leaving Ireland.

There were about 700 adults on the aircraft carrier and we made many friends there. After a month we arrived in Hong Kong having visited along the way Gibraltar, Malta, Port Said, Trim Coamalee in Sri Lanka, Bombay, Singapore and at last Hong Kong.

We stayed 2 weeks with the hospital Canossian Sisters and then left for China which took 2 weeks as the railways needed massive repair. At last Wuchang came into view where faithful Sr. Dolorosa and Brigit McSweeny welcomed us. We crossed the lordly Yangzi by boat and then the cobble streets of little shops came into view and this was Yanyang the place I so earnestly longed to be in for many moons. There was a great welcome for the 2 young nurses by the sisters and some neighbours.

Our Bishop Galvin was up country visiting his priests and parishes. When he returned he came to welcome us and said he welcomed us from his heart but as two young qualified nurses he might have thought that we knew it all! He said “respect my people, you’ll get to love them. They may be poor but they have a rich wisdom, help them as much as you can and learn from them.” Bishop Galvin from Cork first came to China in 1912 so he knew what he was talking about and I never forgot it.

Sr. Mary Damien attending patients

We sisters took charge of a 50 bed hospital and large Outpatient department(OPD). Our 1st duty was to learn the language Mandarin(Putonghua). Everyday our teacher came. Our patients were very kind and helped us through sentences in Mandarin. Life was very pleasant, countryside very attractive, feast days celebrated with music and songs and then within 4 years people became aware of the treat of Communism. That was 1949. 5 Sisters were taken for the opening of the Ruttonjee Sanatorium Hong Kong a new chest hospital and 5 of us were left in Hanyang. Eventually the Communists danced their way into our city. Things changed rapidly partings from all our good friends. Hospital patients left us and no new ones came so we knew the sad end was in sight.

Every day communists came to question us about our families in Ireland. They knew of our 1916 uprising with British.

They told us to go and when we went to their foreign office for visas they delayed from March to June to give us permit to leave. The journey had to be made 3-4 times a week from Hanyang to Hankou. We walked to the edge of the Yangzi hoping to get a sampan to ferry us over to Hankou and we had to go from sampan to sampan to reach firm ground. It was nerve breaking for me that the journey had to be made so often. Imagine arriving at the Communist Foreign Office seeing 3 solders at the desk. They knew what we wanted and without a word on our part they shouted “nothing today, come back tomorrow” Eventually in June we got our pieces of paper to leave. My paper had one word on it “Damien”. I told Fr. McCloskey Columban priest about my dilemma with the sampans and fear of falling into the Yangzi he said “I will give you a book and it will distract you” – the book was ‘Queen Victoria’. I started to bring it on my sampan for a read and became interested- Victoria and her family who helped half of Europe’s royalty and Russia and in the end that book calmed my fear.

The day was set to leave for Sr. Mary Senen and myself we went by train to Hong Kong and 2 solders accompanied us for the 2 days and night. They stayed in the next carriage and supplied us with boiling water in flasks. This ended my first mission which is always very special and my 2nd mission was Hong Kong and Ruttonjee sanatorium where I spent about 27 years- still among the Chinese whom I love and value as wise people and among whom I have many friends even back here in Ireland. “God’s ways are not our ways, but he is still there in charge”.

And here I am on July 11th 2015, hale and hearty at 94, having survived all the dangers and enjoyed all the blessings of a missionary life.

Picture1Sr. Mary Damien Rooney was missioned in China, Hong Kong, England and Ireland.