I visited China in October 2003: Hong Kong, mainland, Taiwan and Macau. I traveled with a Maryknoll sister who has lived many years in Hong Kong and a Chinese woman who was guide and translator. On the mainland I visited Xian, Shijiazhuan, Bejing, Shenyang, Jilin, Fushun and Shanghai, all highly populated areas. I met with sisters in all these cities to hear about their apostolic works and ways that the Sisters’ Fund might be of assistance.
The majority of the Sisters’ groups began to re-form their congregations after the Cultural Revolution in the late 1980’s when a few elderly sisters who had lived underground emerged and began inviting young women to join them. Some of the "re-formed" groups have grown significantly and are quite large. Because of restrictions, they cannot have contact with their former international institutes.
The sisters’ primary works include homes for elderly and lepers, small clinics and/or hospitals and kindergartens. A number are trained as "barefoot doctors", practical nurses and kindergarten teachers. They are usually allowed to serve only Catholics. A new work emerging is assistance to persons with HIV/AIDS. A number of the sisters are now engaged in a program connected to a university to teach them about the disease and how to care for patients and families. HIV/AIDS is gradually becoming a recognized problem in China and the sisters are on the cutting edge of meeting the challenges involved.
Along with trying to finance ministries, the sisters are struggling to find resources for their own basic and professional education and education in religious life. There is one intercongregational formation program for sisters in Xian, China. It is located next to a seminary so that the sisters can benefit from those resources.
The sisters’ congregations have little money because their works do not generate income. Some receive small stipends from their bishops and others earn some income by sewing vestments, selling paintings of their sisters and printing pamphlets for their dioceses, but it is not enough to accumulate capital for education and maintenance. I became especially aware of this when I visited their convents. Houses were old and drafty, often without heat even in this cold climate. The sisters wore heavy coats, scarves and boots inside to keep warm. Unfortunately, even the sisters whose convents had furnaces do not have funds to buy fuel.
The government is gradually returning the sisters’ properties that had been nationalized during the Cultural Revolution, but the buildings are usually dilapidated and in great need of renovation. Further, at the time of nationalization, the government had assigned most of these schools or convents to families for housing so, most of the buildings are still inhabited. Many of the people are now old and would have no one to care for them if the sisters asked them to move and families would be left homeless.
Most of these fledgling congregations have some elderly sisters that cannot live in such poor conditions. Because individual groups cannot afford to build special facilities for these sisters the women live together in intercongregational settings in accommodations suited to their physical and health needs. We visited one group of them living near Fushun where the sisters are being cared for by the Holy Family Sisters. On the other hand, in Jilin, the Sacred Heart Sisters who have a tradition of medical ministries had the facilities to care for their own sisters.
Sisters living in the cities appeared to be better off that those living in the rural areas where there is still little development of infrastructure and services. 95% of the population of China lives in the rural areas, so there are many challenges ahead for the sisters. It was encouraging to see their commitment and desire to serve their people.
From China, I flew to Taiwan to attend the Asia Meeting of Religious (AMOR). This group of sisters from Asia and the South Pacific meet every three years to share how religious life and ministries are developing in their respective countries. We spent two days in small groups visiting various areas of Taiwan to help us understand some of the challenges of the poor in this country. I chose to visit an area where indigenous peoples live and witnessed their religious and employment activities. We saw a project for children and adults with physical handicaps, cottage industries, schools and temples of popular goddesses. We also learned about the problems of immigration patterns between Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
At the assembly, each country representative reported about projects with children and women in need, the impact of government policies on the poor and how the church is responding to the needs. It was the first time that there was an indigenous representative from Myanmar. The Myanmar government had finally given permission for two sisters to attend the meeting.
Because most of the indigenous sisters from the various countries could not afford to travel to this meeting, the Sisters’ Fund awarded a grant to AMOR to help cover their expenses. It is the committee’s view that it is important for sisters from different countries to share information about projects and to hear about different ways issues can be addressed. Such sharing adds to their ability to develop creative ministries in their own areas.
From Taiwan I traveled to Macau where I met sisters involved in a variety of social services and education ministries. Here, as in other parts of China, the sisters specialize in ministry to those with physical and mental handicaps, disturbed youth and women and children, victims of domestic violence. I visited projects that teach women skills for income generation and those that address needs of immigrants, particularly women from China mainland. Being a border city/country whose major industry is gambling, Macau faces many challenges as peoples from around the world intermingle with each other in a small space.
I had my first experience of traveling a hydrofoil boat when I went from Macau to Hong Kong. I spent only a brief time in Hong Kong because it is a highly developed city, has many resources and doesn’t have the dramatic needs that other parts of China has.
The sisters of China face many challenges as the four parts develop relationships with one another. Each of the four parts, Hong Kong, mainland, Taiwan and Macau, is very different and yet they share much in common as well. They are all Chinese even though they have developed in different ways. The sisters on the mainland are in great need of education and funds to initiate apostolic works with women and children within the frameworks allowed by the bishops and the government. The sisters in the other three parts have more resources, but they are faced with expanding theirs works to address the growing issues of immigration from China, Vietnam and Philippines in particular and the dignity of women in the Chinese cultures. I found the visits enlightening, challenging and inspiring and look forward to working with these sisters.