From the Pursuit of Converts to the Relief of Refugees: The Maryknoll Sisters in Twentieth-Century Hong Kong

By Chu, Cindy Yik-Yi | The Historian, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

From the Pursuit of Converts to the Relief of Refugees: The Maryknoll Sisters in Twentieth-Century Hong Kong


Chu, Cindy Yik-Yi, The Historian


IN 1921 the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic (formally known as the Foreign Mission Sisters of St. Dominic) arrived in Hong Kong, then a British colony. Originally intending to use the colony only as a staging post to China, the Sisters soon changed their plans and established a base that over the course of the next eight decades became an integral part of Hong Kong society. Through an examination of the Sisters' work in Hong Kong, this article explores the changing role of missionaries in the twentieth century, suggesting that where once the pursuit of "pagans" for baptism was the missionaries' sole objective, by the end of the century, the Sisters had developed elaborate educational, social, and welfare services and were concerned less with conversion than with general well-being. A second aspect of this article builds upon the revisionist approach presented in Tak-Wing Ngo's edited volume Hong Kong's History, which challenges the traditional belief that the colonial government ran smoothly and competently. (2) On the contrary, assuming many of the social responsibilities that the government was incapable of handling, communities such as that created by the Maryknollers became a "third force" in Hong Kong, helping to stabilize society by playing a mediator role between the "first force" of the government and the "second force" of the general population. Finally, this article, as the first historical analysis of the Maryknoll Sisters in Hong Kong, contributes to an understanding of the local Catholic Church's history--a subject that has not been thoroughly analyzed by scholars, but one that is worthy of investigation given the Church's multivalent interactions with the general public. (3) Relying on material kept at the Maryknoll Mission Archives in Maryknoll, New York as well as previously untapped sources--including information from the South China Region Records, the regional correspondence, and personal narratives of World War II--this article seeks both to elucidate the significant role played by the Maryknoll missionaries in Hong Kong and to demonstrate how this community of women both transformed and was transformed by the foreign culture in which they chose to serve. (4)

In 1908, the United States ceased to be the canonical mission territory of Rome. With this independence, the American Catholic Church considered extending its missionary activities to include overseas work, for while there had been individual examples of American priests and nuns serving abroad, there were no U.S. Catholic missionary groups devoted exclusively to this purpose. (5) This changed in 1911 with the founding of the Maryknoll Fathers, a U.S. missionary society for priests. It changed yet again a year later when Mother Mary Joseph Rogers founded the Maryknoll Sisters as the first American community of nuns in the United States dedicated to sending its missionaries to faraway lands. Mother Mary Joseph Rogers was born in a suburb of Boston in 1882 to a family of Irish descent; after obtaining a degree from Smith College, Northampton, she was inspired by her work as an assistant editor on what would become the Maryknoll missionary magazine, The Field Afar. (6) As young congregation, the Maryknoll Sisters' willingness to venture into new areas, to eradicate excessive formalities, and to reach out to society contributed to the organization's move toward a more practical vision of missionary work. Initially Americans, mainly of Irish and German descent, the Maryknoll Sisters grew to encompass Portuguese, Chinese, Canadian, and Filipino members, and were sent from New York all over the world. Obtaining their first degrees from colleges such as Maryknoll Teachers' College, after which some Sisters went on to receive master's and doctoral degrees, the Maryknollers who served in Hong Kong, as elsewhere, were professionals who worked as teachers, social workers, doctors, and medical personnel. As a community consisting solely of women, the Sisters had the freedom to move into the "open fields" of education and social service in Hong Kong, enabling them both to make use of their expertise and to realize their own potential. …

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