HONG KONG (SE): Once described by a retired British public servant and parishioner at the Union Church in Jordan, Kowloon, as one of the biggest shots in the arm that social services in Hong Kong ever received, the Columban Sisters are marking their 90th anniversary of foundation during this year.

Arriving in the then-British colony just as the huge influx of refugees from China was about to descend on the city in 1949, the small band of Columban Sisters set about beginning what can be described as over six decades of creative ministry at the cutting edge of society.

Citing their breakthrough work at the Ruttonjee Sanatorium (now Ruttonjee Public Hospital) in developing not just a cost effective means of treating tuberculosis, which was rampant in the territory at the time, by identifying the strain of the virus, which brought a temporary end to the reign of the disease, the former public servant also pointed to pioneering work in palliative care, the street mission to sex workers in Mong Kok and education.

Coming to birth through the inspiration of the widow of a former governor of Trinidad in the British West Indies, Frances Moloney, the fledgling Irish community of Missionary Sisters of St. Columban for Preaching the Gospel in China was officially blessed on 29 September 1924.

A nurse by profession, Moloney, who was known in religion as Sister Mary Patrick, was reluctant to take on religious life, but was told by the co-founder of the Columbans, Father John Blowick, “You must take initiatives… prudence yes, but too much prudence will keep you from doing anything!”

The congregation quickly spread, joining the Columban priests in Hanyang, China, in 1926; then to the United States of America in 1930; The Philippines in 1939; Burma in 1947; Korea in 1945; Hong Kong in 1949; Peru in 1962; and Chile in 1974.

A special appeal had to be launched to find the money to send the first six sisters to China, but undaunted by financial insecurity, the sisters set out with the words of Father Blowick to encourage them ringing in their ears.

“A sister who might be a good sister in Ireland could turn out to be a hopeless tragedy in China! Be real missionaries, be neither over pious or over fastidious, and don’t become like a string of sausages—where everyone looks and acts the same!” Father Blowick advised them.

Today, the Columban Sisters may be an ageing group and fewer in number than in their heyday when they ran high schools, a big hospital and were involved in dozens of other initiatives around the city, but a veteran of mission in Hong Kong and the current congregational leader, Sister Anne Gray, told the Sunday Examiner that enthusiasm for mission is more important than size.

“And we certainly have that,” she went on. “I believe that we need to do things differently and it takes dedication and long experience to do that—and this we certainly have.”

She said that what is important is to keep doing new things and make contributions where they are really needed, explaining that from the early days the sisters were adventurous.

They sent sisters to medical school in Ireland in the days when women were a rarity and sisters an unheard of species in the field and, as Sister Gray pointed out, that paid off big in the fight against tuberculosis in Hong Kong.

“Today, we have young sisters from Korea and The Philippines and they have the chance to spend time with the old hands, so their learning curve is high. They have enabled us to go back to the Union of Myanmar and back into China.”

She said that she believes that in Hong Kong the sisters were always at the cutting edge. “We were at Ruttonjee, in hospices, the Spastic Centre and the outreach to sex workers (ReachOut), which turned 21 last year. In Myanmar we are with the HIV/AIDS patients,” she pointed out.

Most recently they have also staffed a retreat centre offering spiritual direction at Shek O.

“It does not matter where people come from, everyone has the right to know God loves them,” she said philosophically.

Sister Gray added that her mission with sex workers through Action for ReachOut taught her that respect is the key to growth.

“People must have the opportunity to find alternatives and society must create the space for them to do this,” she said.

She then reflected that is what the Columban Sisters have always worked for, to provide the space for people to grow. “I believe it is the challenge to see the possible in the seemingly impossible,” she reflected.

Sister Gray noted that she thinks that mission education within the Church is one of the most challenging of apostolates the sisters have taken on. “But we were the first to do it,” she said, “and we don’t give up.”

Some of the fruit of their work from the Association of Mission Friends joined the Columban sisters, priests and lay missionaries at a simple evening to mark the feast of the society patron, St. Columban, on November 22 at the Caritas Restaurant in Central.

The group, which numbers around 35 members, has caught the Columban spirit, which Father Tommy Murphy described as that of St. Columban himself, who came to Europe from Ireland with the belief that he could make sense of the foreign culture and form links with it that were meaningful to both the people he came to and those from whom he came. At a simple in-family celebration held at the retreat centre in Shek O on September 29, the day of the foundation anniversary, Father Pat Colgan, from the Columban superior general’s council, remembered Sister Joan Sawyer, who was machine gunned by police in Lima, Peru, when she was taken hostage by prisoners at the notorious Lurigancho Prison.

The police had agreed to an amnesty for a van to leave the prison during a riot, but cut it down as it exited the main gate. Sister Sawyer died among those desperate men whom she had grown to respect profoundly during her many visits.

He also drew attention to Sister Helen Ryan, a common sight around the outlying barrios of Malasiqui in Pangasinan, The Philippines. In her daily visits to the sick, she would be asked who she was visiting and reply, “I don’t know who they are, but it is someone who needs help.”

Father Murphy said the description that St. Columban gave of a missionary is maybe his most important legacy to missionaries of any era, when he called them people looking for the place of their resurrection.

The Columban Sisters of today may not be the young, energetic group that arrived in Hong Kong in 1949, but after 90 years they are still contributing their experience and creativity in prison and hospital chaplaincies, as well as among people who have profound disabilities or are seeking spiritual direction in life.

Certainly, whatever they are, they have not become the string of sausages that Father Blowick warned them about at their foundation.

From: Hong Kong Examiner