Sharing with Australian Pilgrims on History of Missionary Sisters of St. Columban
St. Columban Icon from St. Comgall’s Catholic Church in Bangor
In this part of the world, and probably also in Australia and New Zealand, many stories begin with ‘Once upon a time’, but in reciting the history of our Congregation we often begin with the words, “It was because two people shared a vision and answered a similar call that the Missionary Sisters of St Columban came to be.”
In December 1917, Fr John Blowick, co-founder of the Maynooth Mission to China (later known as the Columban Fathers), spoke of the urgent need for women collaborators in the new missionary venture in China because, culturally, it was not acceptable for men to minister to women in Chinese society so we like to remind the Columban Fathers that they could not do without us!
At that time, Fr. Blowick’s appeal found a ready response in the hearts of many women, one of whom was Lady Frances Moloney who later became known as our Mother Mary Patrick.
Fr. Blowick was well aware of the challenge of such a situation and is known to have said – “so difficult indeed that the accomplishment of it seems to require a new congregation of nuns whose vow would be the medical care of the sick in pagan countries, and whose members would be properly qualified in medicine, surgery and midwifery.”
This was Fr Blowick’s idea of a missionary sisterhood in 1917. Over the subsequent three years this initial idea underwent many changes.
February 1922 then saw the first group of postulants gathered in Cahircon, County Clare. Among these were two young women from Australia, one of whom was to continue in the Congregation as our Sister Mary Francis Mapleback. Ellen Mary (Nellie) Mapleback was born in Rushworth, Waranga, Rodney County, Australia. Working in a solicitor’s office in Melbourne, she felt called to missionary life but she knew of no missionary congregation in Victoria. A friend who knew of her wish happened to meet a Columban Father who had just arrived from Ireland in 1918 and she told Nellie about him.
Three years later he had arranged that she would be one of the first postulants and, with a companion, she set out on the long journey to Ireland on 31st December1921. They were the first candidates to arrive in Clifton House while it was still being prepared for occupancy. They were later joined by ten more young women.
With the First Profession of Vows on 29th September 1924, the young community was officially incorporated into the Church as a public Missionary Religious Congregation.
We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the Sisters of Charity who in 1922 undertook the work of forming our first postulants and novices. Mother Mary Aikenhead, the foundress of the Sisters of Charity, centred her spirituality on prayer, obedience and charity, especially to the poor, and this found a ready echo in the spirituality and missionary thrust of Fr John Blowick, our Founder.
Our first foundation was made in China in 1926. On arriving, the first group of Columban Sisters were soon busy with language study, setting up house in Han Yang and responding to sick people who came to the house for treatment. Hopes and dreams of developing ministries to the poor, however, were soon shattered by the tense political situation between the warlords, nationalists and communists in Han Yang, as well as campaigns against foreigners.
By April 1927, the Sisters found themselves refugees as they had to leave Han Yang and move to Shanghai for safety. By Christmas of that year, the Sisters had returned to Han Yang, and this despite the fact that the Columban Fathers had experienced being captured by bandits. They were still without a convent or dispensary. But, as soon as they heard the Sisters were back, the people began to arrive daily in huge numbers and so they began their medical ministry in a makeshift dispensary, serving the sick with whatever medicines they could find.
In September 1926, Columban Father Michael O’Dwyer was to say of this first group of Columban Sister Missionaries – “These women were characterised by a spirit of adventure. There was no knowing what was coming. They faced the total unknown. But they had great faith and were always good-humoured because they saw the effort for what it was – a country plagued by bandits, Red revolutionaries, floods, cholera, leprosy, Japanese bombing attacks.”
Over the years, we have done our best to preserve this spirit and to continue to have great faith and to be good humoured as the ensuing years brought expansion to other countries: the USA in 1930, the Philippines in 1939, Burma in 1947, Hong Kong in 1949, Korea in 1955, Peru in 1962, Chile in 1974 and Pakistan in 1995. An introduction to each of these missions is given in the book written by Sr Elizabeth Doyle, SSC, “That All May Know”.
Those were years of great expansion for our Congregation but they were not without challenge and suffering, especially when we were faced with expulsion from China in 1951 and from Burma in 1966. Both times we had no choice but to leave behind people together with whom we had lived and worked, and to whom we had become very close. Fortunately, in both places, we had the opportunity to return on mission (very quietly) to China in 1986 and to Burma, or Myanmar as it is now known, in 2003.
As Fr. Harris, another Columban Father of influence to the Congregation, once said, “Let the circle of your zeal for Christ’s interests be as wide as the world.” Currently, we are blessed to still have Sisters serving on mission as far apart as the Americas on one side of the world and the Far East on the other. Like the man who approached Jesus in St Luke’s Gospel, we have said, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
And over the years, we have worked hard to live according to the hope of Frances Moloney, that “the spirit of the Congregation would be one of all embracing charity” and that “no effort would be spared to meet various demands which may arise.”
It is now almost ninety years since our Sisters set out on their first mission to China during which time we have constantly experienced that “whoever follows Christ will have the light of life”.
The settings of mission today may be different but the needs and the call of the poor continue. To illustrate this, I would like to share with you two short accounts given in the Far East magazine by two of our Sisters, more than eighty years apart –
In 1929 one of our Sisters wrote, “A few days ago, we set out to visit the sick in the suburbs of Han Yang. The traffic was just as congested as ever and, as usual, we had to pick our way through the jostling crowd and the rickshaws and the everlasting procession of coolies swinging their heavy loads. Even live pigs are carried in this fashion, protesting loudly but to no avail for the Chinese don’t mind noise in the least – in fact they rather like anything that adds to the general uproar.
After about half an hour’s walk we could see our destination – a little hut among the graves and surrounded by a sea of soft slippery mud – how we were to reach it without sticking or falling was the question. Of course we laughed – we had to, apart from the fact that it was the right thing to do for the benefit of the crowd who were watching our struggles, for we are told it is a principle in China that, no matter what the predicament is, so long as one keeps laughing, one doesn’t lose face, although indeed it wasn’t our faces we were anxious about losing at that moment, but our shoes!
When we reached the house, we tended to the children who were sick and to the father who is just dying on his feet from consumption. They live in such poverty too – it makes one’s heart bleed – to think of all the wealth there is being wasted in the world and that poor man trying to eke out a miserable existence for his little family by making matchboxes.”
Now fast forward to this year, 2015 when a Sister writes from the Philippines, “I went to visit and meet the people who have no place to live but in the cemetery where they eat and sleep on top of the tombs. Many earn their living by cleaning the tombs. The children were dirty, some with no clothes and most without shoes.
Their classroom was a plain tomb in an open area with no roof on it, no chairs, no desks and no shelter. After a while the children began to come and it was bedlam.
The class started but some of the children were jumping and flying like Tarzan from tomb to tomb. I felt I would go out of my mind and to make matters worse, it started to rain. But that didn’t bother them at all. In fact, it was only the missionary Sister (me) who ran for shelter. On my way home, I had some strange feelings and although I did not want to go back to this dreadful place, I knew I could not reject the children who showed such a hunger for learning. So I went back.”
Sr. Julie not only went back and developed a very vibrant and much needed ministry among these people of the cemetery, she has succeeded in encouraging another Columban Sister to work with her!
How is any of this possible? Only because we have inherited and strive to live the motto of our patron, St Columban, “Let us be Christ’s, not our own” and also the conviction of our founder, Father Blowick, “The work is God’s not yours or mine. We happen to be the instruments. God is behind the whole thing and he will see it through.” And we can only do this through the support of your prayers which we know we can continue to depend on.
Sr. Ann Gray
If you would like to know more about the Columban Sisters:
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