Intercom Feature Articles
A Global Presence of Benevolence: SCs in China, 1928-1950
By Josh Zeller, Communications intern
Chinese Sisters reunite at Seton High School in 1950.
In the Year of the Monkey, a Jan. 28, 2016 article in The Telegraph of London, England—where the biggest celebrations of the Chinese New Year are held, next to Asia—relates that babies born in 2016 will be characterized by quick-wittedness, and a liveliness of spirit. Such qualities may also be said to characterize those Sisters who served for years as missionaries in China, during an incredibly chaotic period of the country’s history.
Christianity in China coincided with the colonial period, which began around the year 1850; according to S. Judith Metz, the need for missionaries in the country intensified in the 1920s because of the complex state of the country’s politics at the time: “China was in a very tumultuous situation because there had been a revolution that overthrew the empire which had been in existence for thousands of years. A Republican government was set up, and then at the same time, China was deeply influenced by the Bolshevik Communist revolution. So you had the Nationalists and the Communists … fighting with each other, and then you had a third element, which was the warlords, who were very traditional, territorial leaders, or rulers. Every one of those elements had their own armies.” Therefore, the Church had an interest in sending over missionaries to help out in any way possible.
Upon arriving in China, the Sisters of Charity became responsible for St. Joseph Hospital in Wuchang.
Cincinnati itself was connected with China through the Franciscan Fathers, who had a mission set up in Wuchang, just off of the Yangtze River. At the time, the compound had a hospital that was very poorly run; it was in desperate need of the expertise that the Sisters of Charity, with their history of hospital administration and nursing, could offer. Called on by the Franciscans for help, over 200 Sisters volunteered; after a review of applications, six were sent in 1928.
“They got over there, and they took riverboats up the Yangtze to Wuchang, and took over this hospital,” S. Judith relates. “They began to build it up, and they had an old folks’ home there, they opened a school to train nurses, they took in patients, there was a home for elderly people who didn’t have any place else to go.”
Once the hospital had taken off, adding to what was becoming a bustling compound, news of the good things the Sisters were doing started to spread. Soon, Chinese women started to come to Wuchang, wishing to enter the Community. In the beginning, the process was complicated, as these women had to be sent back to the United States for their novitiate—the language barrier very apparent.
“I know one of the first ones that came, she spoke French. She had been educated [in China] in French by the Daughters of Charity…,” says S. Judith. “Most of them didn’t speak anything but Chinese, and so pretty soon, they decided that they should just open a novitiate in China.”
This was the beginning of the group of women religious often referred to as the Chinese Sisters; by the time the Sisters had to flee the Communist takeover, nine Chinese Sisters came over to the United States, in addition to eight postulants. Pressure to maintain the Wuchang hospital shifted to these Sisters in early 1942; the Japanese, who had been an aggressive, imperialist presence in China since their 1933 annexing of Manchuria, had begun to capture foreigners and place them in internment camps, and the American Sisters had to flee to Shanghai. Among the Sisters running the hospital were S. Mary Pauline Tsai and Rose Cheng; they, along with S. Josetta Marie Chu, are the three Chinese Sisters still living today. Conditions did not improve following the Second World War’s conclusion, and in 1948, the Nationalist government had to flee following the victory of the Communists, who soon replaced Japan as a major obstacle to the Sisters.
“…[W]hen it became apparent that the Communists were going to win this thing, the American government was saying to all the Americans that were over there—which were a lot of missionaries—get out of there,” S. Judith details. “The Mother here, Mother Mary Zoe, said, ‘I want all the Sisters out of there, the Chinese Sisters too,’ because nobody really knew what was going to happen.”
The last group of Sisters left China in early 1950; missionaries that remained were put into concentration camps by the Communist forces. Integration in America was, of course, a difficult process initially; the Chinese Sisters had to go through the citizenship process, and had to learn English. They came from a diverse array of economic backgrounds, so their education levels varied. The Sisters dispersed, then, into a variety of ministries, including teaching, nursing, and domestic work. S. Judith remembers S. Martha Seton Tsai, sister of S. Mary Pauline, working in the clothing room at Seton High School when she attended there.
S. Mary Pauline Tsai
S. Mary Pauline Tsai herself had chosen the field of nursing in 1955, after entering in 1949, when she had come back to the United States. A religious vocation had been her deepest wish, and her family was made up of generations of Catholics. Besides S. Martha Seton, her other sister, Marda, became a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration. S. Mary Pauline loves to create art through weaving and other mediums.
S. Josetta Marie Chu
Following her entry into religious life in 1960, S. Josetta Marie Chu began a career in nursing, eventually going into the field of psychiatric nursing. She is well-known for her artistic abilities. After studying at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., for years, she became certified in Ancient Chinese art, and became an art therapist. Of this career, S. Josetta Marie has said, “When you do art, you forget everything else. You concentrate on the beauty, on the creation. Everything you create is spiritual.” She also found success in her certification as an acupressurist. She had gotten to know its merits well, as it healed her arthritic knees, and improved her farsightedness. As well, she has an extensive family, whose 25 members live all over the world.
S. Rose Cheng
S. Rose Cheng entered religious life in 1946, and after she came to the United States to study in 1948, she had to remain there, as the Communist takeover occurred the next year. She began her ministry working in food service at various facilities, before going to Lima, Peru, in the mid-1960s, in order to minister to the Chinese community there. After returning to the United States, and completing a practical nurse program out West, she again left the country in 1974 for Vietnam, where she worked alongside S. Kateri Koverman. Before her retirement in the mid-1990s, she worked in China for a year, and afterwards spent some time in the Arts and Crafts department of the Congregation.
In the 1970s, Richard Nixon reopened diplomatic relations with China, and the Chinese Sisters were allowed to return home again to visit. By then, most of the Sisters’ parents had passed away. But they found great joy in the new hospital that had been close to completion prior to their departure from Wuchang. “They were always happy,” remembers S. Judith. “They would take pictures of it, and would always be happy to report that at least it was being used as a hospital. That was something that was good.”People the world over will celebrate the Year of the Monkey today, a celebration which has been observed annually at the Motherhouse. The festivities serve as a reminder of the years of service the Sisters of Charity devoted to China, and, in general, of the global presence of benevolence they have managed to establish throughout their history.