Women religious in China, a re-founding

Sr. Betty Ann Maheu, left, visits with young sisters in their newly opened convent in South China in 1991.(Provided photo)

The Church of the Sacred Heart of Mary in Jiangmen, China, was full to overflowing. It was Aug. 22, 1991, the feast of the Queenship of Mary. Bishop Lei from the neighboring city of Zhaoqing (Shiu Hing) had come to celebrate the Solemn High Mass in Latin — the vernacular would only come later. Scores of people from the surrounding areas and from Macau and Hong Kong had come for the celebration.

The congregation became very quiet as the procession slowly made its way down the middle aisle of the church. Leading the procession were several older sisters, all somewhere in their 60s or 70s, members of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Kongmoon (now Jiangmen). Today, after 42 years of waiting, these sisters would make their final vows.

As we came to the offertory, my thoughts went back to my own profession day. The Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters, trained by the Maryknoll Sisters, were about to re-enact a long-abandoned profession ritual. As each sister approached the sanctuary, the bishop offered her a choice: a crown of thorns or a crown of roses. At that moment tears began to flow throughout the congregation. One of my companions, Maryknoll Sr. Carol Brielmaier, who had lived with these sisters before herself being expelled from China, put it this way, "They have all endured long sufferings for Christ, long years of imprisonment, harsh treatment from the Red Guards, near starvation and loneliness." They had long ago chosen the crown of thorns. Today, they were a living witness of their unflagging fidelity to the vows they had made in their youth. Wiping away the tears from my eyes, I knew I had seen the face of God in China.

What had occasioned that 42-year hiatus between the last profession of these sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary on August 15, 1949, and today?

Religious life for women, as we understand it in the West, is a newcomer in China's 5,000-year history. Even after young men in China responded to the call of the priesthood, years passed before young women would find their way to the convent door.

In Chinese society, women were not important; many baby girls were abandoned at birth because they were seen as a financial liability. Girls did not go to school. Wealthier families bound their daughters' feet, making them cripples for life, in the hope that their tiny feet would help make them good marriage prospects. Within the Chinese culture, it was inconceivable that a girl would not marry. Marriages were arranged at a very early age, and polygamy was rampant.

We can credit both Catholic and Protestant missionaries for improving the condition of women in China. They helped put an end to the 1,000-year-old custom of foot binding. Catholic missionaries forbade Catholic parents to arrange early marriages for their daughters; both Catholic and Protestant missionary groups founded orphanages to house little girls and opened schools for girls. This finally provided young women the opportunity to become consecrated religious.

We know that many young women were eager to dedicate their lives to God and to serve the church, but we know little about them. In the early 18th century, the Dominican Fathers devised some directives: they were to live solitary, virginal lives within their own homes (so were known as chuciati or "live at home"). They kept their own baptismal names, but they did not make vows; their lives centered around prayer and some manual labor.

Group photo of sisters, bishop and others who were at the Mass on Aug. 22, 1991. Pictured in the font row, extreme right is Sr. Ann Carol Brielmeier; (Provided photo)

Finally, toward the end of the 18th century, they began to take on a more active role within the church. They acted as catechists and cared for the sick, the aged, abandoned babies, and orphans; they took care of the sacristy, church linens and vestments.

By the 1930s, many Catholic parents in China had become accustomed to having foreign women religious missionaries in their midst and were beginning to accept the idea of religious life for their daughters. This change in mentality encouraged religious congregations from Europe, the United States and Canada working in China to recruit young Chinese women for their own congregations or to set up diocesan congregations patterned after European ones. Their recruitment efforts met with considerable success.

In the early 1930s, church authorities finally allowed young women to make religious vows. At first these vows were temporary, renewable for one year at a time. Women could not make perpetual vows until they were at least 25 years old. In China a young woman would already have been given in marriage by that age, so there was little danger that parents would force their daughter into marriage.

With these new developments, the Association of Virgins, operative for more than a century, came to an end. I visited a group of these now elderly women. Most were blind and being cared for in a home operated by the diocese. I came away from that visit thoughtful and confused: How could an institution that had served the church so selflessly, so long and so well come to such a sad end?

By the fall of 1937, the Japanese were making inroads into China. Then came the bombing of U.S. Pearl Harbor in 1945, when many foreign missionaries in China became considered enemy nationals. After the defeat of the Japanese forces in World War II, a Chinese civil war briefly resumed but ended with the communist victory in 1949.

The work of missionaries in the early 20th century had resulted in hundreds of baptisms yearly in China, with young men filling the seminaries and young women flocking to the convents. In 1948, there were some 7,000 Catholic sisters in China; of these, two-thirds were Chinese.

In 1950, Mao began a number of campaigns calculated to purge China of all foreign influences. He would tolerate neither the practice of religion nor foreign missionaries in the country. All religious activities were suspended, and church authorities handed over all church properties to the government. All foreign sisters were advised to leave the country. The bishops realized that drastic measures had to be taken to safeguard the women who had joined the religious communities they had founded.

By 1951, Maryknoll Bishop Paschang of Kongmoon ordered recruitment into the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary to stop. He sent aspirants, postulants and novices back to their native villages and told all the sisters under vows to take off their habits and return home. He gave each one a small amount of money to help them while they found some kind of employment. By 1954, all churches in the country were closed.

Five elderly virgins in Jiangmen with their two caretakers behind them* (Provided photo)

With Mao's death in 1976, China's new leader Deng Xiaoping opened China to the outside world. By 1987, the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters, along with other native sisters, most now elderly, were permitted to leave the prisons where they had been incarcerated, the hospitals where they had worked, and the restaurants where they had served as waitresses. They were free to return to what was left of their convents and resume their religious life.

When I returned to Hong Kong after teaching in China in 1990, I had a wonderful surprise awaiting me: an invitation to join the staff of the diocesan research center set up to study Christianity in China. Among my students in China, I had seen no manifestation of religion whatever, except once when one student whispered to me, "I believe in God." Nothing had prepared me, therefore, for the miracles of grace I would soon encounter as I began witnessing the re-founding of religious life in China.

*An earlier version of this photo caption misidentified the women.

[Betty Ann Maheu is a Maryknoll Sister with degrees in drama, theology, Italian and Chinese. She spent 18 years in Hawaii teaching and doing education administration before serving on the Maryknoll leadership team then with the International Union of Superiors General as a coordinating editor and translator for the UISG main publication (Bulletin). A frequent traveler to China, she has taught English there and for 15 years served at the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong.]