The Maryknoll Sisters, formally known as the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic, is the first United States-based Catholic congregation of women religious founded in the early 20th century dedicated to foreign missionary work.
A missionaries’ dream …
The story of the Maryknoll Sisters started when its foundress, Mother Mary Joseph (affectionately known to her family and friends as “Mollie”), was born to a middle class Boston Irish Catholic family in 1882. Ever since she was young, Mollie’s little heart was open to people of all nations. Before the congregation was formally approved by Rome, she and several of her friends were already helping Father James Anthony Walsh (the then director of the Boston Office of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, and also a co-founder of Maryknoll Fathers) with the publication of a magazine called The Field Afar, which recorded and reported on stories of missionaries’ work by Catholic missionaries. Mollie and her friends helped with translating letters from missionaries from all over the world and with various other editorial tasks. As Mollie and her friends worked on The Field Afar in an atmosphere steeped in the Church’s missionary work, they began to dream about someday being missionaries themselves. The Field Afar subsequently took its name as what is known today as The Maryknoll Magazine, which in the course of decades, has provided inspiration for the many generations of Maryknoll Fathers and Maryknoll Sisters joining the congregation.
The Maryknoll Sisters – a congregation
In 1920, Mollie and her group was approved canonically as a diocesan religious community and became known as “the Foreign Mission Sisters of St. Dominic”. “St. Dominic” has been included in its name to recognise the Dominican formation that they have received from Dominican sisters. This name was officially changed to “Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic” in 1954 when they received approval from Rome to become a pontifical religious congregation. This congregation is the first United States-based congregation of women religious women dedicated to foreign missionary work.
With a status recognised by the Church, the Maryknoll Sisters first began their missionary work by working amongst Japanese immigrants in the United States. In 1921, it was a dream come true when six Sisters set sail for China on 12 September 1921. This would just be the first of the many generations of Maryknoll Sisters setting foot in China and started a life-long love for China and her people.
The Hong Kong story – Maryknoll Convent School
Seeing the lack of education in Hong Kong in the 1920s, the Sisters started a kindergarten with 12 students in 1925 at the Sisters’ premises in Tsim Sha Tsui. Space was so scarce that Sister Mary Paul had to use the Sisters’ common room as the classroom and the garden as playground and auditorium. The population of the School grew very quickly. Before long, the Sisters saw the need of the School having premises of its own. In 1930, with the help of key persons from the Hong Kong Diocese and St Teresa’s Church, the Sisters acquired the ground of where Maryknoll Convent School stands today. Construction started shortly thereafter and the School building formally opened and received students on its current site in September 1937.
Mother Mary Joseph – her legacy
Mother Mary Joseph visited Hong Kong and the School in 1940. Amongst the many legacies that Mother Mary Joseph has left with the Sisters and the many generations of Maryknollers, Sr Claudette LaVerdiere M.M. commented in her book On the Threshold of the Future – The Life and Spirituality of Mother Mary Joseph Rogers (the Book) that:
“One of the Mother Mary Joseph’s most outstanding gifts during her many years of leadership was the profoundly spiritual yet deeply human formation for mission that she gave the Maryknoll Sisters. She often described what she called the Maryknoll Spirit as naturalness of manner, frankness and openness. For her Sisters she put forth this ideal:
“I would have her distinguished by:
Christ-like charity, limpid simplicity of soul,
heroic generosity, selflessness, unfailing loyalty,
prudent zeal, gracious courtesy, an adaptable disposition,
solid piety and the saving grace of a kindly humor.””
Sr Claudette indicated in the Book that for the formation of her Sisters, Mother Mary Joseph gave three conferences that began with the famous quote from James Russsell Lowell’s poem “Yussouf”:
“As one lamp lights another, nor grow less, so nobleness enkindleth nobleness”
Mother Mary Joseph reminded the Sisters that no matter how many other lamps they lit, their own lamp would not diminish. Instead it would grow into a glorious blaze.”
On “nobility”, Sr Claudette explained in the Book that:
“Mother Mary Joseph insisted that Maryknoll Sisters “ought to be in the very highest sense of the word, God’s noble women. … True nobility … is not an accident of birth. … We are all children of God by our baptism.” She insisted that while baptism made them “heirs of heaven”, their vows focused their love on Christ. “Truly,” she concluded, they “can claim a noble heritage,” but not for themselves alone. God looks to us to be light to others.”
All through the decades…
Ever since its early days, Maryknoll Convent School has been instrumental in nurturing thousands of young women in their academic and spiritual lives.
“To home, to country, to the world…” with these words the Maryknoll Sisters have gone on to motivate many of those whose lives they have touched. Over the years, generations of alumni, teaching staff and parents of the students have embraced the Maryknoll spirit to make invaluable contributions to the School. Not only has the School produced outstanding academic achievements but it has also maintained the ability to keep pace with the ever-changing demands of our time. These achievements have only been made possible through this co-operative and cohesive partnership. Together with invaluable contributions of alumnae, professional teaching staff and supportive parents, the School has stood the test of time and gone through from strength to strength.