10/18/12 | 586 views
Maryknoll Sisters Have Built Community Across Globe for a Century
The solitary plane appeared out of a crystalline sky from the north and slowly began its spiraling descent to deposit its bombs. That a single warplane could take such a leisurely approach unharassed to distribute its devastating payload is indicative of the world’s inattention to the vicious civil war that wracked Sudan from 1983 to 2005.
Sister Theresa Baldini, M.M., a New York City native and a Maryknoll missioner for 18 years in what is now the newly independent nation of South Sudan, remembers.
“Two or three times a week the bombing plane came over our place,” she recalled in a soft voice that barely registered above a gentle whisper.
“We had to get to a bunker but this one day when we ran over, the hole was filled. There must have been 40 youngsters who came in. It’s the shrapnel that kills and maims people, so it’s important that you get as close to the ground as possible. When I got down, I put my arms around Sister Madeline (McHugh, M.M.). She’s 16 years older than I am, and all of a sudden I heard this heavy breathing. I thought Madeline was having a heart attack and I turned and a little youngster had crawled in beside us. Another was holding my legs and I could feel water dropping on my legs from her tears. They were so frightened.”
“Then I said, ‘God gave us two hands to hold hands with one another, especially when we are scared. Let’s pray the Rosary. Each one of us will say our names and ask St. Theresa to pray for us.’ And I have to say I never had a mystical experience except for that moment in my life. I felt energy going through my whole body.”
The spirit that animated Sister Theresa, a self-described, middle class kid from Brooklyn, to travel to and live with the displaced people of Narus, a sun-parched village in the Diocese of Torit, in war-ravaged Sudan in northeastern Africa, is the same spirit that has animated the Maryknoll Sisters, the first U.S.-based congregation of Catholic women religious dedicated to foreign mission, for 100 years.
These brave pioneering women have dedicated their lives to their congregation’s work in education, health care ministry and in the cause of social justice in countries in all corners of the world.
“I think God sent me there to learn what it means to be human,” Sister Theresa said. “There was a point when all the NGO’s (nongovernmental organizations) had left and some of the sisters left. But we wanted to stay. The bishop said we’d better consult our community because the bombing was accelerating and troops from the north were coming into the area.
“We had bushmail (a form of email that works via high frequency radio in remote regions of Africa), so we wrote and explained that we’d really like to stay. We were with people we knew and loved and we felt that it was mutual. They sent us back a beautiful note that gave us wings. ‘We support you 100 percent. Whatever decision you make our love and support are with you.’ We showed it to our bishop and he said, ‘Hallelujah, that’s the kind of community I want. You are missioners!’ ”
Sister Mary Joseph Rogers, M.M., the foundress of the Maryknoll Sisters, would have undoubtedly been proud. Molly Rogers, a spunky Boston kid, was a student in her junior year at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., in 1906, when she witnessed a ceremony in which a group of Protestant girls who were graduating that June were being sent off to China for eight years as missionaries. Curious and a little jealous, she went straight to her parish church and prayed before the Blessed Sacrament that she would dedicate her life to mission, however that would happen. At the time there were no avenues for Catholic American women to go into mission work.
Shortly thereafter she met Father James Anthony Walsh, the future co-founder of the Maryknoll Fathers. She soon went to work with him and when he established the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America in 1911, she helped on the group’s official magazine, then called The Field Afar. Molly and a group of other young women soon found themselves helping to lay out and distribute the magazine but also doing a variety of domestic duties at the new Maryknoll headquarters in Hawthorne. The Maryknoll Sisters Center is now in Ossining. Molly Rogers never complained about the duty but she never envisioned the sisters being solely cooks and bottle washers. A year later, in early 1912, the group of young women who were to become the Maryknoll Sisters were given approval to organize by the Vatican Congregation for Religious.
“She was very capable, intelligent, generous, just what you would look for in a young Catholic woman of quality,” said Sister Claudette LaVerdiere, M.M., author of an award-winning book, “On the Threshold of the Future: The Life and Spirituality of Mother Mary Joseph Rogers.” Sister Claudette entered Maryknoll in 1956. Her story was fairly typical of the young women who entered at that time. A visiting Maryknoll Father captured her interest while a student in eighth grade, giving her a subscription to Maryknoll magazine.
“I’d always wanted to be a Sister but I didn’t know what kind,” she said. “But when I heard about missions, that did it, I went home to tell my parents and they said, ‘Well, she’ll forget about that.’ Four years later they drove me up here.” Sister Claudette went on to serve 23 years in East Africa.
From the beginning the Maryknoll Sisters were a quintessentially American congregation of religious women.
“They were certainly reflective of the American culture,” said Sister Claudette of the early missioners. “Democratic to begin with, go-getters, don’t stop if it looks hard, find another way, and if you fail just pick yourself up and keep going.”
The first group of Maryknoll women set sail for China in 1923. Once there they immersed themselves in rural Chinese life and soon found that being women, they had a certain advantage over men. They were more readily accepted into domestic contact with the villagers, especially with the women and children in the home. It has been a characteristic of Maryknoll ministry ever since, as their mission territory has spread to embrace the globe.
The Maryknoll Sisters often found themselves on the frontlines of history as well. During World War II, Maryknoll sisters serving in Southeast Asia were interred by the Japanese. When the Communists took control of China in 1949, Maryknoll Sisters, along with Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, were rounded up and imprisoned as spies.
Some have died for their faith.
On the night of Dec. 2, 1980, Salvadoran soldiers barged onto a small bus carrying four American churchwomen from the airport. They took Sister Maura Clarke, M.M., and Sister Ita Ford, M.M., both Maryknollers; Sister Dorothy Kazel, an Ursuline nun; and Jean Donovan, a lay worker, to a secluded area where they raped and murdered them.
Sister Maureen Hanahoe, M.M., has done much of her service in prison ministry, in Chile, now in Peru, and in the United States. She came face to face with a personification of that tragic history one day at a prison in the United States.
“It was a man who used to come in to see me about some kind of legal problems. He was in there for beating up his wife when he was drunk or something like that,” she recalled. “But on this day he came in, it could have been 2005, 2006, it was the anniversary of the death of Archbishop (Oscar) Romero” who was assassinated on March 24, 1980, while saying Mass in San Salvador. “We’d had a big ceremony in the chapel and he came in afterward to see me and there was something very different about his face. He told me he was part of the Special Forces in El Salvador. Now our sisters were killed by Special Forces. Then he asked if I ever heard of El Mozote (site of a massacre in El Salvador’s Morazan department, Dec. 11, 1981), in which soldiers trained by the United States military massacred at least 200 and perhaps as many as 1,000 civilians and children. And he said, ‘I was there.’ And all he could say was ‘the women, the children, the old people,’ and he sobbed for an hour.”
Sister Maureen admits the experience deeply unsettled her. But she couldn’t find it in her heart to condemn the man.
“I just see God as a God of unconditional love,” she said. “I guess I was in shock to meet this person who had been in Special Forces. But it made me realize we’re all human beings on journey toward wholeness. I thanked God that this man was beginning to feel more at peace within himself.”
Now 69, Sister Maureen plans to return to Peru in December and resume her prison ministry. Sister Theresa would dearly love to go back to South Sudan. “My heart is there,” she said. But she is now in her mid-70s, and her companion, Sister Madeline is in her 90s.
The face of Maryknoll ministry is changing. Today, there are about 500 Maryknoll Sisters with about 180 actively engaged overseas, currently serving in 27 countries. Sister Janice McLaughlin, M.M., is the president. No longer a predominantly American enterprise, the younger Maryknoll Sisters are more likely to be from what used to be mission countries. Two new Sisters will be going out into the field shortly, Sister Ann Mutinda, M.M., of Kenya, and Sister Immaculata Tegete, M.M., of Tanzania. Another new sister who entered this year, Sister Susan Wanzagi, M.M., is also from Tanzania.
But Sister Rebecca Macugay, M.M., vice president of Maryknoll’s congregational leadership team, says that is just part of the evolution of things.
“I think our diversity at the moment really reflects the faithfulness we have that we’re creating a global community,” she said.
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