Almost a Century of Faith

Fr. Rick Labrecque
June 20, 2013

Would the future be a good topic to bring up with a 91-year-old? Yes, if that person is Sr. Li Fen Fang of the Sisters of St. Mary of Hanyang, China. With a twinkle in her eye, she mentions that her elder brother is hale and hearty at 101, and regularly beats his 80-year-old son in their daily games of mahjong.

As we converse on this pleasant autumn day in 2011, seated in the simple, unheated combined community room and refectory of the Sisters’ convent behind St. Columban’s Cathedral, it quickly becomes apparent that her strength and health are not limited to the physical. This is a woman of strong will and even stronger faith. To have lived through the previous 91 turbulent years of Chinese history, and to have done so as a Catholic and on-again-off-again religious Sister, and still be today the vibrant, cheerful, prayerful woman I had the privilege of meeting, can be explained in no other way.

Li Fen Fang (the Chinese practice is to place the surname, in the case of this family “Li,” ahead of given names, and to address a person by the family name) was born in January of 1920, a time of great disruption and confusion in China. The Republic of China had been proclaimed in October 1911, and the Qing Dynasty had capitulated not long afterward, thus ending the thousands of years of Imperial China. But years of conflict, unrest, and “Who’s in charge?” were to follow. Born in the village Chang Dang Kou in the Province of Hubei, Li remembers that when she was a child people still sometimes dressed up in Imperial Era uniforms, and townsfolk would be afraid whenever soldiers appeared. There were factions within the republic, and she remembers an especially fearful time with the arrival of the left wing forces when she was seven years old.

Hundreds of years before, European Franciscans and other missionaries had evangelized this part of China. Through all the ups and downs of subsequent centuries, during much of the time there were no priests to pastor or celebrate the sacraments. Yet some villages in their entirety, and groups of families in others, maintained their faith. Elders passed down the prayers and catechism from one generation to the next. Interestingly, as a very young girl Li was uncertain of her family’s religion, and so was her mother. She says that she reasoned that they must be Christians, since during the Lunar New Year Festival they would light candles and not, like their non-Christian neighbors, burn incense or paper money, or “kowtow” in honoring their ancestors.

It actually turned out to be the case that she belonged to one of these traditional Catholic families.

A major development shortly after her birth was the arrival in nearby Hanyang of Father Edward Galvin and other Irish priests, initiating the Maynooth Mission to China there. Galvin had founded this missionary group specifically to go in mission to China, and they soon became known by the name which is still used today, the Missionary Society of St. Columban. Vocations were plentiful in Ireland, America and Australia, so despite the complications of the ever-changing political situation in China, Columban priests soon fanned out from the central city of Hanyang to towns and villages in the surrounding countryside.

And so they came to Chang Dang Kou when Li was a young child. This generated a great renewal of faith and practice in the community, along with rapid growth through conversions of individuals and entire families. Sisters of Loretto were recruited from America and schools established. Li’s uncle came to be a teacher in the seminary and her brother, Li Heng Ping, taught in the primary school established by the church.

Hanyang, and its sister cities of Hankou and Wuchow (today consolidated politically as the major city of Wuhan), are located at the confluence of the great Yangtze River and one of its major tributaries, the Han. In 1931 the Yangtze River basin experienced one of the worst floods in over 100 years. People in the cities and surroundings were completely washed out of their homes and lands and, as is typical of river flooding, the water just sat in place for weeks. The Columbans and Sisters opened their homes and churches in Hanyang to hundreds of refugees. Some young Christian lay women joined them in this ministry of shelter, feeding and health care, and came to live together as celibate lay women. Eventually they were given the name of Virgins of Mary. This form of lay community had a long history in China. The movement became permanent, and a group of five Virgins also went to live and work as catechists in Chang Dang Kou.

Young Li was deeply impressed by the work and teaching of Columban Fr. Timothy Leahy in her village. Although she didn’t know them well, she also found herself being attracted to the Virgins’ dedicated life of prayer, peace and service. She approached Father “Li,” as his Chinese parishioners called Fr. Leahy, and he encouraged and instructed her. In 1937, this culminated with her baptism at the age of 18 as “Bao La” (Paula).

That watershed personal event was followed soon afterwards by a traumatic national development— the 1938 invasion and occupation of China by the Empire of Japan. This development eventually made it impossible for the priest to visit the village. The Virgins were also brought back to the group’s main residence at the Church of Our Lady in the city of Hanyang. With them went some village girls who had recently been recruited.

In the midst of all this, Galvin, who had become a Bishop when the Vicariate Apostolic of Hanyang was erected in 1927, was actively pursuing his long-range goal of developing a religious community out of the group of lay virgins. On March 19, 1938 he petitioned Rome for just that and received the letter of approbation on June 3. Thus one day, towards the end of the year, to her surprise Li was handed a letter which had been mailed to her in her village from Hanyang. It was from the virgins who were now in formation to be Sisters. They wrote, “If you want to study to become a Sister, you should come to study as soon as you can, because now our bishop is recruiting people who want to become Sisters.” Excited, Li asked her parents, and they approved, seeing this also as a move which would give her more security during the occupation. Her mother’s one condition, as a faithful observer of Chinese tradition, was that her daughter stay with the family for the celebrations of the Chinese Lunar New Year Festival. That fulfilled, she left home and arrived in Hanyang by the fifteenth day of the New Year, the last day of the New Year celebration.

This began a period of sharing the life and work of the community as a candidate. There were postulants, novices and candidates at various levels of progress toward religious profession. Two American Loretto Sisters were in charge. On October 7, 1940, the first Sisters of Our Lady of Hanyang professed their vows, and the Congregation was born. Meanwhile, Paula Li was studying, praying and being trained as a midwife. The Sisters’ work was expanding rapidly. Here’s how she described it in our interview:

“We would go out into the city and villages, meet people, and tell them good things about God. We would visit poor people, assess their needs, and bring this information back so the missionaries could help them. We would care for the sick. Each day some of us would go out, carrying a little box with medicines, etc. Others would work in the clinic which had been set up in the Sisters’ compound. We would assist pregnant women and be midwives for their babies’ delivery. Some, who could pay a little, stayed in the clinic. Others were served in this way at home free of charge. After a day’s work, we would come home to pray.”

An interesting detail concerns their ministry to the dying, whom they frequently encountered. After providing whatever physical care they could to a seriously ill person, they would ask if he or she would like to be baptized. A “Yes” or nod of the head led to baptism. A “No” or shaking of the head did not. For those unable to respond due to unconsciousness, a yes was presumed! Vicariate reports list a remarkable annual count of deathbed conversions!

The Japanese occupation did not greatly interfere with the church nor the Sisters. Although they were hard on the people, in general, the Japanese respected religion. The Columbans were all from Ireland, the U.S.A. and Australia, with whom the Japanese were not initially at war. To remind the occupiers that they were foreigners, Columban Bishop Galvin had English-language signs posted on the cathedral and other church facilities. And, Irishman though he was, he took the extra precaution of having the British Union Jack flown over the cathedral!

Still, there was danger. Li recalled an incident which involved her. The Sisters’ compound was just outside the east wall of the city. One day she and a student were walking from there to the bishop’s office inside the walls. The gate was guarded by Japanese soldiers. As required to do, Li bowed to the soldiers. The student somehow did not. One soldier reacted angrily, pointing his bayonet so forcefully at her that it opened up her coat. She was frightened out of her wits. Li calmly told her to bow. This time he was satisfied and let them pass.

When they arrived at Bishop Galvin’s office and told him of the experience, he walked them to the same gate pass, took them each by the hand, and marched with them right back through the gate. He told them, “Now he sees you are with me. You will never be bothered again.” And they were not!

Paula Li was clothed as a novice in October 1943. That same year, as Chinese resistance to the Japanese occupation expanded, the Japanese began bombing. At the time, Li was caring for some pregnant women in the clinic. One of the superiors asked if she was afraid of the danger that they might be bombed. She replied, “No, but I do get butterflies in my stomach!” The superior said that was a sign that she was really afraid. As the bombing intensified, there were many deaths, including Bishop Xi and two Sisters in Hankou, just across the river. Concerned about the Sisters’ safety, Bishop Galvin moved many of them, particularly those still in formation, to an empty seminary building in Hanchuan, an isolated village about an hour outside the city.

While Paula Li was in that refuge, an important date arrived. On October 7, 1944, there was a special Mass. Because of the impossibility of Bishop Galvin safely traveling to Hanchuan from Hanyang, it was celebrated by Columban Father Patrick Maguire. Immediately following the homily, with great emotion and joy, Paula Li and five fellow-novices knelt and said life-changing words.

When her time came, in a clear voice, she said: “I, Sister Rosa, in the presence of Our Lady, the Bishop’s representative, these assembled priests, the Superior General and my Sisters, vow for one year poverty, chastity and obedience in the presence of God.” Eight years of patient preparation had come to fruition – Li Fen Fang was now Sr. Rosa, a Sister of Our Lady of Hanyang.

In 1945, the Japanese surrendered and the authority of the Republic was reestablished. The Sisters returned to normal life and work in Hanyang and were not molested. Some of the senior Sisters professed perpetual vows. The others, such as Sister Li, continued to renew their vows annually. However, there was growing instability, as the split grew between Chiang Kai- Shek’s Guomindang and Mao Zedong’s Communist faction. This ultimately resulted in civil war.

In 1949, Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China. Guomindang soldiers began to desert and wander aimlessly, posing a real threat to people in an increasingly lawless situation. Thus when the Communists arrived in the area, they were hailed as liberators and, as Sr. Li said, the people “opened their doors to them.” Things were calm for a while, but little-by-little the Communist authorities began encroaching on the church’s freedom. Missionaries were identified with foreign imperialism. Gradually all were either expelled or accused of treason and imprisoned.

Seeing the handwriting on the wall, Bishop Galvin became increasingly concerned for the well-being of the Sisters. If he were deported, the Sisters and their extensive ministries and institutions would have no means of support. So on February 18, 1951, he told the Mother General that he was releasing all temporarily professed Sisters (the majority) from their vows. For their own safety, they should return to their families. They must lead normal, civilian lives and were free to marry. For Sr. Rosa Li and her companions, this was devastating news received with heartfelt tears. Bishop Galvin was in fact deported on September 17, 1952.

The small number of perpetually professed Sisters continued the somewhat underground existence of the congregation. Most followed the Bishop’s order to return to their families for safety, yet most kept their vows despite pressure from the authorities to renounce the faith and much urging to marry. Three Sisters who had no families continued to live together as religious in a small area of the convent. At some point before 1955, they were evicted as the government had taken over the entire convent complex for a teacher training college. They then took refuge in a small area behind St. Columban’s Cathedral. Finally, in 1966 the Cathedral was closed during the Cultural Revolution. These Sisters then were forced to move back to their home villages even though they had no families there.

Sister Li, however, was just a little over six years professed in 1951, and like most of the other young Sisters, still in temporary vows. Thus she was one of those dispensed and told to return to her family and village. The emotion of that tragic development is still strongly expressed when she speaks of it more than 60 years later. She went to live with her older brother at his school for more than a year and initially got small part-time jobs in factories and hospitals. At one point, she worked in an umbrella factory which was set up in the former Wuchang Cathedral.

Her training and experience in nursing and midwifery led to a good job in a hospital where she worked from 1953 to 1963. She then took a similar position in another hospital, staying there till 1976, the year the horror of the ten-year Cultural Revolution ended. During these years, she lived in the women’s dormitories at the hospitals.

Even though dispensed from her vows, Sr. Li was determined to faithfully live the commitment which she still maintained in her heart. This posed tremendous challenges. One of the biggest was pressure from the government for her to marry. Others in her situation did do so, as they were free to do, yet it was not always a truly free choice. Sr. Li recalls one former companion who steadfastly refused the pressure. Finally, after the government had her beaten, she submitted.

Sr. Li was now 33 years old. To make her more marriageable, officials took ten years off her official birth record to make her 23! A young fellow-worker in the hospital, chosen by a matchmaker for her, did his best to win her affection. She steadfastly ignored him, and he finally gave up.

In 1955, the Communist government began a large-scale campaign to take down the Church, accusing it of being hostile to Communism. The foreign missionaries were already gone or in prison. Now it struck at Chinese bishops, priests, religious and laity who were considered to be leaders. After being denounced, they were imprisoned. Sadly, it was sometimes supposedly faithful and trustworthy church members who denounced them with trumped-up charges. Most were tortured to try and get them to confess to being counter-revolutionaries. Many were eventually executed in horrible ways, including the firing squad, hanging, being dragged to death, beaten to death, and even being buried alive. During this time Sr. Li’s brother Li Heng Ping was killed for his faith.

Sister Li, now 36, was not considered a leader, so she was not imprisoned. Instead, along with a number of other people, she was held in isolation many times over the course of that year for so called reeducation and selfcriticism. It was a very traumatic experience. They were guarded 24 hours a day to prevent anyone from committing suicide. Still, under the intense pressure, one person unsuccessfully attempted this by drinking poison. Sr. Li told them not to worry, for she would never consider such a surrender.

Every day she would be interrogated and pressured to admit her “errors.” She was expected each day to write down and sign a confession of at least one error. One tactic she used to outwit her interrogators was to carefully read the newspapers for clues to safe answers. For instance, she read in the paper that it had been determined that the Rosary was not counterrevolutionary. Thus, when told to say or write what she did when she prayed, she would respond, “I pray the Rosary.”

On one occasion, she was placed in the middle of a group of twelve people. They vigorously interrogated her about her “errors,” trying to get her to admit that she had collaborated with “foreign invaders.” She categorically denied this, saying that the foreigners with whom she had associated came to China to do good deeds. In response, she was told that she herself did many good deeds but that her mind was erroneously attached to Christianity. If she simply changed this, all would be well.

Her response was, “My family and I have believed in Christianity since I was a child, and I will never change.” “What a shame,” they told her, “that’s the only problem we have with you. Just be smart, and turn your back on this belief.” There was no danger that this strong woman of faith could ever be tricked or pressured into doing so! At the end of six months, with no incriminating evidence found, she was allowed to resume her normal life and work in the hospital. That didn’t mean her challenges were over. In 1956-57, the Chinese government implemented the first phase of family planning and birth control. The hospital maternity department began to perform abortions. Sr. Li’s immediate supervisor informed her that she would be expected to participate in these procedures. This led to a heated argument in which Sr. Li insisted that she could not and would not. It would violate her religious beliefs. She was in real hot water. She doesn’t know how, but word of this reached the hospital’s director of personnel. He instructed the supervisor that Sr. Li must not be forced to do this. Thereafter she was exempted and left to perform other duties. Her comment after all these years, “I would prefer to clean toilets than to go against my faith.”

In 1957 the government realized that it had failed to stamp out the church despite the persecution. It took another track and formed a quasi-national church that it would be able to control, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. Bishops, clergy and religious who submitted were again allowed to function. The primary problem with this, of course, was that it officially eliminated the authority of the Pope and the unity of Chinese Catholicism with the universal church. This presented clergy, religious and laity with a tremendous dilemma. Seeking to discern what would be best, some chose to join and keep the Church alive; others refused, forming what came to be called the “Underground Church.”

The Cultural Revolution attacked all institutions as counterrevolutionary. Churches were closed. Property was expropriated. Educated and professional people, including bishops, priests and nuns, were forcibly sent to do manual work in the countryside and undergo “reeducation.” Fortunately, her valuable nursing and midwifery skills being needed, Sr. Li was able during this period to continue working in the hospital without too much trouble. At one point the head of the hospital did try to get her to join the Communist Party. When she refused on religious grounds, he said, “Well, just go ahead and fill out the application.” She wouldn’t budge.

What support did Sr. Li have during this quarter century of being on her own and faithfully living the religious commitment she had made as a young woman? A sort of underground support group was maintained by many of the exiled former Sisters, who kept in contact with each other in various ways. When possible, they would meet with the three older Sisters who continued to live in community until 1966. Another refuge where they would sometimes be able to gather was in the apartment which was shared by two of the Sisters. During all this time they never gave up hope.

Sr. Li retired from the hospital in 1976, the same year that the horrors of the Cultural Revolution were ended by the government. The churches were allowed to reopen, the Chinese clergy and religious to return and function. Sr. Li went to live in a house that had been owned by her deceased eldest brother and survived on her pension. Later, she moved to Hankou, where she could rent inexpensive quarters in a building owned by the hospital.

With the advent again of more freedom of religion, in 1979 a few of the surviving Sisters reoccupied their former dwelling behind St. Columban’s Cathedral. Once again, after so many decades, the Sisters of Our Lady of Hanyang were living together their vocation.

Would the community, tried by so much persecution, ultimately survive? In 1991, they took the major step of accepting four young women as candidates. In the years since, more women have gradually joined. Tremendous challenges remain, but they are committed and sharing the hardship of a very poor, precarious community life together. During this time, Sr. Li continued her private life of religious commitment, practicing her faith, living her former vows, attending Mass with the Sisters when possible, and helping out with tasks like cleaning the church when she could.

On December 23, 2000, she went to St. Columban’s for Mass. Afterwards, the sacristan informed her that two Bishops wanted her to know that they felt she should not leave. This was certainly an unexpected message, but at the same time, she says, she was not really surprised.

Neither, at first, was she ready to accept it as a message from God. She knew that one of those Bishops, Bishop Tu of Hanyang itself, whose Cathedral was St. Columban’s, had sent two of his own blood sisters to live with the community and be cared for. Sr. Li did not approve of this. Accustomed by now to dealing with higher authorities whose manipulations were not always the most highly-motivated, she couldn’t help but wonder if he thought her nursing skills would benefit his own sisters! Nonetheless, she decided to stay for the next three days and then leave. She has never left since!

At the conclusion of our second conversation, I asked Sr. Li for any words or thoughts that she would like to share with anyone who might read her story. Here is what she said after prolonged thought and reflection:

“During my lifetime, there has been much hardship for us Christians. This was a real burden in my heart, as I sought to always be faithful. Today, there is much more freedom and less danger for Christians. I would like people in the future to be aware of the sacrifice and suffering of those who went before them. Cherish your freedom in faith, and continue to love and spread it. What I have done, I did for the Church. As Christian people, whether Sisters or lay Catholics, we are all responsible to share our faith. By our testimony, we can touch people. Even if we fall short, even if we don’t achieve all we really want to do, we should do as I did. I always tried to do the best I could at this, even if it was imperfect.”

Sr. Li continues to live a quietly active life with her much younger fellow Sisters of St. Mary. She shares in their prayer, community living, and even work. She is now the only living Sister from the original vocations received by Columban Bishop Edward Galvin.

At 91, we might think that she would not look forward to much of a future. Such questions don’t concern her. As she has for all these years, she lives cheerfully from day to day, leaving whatever the future may hold in the Lord’s hands.

And, let’s not forget her older brother, still going strong at 101!

Originally seen in Columban Mission Magazine-June/July 2013