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East Meets West in the Spirit of St. Francis

Missionary Order Remains Distinctively Asian

BY Anna Abbott

Oct. 6-19, 2013 Issue | Posted 10/4/13 at 10:19 AM

 

BEAVERTON, Ore. — The Our Lady of Peace retreat house is a quiet oasis tucked into a busy street corner in Beaverton, Ore. It belongs to the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Sorrows, originally founded in China’s Hunan province in 1939 by Franciscan Bishop Rafael Palazzi.

During the Sino-Japanese War, the order fled to the United States for safety, during communism’s rise. Today, there are 45 women in the order in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the United States and Canada. The order is still distinctively Asian.

The universality of Catholicism is summarized by the traditional Western depictions of the Pietà and Ecce Homo displayed beside traditional Chinese art at the Beaverton retreat house.

In describing her order’s distinctively Asian perspective, Franciscan Sister Anne-Marie Warren, the superior general, said, "We began in the missions, for the missions. Not many Chinese orders come to the United States. Our people and history make it distinctly Asian. We celebrate Chinese New Year. We pray daily for China and the conversion of souls. The new Code of Canon Law encourages orders to study their history and founders. Bishop Rafael’s last words were of love to China. We’d love to expand to Australia and the Philippines."

 

Refugee Status

Sister Anne-Marie considers the Beaverton house their motherhouse in exile. As she explained, "We see ourselves in refugee status because our motherhouse is in Hunan."

The sisters have a house in New Taipei City, Taiwan, where they run a hostel for female students at the Jesuit-run Fu Jen Catholic University.

Currently, the Hong Kong branch is experiencing transition, following the Chinese takeover in 1997. "We’re doing okay in China," the superior general said. "We’re affected by changes in the education department. Religious education is allowed, but now it’s an elective. We’re being restricted. The government is getting into decision-making and personnel."

 

Meet the Sisters

Sister Anne-Marie entered the order in 1973 after a visit to the order’s retreat house in Soquel, Calif. As she recalled, "I had a light-bulb moment of: ‘If you think you have a vocation, why wait?’"

She summed up her reasons for joining the Franciscan Missionary Sisters with, "I like St. Francis because he liked animals and loved life, and so do I."

Sister Maureen Theresa entered the order in 1972. She also went to the order’s retreat house in Soquel and discerned her vocation there. In 1984, she was sent to British Hong Kong as a teacher. She was also an administrator there. She speaks Cantonese fluently, but said, "Learning Cantonese was difficult."

Besides teaching in Hong Kong, Sister Maureen Theresa led Filipino prayer groups and ministered to the Vietnamese boat people. "I made sure seminarians studied in English," she said. "There were three Vietnamese seminarians who are now priests in the United States."

She currently works at St. Paul’s parish in Richmond, Canada.

No matter where she is called, she said, "Christ is my spouse. He’ll take care of me, no matter what. He is my beloved. When I’ve been assigned different places, it’s where he wants me to be. The Lord goes with me; I’m not alone."

Sister Guadalupe Jumarang grew up in the Philippines. She learned about the order after meeting some sisters in Canada. Currently, she is in Richmond, also at St. Paul’s, teaching religious education to children on Sundays and visiting the sick at hospitals.

Sister Guadalupe recounted how an Irishman in palliative care told her he wanted to confess his sins. She directed him to a priest. "Before he died, he was very happy to connect with God," she recalled.

She feels that happiness is her gift. "I love to smile. They call me the ‘Smiling Nun.’ I always greet people with a smile."

Another sister, Sister Agnes Clare Navarra, entered the order six years ago on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. She grew up in the Philippines, but worked for 13 years in Canada, where she met the sisters. "My parents said, ‘Go get married,’ and I told them, ‘My man is Jesus,’" Sister Agnes Clare recalled.

She served at the order’s retreat house in Soquel for 10 months and enjoyed being there: "Nature touches me. The redwoods are very beautiful."

Sister Agnes Clare now helps the infirm and is in charge of the Franciscan Girls Club, which introduces young women to the order and helps them learn about their faith and care for others.

Sister Mary John Paul Floro joined the order in 2011; she also grew up in the Philippines. "My major task is studies," Sister Mary John Paul said. "I am learning about my vows, Franciscan history and spirituality, the rule and the constitution. There’s always something new."

She admires St. Francis’ love for Christ and the Gospel. As she said, "He gave up everything, even earthly sonship."

While she is a first-year canonical novice, "I’m engaged to Christ. It’s going to be a long engagement. May I persevere in holiness."

 

Blessed Cause and Mission

The order is currently championing the cause of Blessed Gabriele Allegra, a Franciscan who translated the Bible into Chinese. He counseled the sisters and gave retreats to them in Hunan and Hong Kong. Blessed Gabriele’s opposition to communism was so controversial that his beatification was delayed until last year. He is known as the "St. Jerome of China."

Sister Anne-Marie summed up her order’s mission as: "Evangelism in the spirit of St. Francis."

"Our main goal is evangelization and providing a place to learn about faith," she said. "We are one community — East and West tied together in spirituality and a desire to serve God."

Anna Abbott writes from

Napa Valley, California.