A century and a half ago, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd took their mission of evangelization and service to what is now Myanmar, or Burma. This year, they’re celebrating their anniversary jubilee in the country.
“The journey of 150 years reminds us to honor the past, celebrating the present and to nurture a legacy of our mission for the future with hope,” Sister Elizabeth Joseph, R.G.S., told CNA Jan. 19.
On Jan. 16 the sisters held a jubilee thanksgiving Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Yangon. Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, the Archbishop of Yangon, said the Mass.
“It’s a joyful moment for our communities to be grateful to God and pay tribute to our founding members and missionaries who bravely dedicated their lives serving Christ through their service despite tough moments,” Sr. Elizabeth said.
The Good Shepherd sisters launched a year of spiritual preparation for the jubilee. Its members reflected on themes like “Rooted in God and in Reality,” “Remembering the Past with Gratitude,” “Embracing Challenges with Hope” and “Taking Risks Together for Mission.”
The preparations included spiritual retreats, reflections and monthly community sharing. Sr. Elizabeth said these helped deepen the sisters’ spirituality and strengthen their vision and mission “in the footsteps of our founding members.” The preparations produced “deep joy and gratitude.”
“We are committed to the Gospel values of justice, mercy, respect, human dignity and reconciliation for creating a better world,” Sr. Joseph emphasized.
Cardinal Bo, the first cardinal from Myanmar, used his homily at the jubilee Mass to praise the contributions and service of the Good Shepherd sisters in the country.
He noted the sisters’ ministry in serving the disadvantaged, marginalized and oppressed. He praised their role in the development of the country, and compared the sisters’ history to Myanmar's most prominent river, the Irrawaddy.
“It flows to give life to the whole of Myanmar,” the cardinal said.
“The Good Shepherd sisters carry a mission of reconciliation, searching for the lost, healing the wounded, sharing merciful love.... which will continue to flow,” Cardinal Bo continued.
At the conclusion of Mass, Sr. Regina Htoo, R.S.G., provincial superior for Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia, delivered a message of gratitude. She thanked God and everyone who accompanied the journey of the congregation. She summarized the words of the sisters’ foundress, St. Mary Euphrasia Pelletier: “gratitude is the memory of the heart.”
The Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd was founded by St. Mary Euphrasia Pelletier. Gregory XVI approved its establishment in 1835 in Angers, France.
The Good Shepherd Sisters answered a request for help from Bishop Paul Ambrose Bigandet, the first apostolic vicar of Lower Myanmar, arriving in 1866. The pioneering sisters experienced many trials in the underdeveloped region inhabited by myriad ethnic tribes. The people suffered poverty, ethnic civil wars, illiteracy, and corruption. On top of this, the country suffered natural disasters like drought and floods. Low-technology farming, poor communication, and poor transportation systems also posed barriers.
In the 1960s the country went through a nationalization drive accompanied by an ideology of Burmese socialism. The anti-Western trend included xenophobia that worked to suppress the missionaries and isolate the country. The trends had disastrous impacts on the country’s economy and worsened poverty.
Christian institutions were seen with suspicion and considered foreign. They were confiscated, and all nuns and missionaries were driven out of the country and the institutions fell into the hands of corrupt and unqualified staff. This led to the deterioration of education, health and social services in the country.
Meanwhile, a few Good Shepherd sisters returned in 1973 to re-establish the Good Shepherd missions. They engaged themselves in teaching catechism and the English language in seminaries.
From 1973 to the present, the Good Shepherd mission has grown remarkably in pastoral activities. The sisters are active in several dioceses and have established a strategic network with the local administration and NGOs. There are more than 50 sisters serving in over six communities in Myanmar.
The sisters now help provide education and vocational training for young women in social crisis. The sisters are active in healthcare. They run a boarding school for poor girls and day-care centers for HIV-positive children and the children of parents living with HIV or drug addiction.
The sisters also care for prostitutes, women at risk of human trafficking, and street children. They are active in prison ministry, social outreach and advocacy programs on human rights and dignity, gender equality, pro-life issues, ecology, justice and peace. They are active in interreligious dialogue, especially with Buddhists who constitute the majority religion in Myanmar.