God's Work

Memories of a Long Life

By Sr. Damien Rooney

I went to China because we used to get The Far East magazine (the magazine of Columban missionaries published in Ireland). I was the eldest of six children: four girls and then two boys. We grew up between Roscommon and Castlerea in Ireland. I read about China in the magazine and decided this is where I would like to end up. I wrote to the Columban Sisters, and I was invited to meet the person in charge of vocations in Dublin when I was seventeen.

Sr. Damien with a mother and child at the Caritas Center in Fanling.
Sr. Damien with a mother and child at the Caritas Center
in Fanling.

I had a boyfriend, and would you believe it, he helped in my vocation. His name was PJ. My mother would ask me in the evening to get two cans of water from the pump. PJ would offer to come with me. He would say, "I'll go up with Molly, and I'll help to carry the cans of water." My mother didn't refuse.

One day PJ said to me, "Will you marry me?" I responded, "If you'd asked me last year maybe I would have, but this year there is somebody..." And he asked me, "Who is the fellow?" and I told him, "Jesus Christ." He replied, "Not another!" A previous girl in his life had entered the Presentation Sisters in Galway. She only died a few years ago.

The day I entered, October 1, 1940, PJ came to see me that morning to say goodbye. He was a true blue. He did get married to a very nice lady six years after I entered service. They had no family, and he died at 45 from kidney trouble. He was such a good fellow. He is certainly in heaven.

It was very hard leaving my father and my mother – very hard. The only thing about it is that God was in it. They told me, "If this is what you choose, we're all for it." We said goodbye, and we thought we would never meet again.

After I entered and did my postulancy, I was told to do nursing, which took three years, because I was going to China after I was professed. Mother Mary Patrick was our superior general.

We travelled to China on an aircraft carrier. It was after the Second World War and there was nothing else available. We left from England. It was hard going and took a month to get there. We went out to China, and we thought we would never see home again.

In 1946, I was missioned in Hanyang City. Bishop Edward Galvin, the co-founder of the Columban Fathers, was there (he was the first bishop of Hanyang) and Columban Fr. Dan Fitzgerald. Bishop Galvin was very gentle and very nice. He would come over to the Sisters' home just across the road to tell us whatever news there was. We liked him very much; he was a very good holy man.

Fr. Dan was always the perfect priest – always. He too was a very good man, and he loved Jesus Christ. He was the same his whole 100 years until the day God took him (August 9, 2016). He is above in heaven now. He was a priest to the day he died.

Our life in China was tough, in a way it was much tougher than now. But we had a vocation. I was working in a hospital the Columbans were setting up which dealt with maternity matters as well as general health. It was hard going, but you were doing it for a purpose – you were doing it for God with other Sisters who were of like mind.

Learning the Chinese language was a necessity; you had to know the language. It is a difficult language, but we did our best and learnt enough of it to carry on our daily life. Some of our Sisters are excellent at Chinese.

Bishop Galvin was a great man and was looked up to by the people as well as the missionaries. He was out there 40 years, and in the end he was expelled (by Chairman Mao). We all had to leave. The Communists had Bishop Galvin there (for interrogation) night, noon and morning.

After the expulsions from China we went to Hong Kong. I was based at the tuberculosis sanatorium for ten years looking after the patients, and then I came home for a holiday for a few weeks and I got to see my family; it was lovely.

I was in Hong Kong until 1989. Then I was sent to Birmingham in the United Kingdom, to help in the formation of our young Sisters. While there, I used to visit the men in Winston Green Prison every week, a ministry I loved. I am back in Ireland since about 2006. This is my mission now. I am 95 now; life now is so different. But when you look back on the whole thing, it is one continuous line. God was in the whole thing. I believe in religious life absolutely – it is God's work. I just loved it and the God who directs us.

[Editor's Note: Sr. Damien Rooney was the oldest Columban Sister in the world before her passing in December 2016. She shared some of her memories of life before she became a nun and meeting Bishop Edward Galvin in China.

Sr. Damien spent most of her missionary life in Asia, China and then Hong Kong. Over the years she held various positions of authority, including Matron of Ruttonjee Sanatorium and superior of the community. She had a wide circle of friends, especially Chinese, with whom she kept in touch while in Ireland.

Sr. Damien was a lifelong friend of 70 years to Columban Fr. Dan Fitzgerald. At Fr. Dan's funeral Mass, Columban Fr. Patrick Raleigh presented Sr. Damien with a Miraculous medal and chain that Fr. Dan had very much cherished. Sr. Damien prayed unceasingly for the missions until she passed away in December 2016.]

Sr. Damien with a mother and child at the Caritas Center in Fanling.Sr. Damien with Hakka people in Fanling.Sr. Damien visiting the boat people in Aberdeen on Hong Kong Island.

About us

Columban logoThe Columbans are a society of missionaries, including priests and lay people, who minister to people of various cultures as a way of witnessing to the universal love of God.

We go in the name of the Church to announce, by deed and word, the Good News of Jesus Christ.

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Missionary Society of St. Columban
P.O. Box 10
St, Columbans, NE 68056
Phone: 877-299-1920
Fax: 402-291-4984
email: mission@columban.org