Providence nuns consider returning to China
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (The Criterion) - Six Sisters of Providence walked out of their congregation’s Church of the Immaculate Conception at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods on Sept. 29, 1920, and entered cars that were to take them away from their motherhouse.
The long road from the church to the main gate of the property was lined by students, postulants, novices and professed sisters.
They were bidding farewell to the sisters who were the first American women religious missionaries to China.
It was the climax of a day that saw Bishop Joseph Chartrand present the sisters with missionary crosses that had been blessed by Pope Benedict XV.
“Take this crucifix,” the bishop told each sister. “May it be your companion in your apostolic labors and your consolation in life and at the hour of death. Amen.”
The sisters would labor intensely in their ministry in Kaifeng in northern China. And they would need consolation in abundance over the course of the next three decades as civil war and World War II engulfed the land and the people to which the sisters came to serve as missionaries.
They lived as prisoners in internment camps from 1942-45. And in 1948, the missionary sisters from Indiana, along with members of the Missionary Sisters of Providence - a new religious order comprised of Chinese women - fled to Taiwan when communist forces were nearing victory in China’s civil war.
The ministry of the Sisters of Providence and the new congregation they founded have grown over the nearly six decades they have been in Taiwan. A central sign of their fruitfulness is Providence University in Shalu, Taiwan, which today has an enrollment of approximately 20,000 students.
But the memory of mission ministry in mainland China has endured with the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods and now, nearly 60 years after they were forced to leave it, they are contemplating a return.
A small beginning bearing fruit
According to the sisters, a member of their congregation has lived in China for more than a decade.
However, the nature of her ministry and her identity is officially concealed because of the way the Chinese government oversees religious activities there.
“Religious congregations from foreign countries really cannot enter China as a group, as a congregation,” said Providence Sister Paula Damiano, a general officer of her congregation and a part of its leadership team.
“There are foreign men and women religious who are in China, who are not identified as religious women or men, who work in a variety of positions. Often, they’re teachers or start kindergartens - whatever their skills allow them to do.”
It was through her work that the Providence sister living in China met Anji Fan.
Born during the middle of China’s tumultuous Cultural Revolution to a family that had been Catholic for generations, ¬Fan and her relatives experienced religious persecution from her earliest years.
“We weren’t allowed to hang icons and we had to hide [our] prayer books under the mattress,” Fan said. “So we had to pray in secret. We really couldn’t tell our friends we were Catholic.”
When the Cultural Revolution subsided after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 and Deng Xiaoping eventually came to power, Fan eventually was able to worship openly in a church connected to the state-sponsored Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
Her mother and many other Chinese refused to register with the government, and are members of what is known as the “underground Church.”
In his recent letter to the Church in China, Pope Benedict XVI called all Chinese Catholics - both those who are part of the patriotic Church and those who are in the underground Church - to reconcile and grow in unity.
Fan later went to college and studied medicine. It was while she was working as a psychiatrist that she met and befriended the Providence sister living in China.
Fan eventually discerned that God was calling her to become a member of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
She made the long journey from her home in central China to western Indiana in 1996 and joined the order, making her final profession of vows as Providence Sister Anji Fan in 2006.
The signs of the times
Although she is open to whatever mission field God might call her, Sister Anji is encouraged by discussions in her congregation to send more sisters to China.
“It’s exciting because it’s where I came from, and it’s where my cultural roots are,” she said. “It was my original dream to be able to serve the people in China. For now, I’m trying to be open to see what God has planned for me in my life.”
In their deliberation about the nature of their mission to China, the Sisters of Providence have paid close attention to the signs of the times - developing trends in the country’s broader society.
For years, the Chinese government has enforced a policy that has allowed families to have only one child. ...
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