China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2012/Jul

Crossing Oceans

Crossing oceans to China

People have been travelling to China for more years than we may know, but we do know that a lot of missionary priests and sisters have been crossing by land and sea from Europe to China for hundreds of years, the earliest recorded journey would be around 1293, undertaken by Franciscan Father John Montecorvino (1246-1328), who was called the founder of the Catholic mission in China.

I would like to focus on one crossing, that of the Maryknoll priests and sisters from the United States of America (US) to Fushun, Liaoning, China. Maryknoll was established in 1911 at a time when America was still receiving missionaries from Europe. The US was a mission Church until 1908, but the Catholic Church in England had been urging the US Church to produce missionaries since the 1870s.

In April 1911, Father James A. Walsh and Father Thomas F. Price secured the approval of the American hierarchy to begin a seminary and on 29 June 1911 the official word from Rome arrived and the new organisation of the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America was begun.

The women who helped bring this new society to birth became known as The Teresians and, in 1912, they formed a community. Approval from Rome came on 14 February 1920 when Archbishop Hayes, from New York, canonically directed The Teresians into the religious congregation of the Foreign Mission Sisters of St. Dominic, better known as the Maryknoll Sisters.

The Maryknoll Foreign Mission Society sent members to Liaoning to spread the faith and the first was Father Raymond Lane.

In 1928, the Maryknoll priests and sisters assisted in the establishment of a local congregation in Fushun and trained young local women in their vocations. The congregation was called The Sacred Heart of Jesus and they were approved by Rome in 1941.

Other Maryknoll sisters were assigned to the liturgical vestment workshop, pastoral works, dispensaries and all were to visit the Chinese in their homes and teach in catechumenates at the parish compound.

From the beginning, Father Lane made it clear that parish sisters in his territory should “be one with the people.” In addition to their parish work, each sister was assigned a village or a part of the city which she was expected to visit for a full day each week to make the Church known. The sisters had a special appeal for the women and found a way to their hearts. As the Chinese sisters finished their religious training they worked alongside the Maryknoll Sisters.

Unfortunately in the 1950s all foreign missionaries were expelled, the local sisters were sent home and the convents were disbanded. The people went through many years of suffering through wars, famine, mistreatment and lastly, during the Cultural Revolution. The Maryknoll Sisters were reassigned to Taiwan and Hong Kong, and continued to pray for the sisters and people of Fushun.

Finally, in the 1980s, the government in Beijing implemented religious freedoms and, in 1986, the Sacred Heart of Jesus congregation was resumed. Many former members returned and started attracting other young women to join them. This was good news for the Chinese sisters and, of course, for the Maryknoll Sisters.

In the following years, some Maryknoll Sisters were able to go back to Fushun to visit the older sisters who had survived the terrible times and to meet the new sisters.

This year, the Maryknoll Sisters are celebrating their centennial and are planning to visit the different congregations of sisters in China that the early Maryknoll Sisters helped to establish.

On Friday, June 15, the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, three Maryknoll Sisters from Hong Kong went to Fushun, Liaoning, and attended three feast day ceremonies in which six women made their final vows, four entered the novitiate and two new became postulants. Now there are 73 sisters. The ceremonies were prayerful and joyous along with very fitting music and singing.

After a big feast day meal, all of us were outside taking photos of the happy sisters and families. As the families posed for the cameras, I learned that many of the members of the Sacred Heart of Jesus congregation had sisters, brothers and cousins in other congregations and the priesthood. There seems to be a strong Catholic population in northeast China.

The families and friends of these sisters arrived the day before the ceremonies as most had to travel many hours to get to Fushun, they had to stay overnight and then return home on Saturday.

Crossing oceans to the US

Since 1991, the Maryknoll Fathers have been cooperating with bishops and religious superiors in China in the education and spiritual formation of young priests, sisters, seminarians and lay people.

With the approval and encouragement of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples in Rome and the bishops in the US, this project has served over 100 future leaders of the Catholic Church in China.

People from 29 dioceses throughout China, including Fushun, Liaoning, have studied in the US. There are about 30 participants each year and they pursue doctoral and master’s degrees at Catholic universities and seminaries throughout the US. Fields of study include systematic theology, scripture, liturgy, canon law, pastoral counselling, Church history, spiritual direction and ethics.

After earning degrees, these priests, sisters and lay people return to China where they work as seminary professors, formators, spiritual directors, retreat directors, diocesan social service coordinators and directors of lay leadership programmes.

They minister to Catholics and others searching for God in China far better than foreign missionaries ever could.

When the priests and sisters study in the US, they head for Maryknoll at Christmas and during the summer vacation. The sisters stay in the Maryknoll Sisters’ house, while the priests and seminarians stay at the Father and Brother’s house across the street.

Maryknoll had been a big part of many of their dioceses and religious congregations in the past and now the Chinese students go to Maryknoll where they can still meet some of the priests, brothers and sisters who had worked in China. They also make new friends and are very grateful for being a part of this Maryknoll project.

We have come full circle. In the early 20th century, Maryknoll priests and sisters set off for China. There were many unknowns about the big country, but the young missionaries were quickly rewarded and came to know and love the Chinese people.

Today, in the 21st century, the Chinese are going to the US for higher education, which will be helpful to them in their ministries in China. They also get to know more Maryknollers and the American people.

I would like to close by sharing the words of one of the Chinese priests after he returned to China: “Whenever I think of the years I lived in the US, I see many faces I came to know and a warm feeling fills my heart. I am grateful to all those I met and those I have not met but have supported me through my studies. I thank God for the opportunity to study theology, to develop a deeper understanding of my vocation and to live my life everyday with gratitude. I am like a curious little child, and through my everyday life I constantly discover and experience the mystery of God’s love.”


Excerpts from Maryknoll in China, by Jean Paul Wiest and The Chinese Seminary Teachers & Formation Project, Maryknoll Fathers