Now a spoken thanks

The Columban Sisters have been present in China since 1926

This appeared as an editorial by ‘JiM’ in the 22 November 2015 issue of Sunday Examiner, the English-language Catholic weekly of the Diocese of Hong Kong. The Columban Sisters were invited to go to Hong Kong in 1947 and left in December 2015.

Sixty-seven years make up a substantial portion of any one lifetime, even a significant period in the brief history of Hong Kong, but less than a blink of the eye in the time frame of the divine. However, it is not by the number of years that we measure the contribution to life and society of those who walk this earth, but the quality of commitment, breadth of imagination, ingenuity in work and, most especially, depth of love.

The Missionary Sisters of St Columban surpass in all four. Although never numerous, they brought creative, meticulous and high quality medical care to Hong Kong, injected great ingenuity into their schools, imagination into palliative care that the city had never dreamed of, walked among and welcomed sex workers and were creative in cancer counseling, as well as prison and hospital chaplaincy services.

But life was never only about science and technical expertize, it was always about love inspired by faith in the God who saves. Their ministries aimed for holistic development, physical and spiritual, and they were at the forefront of the foundation of the Catholic Nurses Guild, the Catholic Doctors Guild and the Legion of Mary. While life was hectic, there was time for everyone, staff and patients were welcomed as part of their Columban family. The Sisters’ particular interest in each individual in their medical, educational and social service endeavors is remembered fondly and cherished.

Sisters Aquinas and Gabriel confer with medical colleagues

An English nurse, who worked at Ruttonjee for 30 years, reminisced, ‘I enjoyed the work tremendously. It was so worthwhile and satisfying and I so enjoyed the nuns, all of who had a great sense of humor. The work was meticulous, the patients, most of whom were very ill, so ill in fact that I wondered how they managed to walk around and do their daily chores before being admitted. In the early days there was little money… medical equipment was scarce… loaned from ward to ward… Ruttonjee was a place of terrific cooperation… memories are of a very happy place.’

In his 2009 Gerald Choa Memorial Lecture, S. H. Lee reminisced on the era when his generation of doctors trained at Ruttonjee, saying, ‘The Hong Kong Tuberculosis Association had considerably been benefited by the dedication and devotion of the Catholic Sisters from St Columban Mission of Ireland in providing quality care and love to the patients.’ A talented surgeon, Choa had been a great supporter of the Sisters in his lifetime, providing his services and highly sought after medical advice free of charge.

But as the Sisters prepare to leave, they reflect, as they did when they left their birthplace of Ruttonjee Sanatorium in 1988, ‘We journey with Christ, sharing his mission even to the giving of life itself. Together with him we face insecurities, including the call to let go and move on, not always sure of the way…’

The missionary life can be judged on what is bequeathed. The work the Columban Sisters began continues and their successors have imbibed their spirit, the challenge of the moment is to say farewell. They have made their decision. Letting go of something as precious as the Hong Kong mission comes only with pain. But taking risks and living with uncertainty is their way and it is graciously blessed by God and the people of Hong Kong.

Those who know them must also say farewell to what in biblical terms may only be described as a group of valiant women.

‘Signing off’ after 50 years in Hong Kong

The website of the Missionary Sisters of St Columban features an interview with Sr Mary Fintan Ryan SSC, a nurse by profession, who arrived in Hong Kong from Ireland on 7 February 1963 after a three-month boat trip and who spent the next fifty years there.