‘They live among the people they serve, learning their languages, customs, cultures and food.’At the March 25 afternoon prayer service celebrating their founding 100 years ago, Maryknoll Sisters, dressed in native garb representing five major parts of the world where they have served — the United States, Asia, the Central Pacific, Latin America and Africa — brought up vials of water, pouring them into a crystal bowl before the altar at Immaculate Conception Church in Monrovia. 

Father Hung Tran, administrator of Immaculate Conception, welcomed the congregation, especially the 35 retired women religious who live nearby in what was once a T.B. sanatorium up against the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. He said they had proclaimed the “Good News” to the ends of the earth, making God’s love visible. And he noted that Maryknoll sisters were the first US-based Catholic congregation of women religious dedicated to foreign missions. 

“They live among the people they serve, learning their languages, customs, cultures and food,” he pointed out. “We are privileged to have the sisters to reside in our community and rest from their many years of labor…. Today we give thanks to God for your work and dedication, which has touched the hearts and lives of so many people throughout the world. You are God’s blessing to all. Happy anniversary.”

In her reflection, Sister Joanne Doi, 56, spoke of her own faith journey, starting as an elementary school student at Maryknoll’s St. Francis Xavier School and mission in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. But it was a 1980 summer immersion experience in Mexico right after college that revealed the path her life would take. There she met a partially blind, six-year-old boy named Magdaleno, who in his suffering, tenacious spirit and “earth-body wisdom” revealed Christ to her and God’s love for the most vulnerable.

It would lead to her vocation as a Maryknoll religious and, eventually, as a missionary with the Aymara peoples in the southern Andes of Peru. 

“The missioner is called to enter into the transformation process of first crossing geographic boundaries that would lead to crossing psychological, social and cultural borders as well,” said Sister Doi, who currently teaches at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley. 

“The missioner becomes a stranger in the wilderness, yet recognizes that the people and land are stamped with the very image of God and are mirrors which reflect the sacred, giving one a worldwide heart. And the stranger in the wilderness soon becomes friend.” 

Early L.A. ministry

A year after Father James Walsh founded the Maryknoll fathers and brothers in 1911, Mollie Rogers founded the Maryknoll sisters. The young graduate of Smith College in Massachusetts was struck by the fact that there were no opportunities for American Catholic women to serve in foreign lands. But at first the small group of women did stay close to home, providing support services to their male counterparts, including helping to produce Maryknoll’s “The Field Afar” magazine.

In 1920, a group of nuns came to Los Angeles and Seattle to serve the growing number of Japanese immigrants on the West Coast. In L.A., they started an elementary school plus a boarding school for orphans. A year later, they finally embarked on their first foreign mission in China. 

Before World War II, the sisters expanded across Asia; after, they launched new mission fields in Latin America, Africa and the Marshall and Caroline Islands in the Pacific. Working with the poor and marginalized, some became martyrs, including two of the churchwomen tortured and murdered by the El Salvadoran National Guard in December 1980: Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, along with Maryknoll lay missionary Jean Donovan and Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel. 

Today, some 500 religious women from 18 nations serve in 25 countries worldwide. They work as educators, nurses, doctors, counselors and social workers. They minister to victims of AIDS and human trafficking. And they advocate for women’s and children’s rights, environmental concerns and a variety of social justice causes.

In the spring of 1930, the New York-based missionary congregation was able to acquire the Monrovia Sanatorium, after searching for a healthcare facility to help stem the tuberculosis epidemic sweeping through the Japanese community in Southern California. Few hospitals would treat Asians back then, so Archbishop John Cantwell invited the Maryknoll Sisters to the Los Angeles Archdiocese to fill this critical medical void. 

With the anti-Asian hysteria on the West Coast after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the sisters continued to harbor and treat sick Japanese-American women in Monrovia, while some nuns voluntarily entered internment camps to minister to families they had served for years. 

The open-air cottages at the sanatorium were replaced with a modern hospital in the late ’50s. But by the next decade, with the development of new drugs to treat T.B., more and more patients were being cared for by their own doctors at home. After an attempt to sell the hospital fell through in 1972, and with the aging of its women religious, Maryknoll decided to convert the facility into a retirement home for its older sisters who could still take care of themselves. 

Today, 35 former missionaries live at the facility in the San Gabriel Valley, with many continuing to minister by volunteering their considerable talents. One of the residents is Sister Lucy Yu. “Very interesting” is how the 81-year-old nun describes how her vocation came about.  

From Buddhist to Christian

In fact, she was born into a devout Buddhist family in Korea, where she became a physician. Then in 1959, she came to the United States to specialize and become a gynecologist, with the goal of returning home to better treat women. It was in Milwaukee where she first met some Maryknoll Sisters and also learned about Catholicism at Marquette University. At the age of 24 she was baptized.

In 1965, she entered the novitiate in the Philippines because she didn’t want her family to know about her conversion. Her first assignment was in Kenya, where she was the only doctor and medical director of a 200-bed hospital for 20 years. She handled all the difficult cases the medical assistants couldn’t and performed the surgeries, some learning firsthand in the operating room from an assistant who read aloud the procedure from a medical text.

 By this time, her family knowing that she had given up Buddhism to become a Christian, disowned her. Her father, who died at 68, took it especially hard, never reconciling with his daughter. 

“I was very lonely,” she confides today.  

But on a lengthy home visit to Korea to take care of her ailing mother, she did get back in the good graces with the rest of her family. Next came an assignment to the missions in China for seven years, followed by working with the homeless in Korea. This is her third year living at the retirement center in Monrovia, where she volunteers every Thursday at the Catholic Worker’s soup kitchen on L.A.’s skid row, buttering bread, cutting up vegetables and dishing out meals. 

Looking back at 47 years as a Maryknoll sister, she observes, “I felt God has called me in a very special way. Can you believe I was from a Buddhist family to serve him and his people? So I feel very privileged. And with my family it was terrible. 

“But I describe my vocation to Maryknoll as like a multicolored mosaic shaped by God. Each piece was so different and God’s hands joined them together into a beautiful piece.” 

Brooklyn vocation

Sister Teresa Lilly, who has lived at the Monrovia retirement facility for four years, says her vocation was “a process.” It began at a parochial school in Brooklyn, where she was intrigued by the little Maryknoll magazine with the color pictures of missionaries working in far-off places like China and Africa. 

But then there was high school and nursing school, and she found herself working at St. Catherine’s Hospital, also in Brooklyn. Maryknoll seminarians and priests would come to the emergency room to learn how to suture, pull teeth and perform other basic medical procedures so they could start their own mission clinics. Later, as a charge nurse supervising a couple of Maryknoll sisters at the hospital, Teresa Lilly was impressed by their zeal and dedication.

“I don’t know, I always wanted to go overseas,” she says with a chuckle. 

So at 29 she entered the community. Her first overseas assignment was to Guatemala, where she opened a makeshift clinic in the mountains and worked with catechists doing pastoral ministry. Then after eight years, she started a “Basic Christian Community” in El Salvador, with a small group of indigenous people coming together to pray and share their life stories. “Which is a marvelous way to be church,” she points out.

And after five years, she was missioned back to Guatemala, but this time to Guatemala City working mostly with married women and their children. In between ministries, she did years of “service” work at Maryknoll’s motherhouse in Ossining, New York. 

Sister Lilly was in El Salvador “when the bad times began,” and in Guatemala City when the four churchwomen were killed.

“Well, we just couldn’t believe it, and there was nothing you could do,” she recalls about the government-backed murders. “But when you’re in a situation like that over years — and priests were being killed like mad — it’s not like you expect it, but it’s like in the realm of ‘it’s bound to happen.’ So you’re not too surprised. Still, it’s terrible and it’s horrible.”

In Monrovia, Sister Lilly continued to work with Spanish-speaking mothers, whose children were enrolled in parish religious education classes. Currently, she’s in charge of the mail and, as a nurse, dispensing medications.

When asked if it’s been a rewarding life, the Brooklyn native doesn’t hesitate a New York second.

“Yes, yes, very much,” she says. “I wouldn’t have been able to do the work I did if I wasn’t a Maryknoll sister because back then they didn’t have lay missionaries. That’s when there were lots of nuns. But it has been very, very rewarding. Yes, indeed, and many times it was fun.”  

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