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Sisters take stormy century in stride.

SAN DIEGO - The Maryknoll Sisters are not as old as the century, but Maryknoll Sister Mary Gemma Shea, the last founding member of the order, was that and a little more when she died last month at 98.

Margaret Shea's life had spoken to, and paralleled, the sisters' from that moment in 1912 when, as a 17-year-old, she volunteered her services to the new mission order being started by Mary Josephine Rogers of Boston. 1% would be the first U.S. community of women religious dedicated exclusively to the Catholic foreign missions.

The first few young women actually began work as secretaries to the new Maryknoll Society's priest-founders and that publication, The Field Afar.

Indeed, as the sisters became established, their first "mission" work was not overseas but in Seattle and Los Angeles, where in 1920 Shea and other sisters began a ministry to Japanese immigrants.

Her experience there would take the now-professed Sister Mary Gemma Shea to Dairen, Manchuria, in 1930, to Tokyo in 1938, and from a Japanese internment camp in 1943 as one of the hundreds of Americans repatriated on one of the ships involved in a massive Japanese-U.S. wartime prisoner exchange.

Shea continued her work with the Japanese, in Hawaii, again in Japan and back in Seattle. When she retired to Monrovia, Calif., in 1968, she continued to give Japanese women religious instruction and did home and hospital visiting until she was well into her 80s.

She died Jan. 8 at the Maryknoll Nursing Home at Ossining, N.Y.

Part of her legacy, of course, is the earlier work in this country, undertakings the Sisters now refer to as Mission USA.

In the past 71 years, Mission USA has included ground-breaking work by Maryknoll Sisters in the Chinatowns of New York, San Francisco, Chicago and elsewhere; opening the first integrated hospital in Kansas City, Mo., and a ministry to Hansen's Disease (leprosy) patients in Hawaii; and staffing schools and other pastoral work.

Today, 114 sisters are active full time in mainland U.S. ministry, 45 in the central Pacific, plus scores more busy part time.

Typical of the work and workers:

* Sister Euphrasia Nyaki, a teacher from Moshi, Tanzania, trained for ministry by working with African-Americans and Hispanics in Newburgh, N.Y., home of the Maryknoll Sisters orientation house.

* Sister Madeleine Sophie Karlon spent 60 years working with Chinese people in mainland China, Hong Kong and her native New York City and is still active with the Greater Chinatown Community Association in Manhattan, which she helped found.

* A psychiatric social worker, Maryknoll Sister Eileen Brady works at a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed children from socially and economically deprived backgrounds in a Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., children's village.

* In Baltimore, Maryknoll Sister Helen Scheel works part time as an adult basic-education teacher and part time with Alliance for Justice, a Third World advocacy organization funded by the Medical Mission Sisters.

* Chaplain Sister Agnes Mary Joy is director of chaplains for the Harris County, N.Y., hospital district.

* At the Hawaii Island Food Bank Maryknoll Sister Dolores Ritter is a VISTA volunteer. She previously was a public-health nurse in Micronesia.

Another aspect of the Maryknoll Sisters, possibly unique in a missionary order, is their renewal in establishing cloisters - small, enclosed communities of prayer and penance - as another form of witnessing.

The U.S. cloister was established at the sisters'center in Ossining in 1932. Current Maryknoll president Sister Claudette LaVerdiere (see accompanying story) said in an address, "The cloister was a response to the ongoing challenge that missionary life needed to be rooted in prayer, concrete acknowledgment that of ourselves we could do nothing and would be utterly dependent on God for everything."

Subsequent cloisters are not in the most tranquil areas: In 1983, the congregation received its first invitation to establish a contemplative presence in a foreign country - in El Quicbe, in troubled Guatemala; and in 1985, the sisters established a second cloister, in the now civil war-torn Torit diocese of southern Sudan.

The last surviving founder, Sister Gemma had witnessed the sweeping changes that had affected church and mission since Vatican II (1962-65). She welcomed many of the changes, though she herself continued to dress in an older-style Maryknoll habit.

In her 90s, when asked about this, she replied: "Whatever our sisters wear, they look beautiful to me."

Maryknoll Sisters

at a glance

Founded: 1912.

Numbers: 826 (1992), more than 500 out in mission.

Role: Largest women's mission-sending group in the United States.

Key dates: 1921. Six sisters leave for Hong Kong and China.

1941: War disrupts work in Asia; sisters interned in Philippines (one sister missing, presumed dead) and Japan. In the United States, Maryknoll Sisters voluntarily accompany Japanese. In this decade, missions open in Latin America, Africa and Marshall and Caroline Islands.

1945-50: Postwar rebuilding, but increased harassment in China, Manchuria and what is now North Korea. In North Korea, one sister abducted, presumed dead. Hospital opened in Pusan for Korean War refugees; Chinese flee mainland to Hong Kong, where sisters move into refugee services. Several sisters held in jails in China; all finally released by 1951.

1962-65: Vatican II, renewal, reduction in numbers all religious congregations; experimentation with changes in lifestyle and ministries.

1980: Two Maryknoll Sisters among four churchwomen slain in El Salvador.

1990 New constitutions approved by Vatican; 847 sisters from 21 nations and 17 associate sisters are serving in 30 countries.

|Head communist' heads sisters' board

NEW YORK - She eats popcorn by the bucketful, tells jokes, laughs. In her more serious moments, Sister Claudette Laverdiere is in her second year as president of the Maryknoll Sisters Central Governing Board.

This self-confessed clown, who taught in Africa (Tanzania and Kenya) for almost a quarter-century before being elected president, is a Waterville, Maine, native with a master's in theological studies from Chicago's Catholic Theological Union.

Her humor does not mean there have been no grim moments; every missioner knows those - as when her friend Josaphat Mulyingi was arrested in Kitui diocese, just west of Mombasa, Kenya.

LaVerdiere tells the story this way: It was 1982, time of an attempted coup, followed by an immediate crackdown. Mulyingi's apostolic and catechetical work was interrupted when a discontented diocesan team member turned in all the team member's names to Kenya's CID (equivalent to the CIA) as subversives. It was forbidden in Kenya to have books from China. One was delivered to Mulyingi's office just before the CID came to arrest him.

He was jailed; bail was refused.

Fortunately, Mulyingi turned the tables. In jail he organized small Christian communities and went about his work in such a way that officials decided he was more trouble inside than out.

He was soon hauled into court, fined $550 - way beyond his means. But the people of the diocese and the bishop collected it among themselves to free him.

After the incident, Laverdiere went on to teach New Testament studies at Tanzaga major seminary in Nairobi before being called to her present post.

LaVerdiere laces all her stories with humor. During tense moments, when the sisters in Kenya, along with all Christian activists, were most suspect, "we had to deal with many people who did not approve of our justice issues efforts," she said. She once received a letter addressed to the "Head Communist." She laughs about it now. As a teacher and president, she knows what it takes to make modern parables, like medicine, go down: humor, and popcorn.
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Title Annotation:Religious Orders - Maryknoll Sisters
Author:Jones, Arthur
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Feb 19, 1993
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