Burgeoning Religious Community Sees Global Impact

The Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres counts a number of its vocations from South Korea, which Pope Francis plans to visit in August.

Mother Superior Maria Goretti Lee (c) with some of the Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres
Mother Superior Maria Goretti Lee (c) with some of the Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres (photo: CNA/Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres)

VATICAN CITY — A missionary order founded in France is sending its burgeoning number of vocations from Asia, and especially South Korea, to evangelize countries throughout the world.

“Our congregation has about 4,200 sisters, and we are serving 37 countries. And we will expand to three countries more this year,” said Mother Maria Goretti Lee, superior of the Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres, March 18.

“We send missionaries out to all of Asia, Nepal, U.S.A., France, Peru, Brazil, Kazakhstan, Canada and Australia,” she said. “Most vocations come from Vietnam, then Korea, the Philippines and Thailand. The sisters from Korea number about 1,000.”

The mother superior describes their mission: “It is all summed up in ‘simplicity’ inspired by St. Paul, who became ‘all things to all’ (1 Corinthians 9:22) in connection to charity rooted in the Gospel. Our first mission consisted in working to improve the human and spiritual level of the villagers by educating the girls and visiting the poor and the sick.”

Mother Maria added, “We want to help the people around us, children, men and women, to improve their human and spiritual development. We achieve that by taking care of the sick and of education. We are not limited by any kind of boundaries. As all to all, we do everything that society and the Church needs.

The sisters in Korea began their work caring for orphans as their first mission. “They realized that the children did not know much of Catholic Tradition — Catholicism in Korea was very young — so they started planting the seed of the faith in the children’s minds, by teaching chants and catechism.”

“Today, we also have a lot of social-work centers, like centers for handicapped and migrants, and social-welfare centers — to help the poor to develop, as well as to let them live fully their human dignity.”


Founded in 1696

The order of the Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres was founded in Chartres in 1696 by Father Louis Chauvet and expanded quickly, first in France and then worldwide.

“The first missionaries arrived in Korea in 1888. Then we grew fast, so we had the division of two provinces in 1967, Seoul and Daegu, either overseeing about 500 sisters,” Mother Maria explained.

Only in recent years has the order seen a slight decline in numbers, which Mother Maria attributes to the general lack of formation for young people in society today.

“Young girls enter [the order] between 25 and 30 years of age. Unfortunately, they are sometimes not mature or formed enough. The education which they received from their family is lacking as well. Today, some young parents are not well-informed enough on how to raise their children. With all the media and entertainment, youth are easily distracted,” she said.

The order’s solution was to introduce one more year of formation for “aspirants” hoping to join. Now, “perpetual vows are usually taken after nine years of formation.”


Confucianism ‘Is Not a Religion’

Another safeguard against the modern-day lack of maturity, said Mother Maria, is the positive cultural heritage of “Confucianism, which helps in developing social conduct and respect for elders.”

Named for the fifth-century B.C. Chinese philosopher Confucius, the philosophical system focuses on the development of human virtues and an ethical life.

“But Confucianism is not a religion,” noted Mother Maria. “It does focus on attitude and social education, but it does not offer a religious meaning. I think that people hunger for religion.”

She went on to note that the Catholic population in Korea is growing, due in no small part to the exemplary witness of Christians, past and present.

“We have many martyrs in history and iconic people — like Cardinal Stephen Kim, who was very famous and exemplary, who passed away some years ago,” Mother Maria said. “Also, the priests and the sisters do good work, so the people come to the Church for help and advice.”

“In the last 30 years, especially after the visit of John Paul II to Korea, the number expanded by a lot,” she said. “Also, after his second visit for the Eucharistic Congress, the numbers grew again.”

Mother Maria and her sisters now eagerly await for Pope Francis’ visit to Korea, scheduled for Aug. 14-18. Pope Francis is expected with great anticipation, especially because of his style of leading by example.

“In our culture, people can recognize holiness and an exemplary life, and when they encounter a person like this, they want to follow him,” she said.


Faith and Perseverance

While in Korea, the Pope will beatify 124 Korean martyrs, individuals whom Mother Maria admires for their simple faith and perseverance.

“They did not know much about God; some of them did not even read the Bible. But after having encountered Jesus Christ, they kept the faith and endured persecutions.”

She hopes that the example of these martyrs and the work of the sisters will help the young people of Korea to grow in their faith.

“Today, the young people like everything to be very fast. But the Church asks for endurance. Young people sometime just want to participate in the events — but do not have a long-lasting faith,” said the Mother Maria. “We help the young people to endure: We teach them the faith, pray the Rosary and have Bible studies.”