Project Canterbury

Ten Decades of Praise
The Story of the Community of Saint Mary during Its First Century
by Sister Mary Hilary, CSM

Racine, WI: The DeKoven Foundation for Church Work, 1965. 226 pp.


HOSTILITY FAILED TO DISLODGE the Community from its western outpost in Davenport, but the combination of poverty, the Great Depression and finally World War II compelled the Sisters to withdraw from St. Katharine's in 1943, not without great sorrow. No work of the Community ever inspired greater affection, on the part of the Sisters, alumnae and staff. The Sisters liked to think that those forty years in Davenport had helped to nurture the Church in the area to vigor, breadth and zeal. This indeed had been suggested earlier in a letter to Peekskill by the Rt. Rev. Theodore N. Morrison:

If you knew the condition of Church life in Iowa in days gone by—the hostility to Catholic teaching and practices—and then could appreciate what the Sisters have done to bring about among the people a broader, more intelligent and more sympathetic attitude toward the Church's teaching and worship, you would feel, I am sure, as I do, that the work has been blessed of God and the results are not to be measured by statistics giving the number of girls enrolled or by the balance sheet of the treasurer.

The removal of the Community from a time-honored and beloved work is always a time of testing. The Community's continued existence depends at such times on the Sisters who give to obedience the priority it clearly requires. What such changes cost could be guessed by acquaintance with any of the Sisters withdrawn from the mission houses in New York and Chicago when those two works were relinquished. With loyalty, humility and costing obedience, they purchased peace and continuing life for their Community.

The strength and flexibility required for change from one work to another was also demanded in cases where a radical departure from former goals created an entirely new work within the framework of an older institution. A sweeping change came to the Sewanee community in the forties, when construction of the Dixie Highway and other roads made it possible for school buses to transport the children of the Cumberland Plateau to the schools which the Works Progress Administration had built during the Depression. A mission boarding school was no longer required. A college preparatory school for daughters of the faculty at the University of the South was needed, and the Vice Chancellor of the University persuaded the Sisters that such a program was feasible. St. Mary's-on-the-Mountain quickly won a following and within ten years had been fully accredited by the Southern Association for Secondary Schools and Colleges. By 1965 a splendid new dormitory crowned the bluff, beside a new building housing classrooms, library and laboratories. Expanded facilities made it possible for the Sisters to extend the important program of retreats for Associates and friends.

St. Mary's Hospital in New York adapted its services to the growing need for a children's convalescent hospital. A bequest from the estate of lumberman Henry S. K. Williams made possible the purchase of a six-acre site overlooking Belt Parkway and Little Neck Bay in Bayside, Long Island, where the Community erected a million-dollar hospital of one hundred beds. Subsequent gifts made possible an extensive department of rehabilitation medicine, opened in 1960. Physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy were thereby provided for children four to twelve suffering from neuromuscular disability, bone and joint malformation or disease, sequelae of trauma, burns and infections, including poliomyelitis and encephalitis, vegetative dysfunctions and bronchial asthma. Post-operative rehabilitation for lung and heart surgery cases was also provided. The new program was integrated with the Training School for Infant and Child Care, which gives its students basic skills in pediatric rehabilitation.

The last decades of the century saw a series of changes in the Community's oldest work, the House of Mercy. When in 1920 the property at 214th Street and Bolton Road in northern Manhattan was condemned to make a public park, the work was moved to a farm near Valhalla in eastern Westchester County. Here on a gently sloping hill was built St. Mary's-in-the-Field, with gardens, orchards and tree-lined lanes. At the same time the trustees transferred the trusteeship to the Sisters, and in 1924 the charter was amended to define the purpose as centering on the care of abandoned, delinquent or neglected children over twelve.

In its long span of development from the dreary days of Dickens to present-day methods, the work achieved notable success, but not without mismoves. One of these attracted much unfavorable notice. In 1920, after sixty-six years of accepting all races, the Sisters began to refuse admission to Negro girls. Superiors indicated that racial differences presented insurmountable difficulties when they were added to the multiple problems of treating disturbed and delinquent girls. In 1942 this policy gave rise to a storm of unfavorable publicity and sharp criticism by public welfare officers. The New York City Welfare Department threatened to withdraw its dependents from five Protestant institutions unless they complied with a non-segregation statute. Two secondary factors influenced the Sisters' decision to withstand this order: the city's action was taken precipitately, with more regard to its political uses than to the welfare of the children involved; and the threats sounded a trifle bombastic in view of the fact that city funds at that time provided only about half the cost of maintaining each child with minimum custodial care. Mother Mary Theodora denied that race prejudice was behind the policy, and the issue was debated throughout the summer, with welfare officials growing more coldly critical and the Mother increasingly adamant. On October 19, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, himself a loyal Churchman, pleaded with the Sisters to reconsider their decision, adding kindly, "Your Board and your staff occupy a position of dignity and distinction in the field of child care."

The story broke in the morning editions of October 30, with the New York Times and other papers naming the five offending institutions and pointing out that twenty-four Roman Catholic and five Jewish institutions had bowed to the non-segregation statute. The Community's legal representatives begged the Superior for permission to issue a statement in defense; she authorized a brief statement, but one hardly calculated to court public favor. In a letter to the Superior at St. Mary's-in-the-Field, the Mother insisted stoutly, "We shall just have to grin and bear it." Whatever the justice or wisdom of the Community's stand in 1942, it was widely misinterpreted and was later reversed.

A sweeping change took place quietly at St. Mary's Home in Chicago in the forties when institutional care gave way to foster home care. Studies by trained social welfare workers prompted the Sisters to sell the building on West Jackson Blvd. and buy property at 5741 North Kenmore suitable to the needs of a foster home and adoption agency. Between seventy and eighty children, from the newly born to teenagers, could be cared for in this way. Behind each child was a tragic story of illness, mental or physical; of destitution, drunkenness or drug-addiction; of cruelty, desertion or parental moral unfitness. Every effort is made to reunite parents and children, but when this is impossible, the child is placed in an adoptive home or a foster home. In some cases this is possible only after extensive medical and psychiatric treatment. The Sisters and a staff of trained case workers see that each child receives what he needs by way of home care, medical and dental care, school expenses and clothing. The generosity of friends enables the Sisters to meet an annual budget in excess of $90,000 and late in 1964 plans were made to erect a remedial treatment center for the emotionally disturbed.


World War II found three Sisters of Saint Mary interned in a Japanese prison camp in northern Luzon. For them, for the other members of the Mission staff at Sagada, and for the Igorot Christians, the War was an ultimate test of devotion and loyalty. The quiet heroism and true Christian community displayed during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, the patient endurance of the prisoners and the self-sacrificing generosity of the Christians from Sagada and Bontoc, were tribute enough, if tribute was needed, to the sound teaching of Father Staunton.

As early as 1916, the very vision and ingenuity which characterized Father Staunton's work in Luzon had made him impatient of officialdom and had earned the disfavor of the Board of Missions. Bishop Brent defended him that year before the Board, citing his extraordinary gifts:

He has been misunderstood, at times even by myself. It is only comparatively recently that I have given the man his full measure. The mission that he represents is not a station, it is a diocese. He is the chief spiritual influence in the entire country; he is the best-informed man, whether in government or in business ... his advice is sought by officials who represent the American government; he is on friendly terms with the Roman Church clergy who are laboring in that district. . . There were times when I thought I could teach Father Staunton better ways of doing his work than those he has learned from God Himself. I have ceased to interject my own theories into the life of a man who has proved by his work that he knows how to bring simple-minded people into close and intimate touch with God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

Bishop Brent's resignation was the beginning of dissension that broke Father Staunton. A new bishop did not take over until 1920, and in the two-year interval Bishop Graves of Shanghai was in charge. On his visitation to Sagada he appeared to be pleased with its progress, but shortly afterward he issued an encyclical to the clergy of the missionary district, condemning:

First, the practice of "Reservation of the Blessed Sacrament" (except for Communion of the Sick) and the burning of a light before it.

Second, the singing of the Ave Maria together with the burning of candles and offering of flowers before the image of the Virgin.

However well-intentioned these strictures were, their effect on the Mission staff and the people of Sagada was devastating. Father Staunton replied in an open letter which he sent to Bishops and others in authority, pointing out that Bishop Brent had permitted the devotions which Bishop Graves condemned, and that similar practices might be found in a hundred or more parishes in the United States.

The election of the Rt. Rev. Gouverneur Frank Mosher brought hope of help instead of condemnation from missionary district authorities. Father Staunton wrote enthusiastically that Bishop Mosher was working out a plan of using native catechists who, it was hoped, would provide native candidates for the ministry. Father Staunton added:

We are evidently, under Bishop Mosher's leadership, on the verge of great things to the glory of our Church and the blessing of these mountain people.

But criticism of Father Staunton continued, in the form of directives issued from New York. Father Staunton's health declined, and he suffered a sunstroke from which he never fully recovered. In his discouragement and anxiety, he and four other priests in the Mountain Province submitted resignations. It is doubtful that they anticipated acceptance, but Bishop Mosher replied immediately, accepting the resignations, and so Father Staunton's connection with the Mission ended. He asked the officials in New York for an opportunity to state his case, but his plea was met by silence. Heartbroken, he returned to the United States, made his submission to the Roman Catholic Church, and obtained a position at the University of Notre Dame, where his brother was a professor. After Mrs. Staunton's death he went to Rome to study for ordination and, though suffering from glaucoma, was ordained. Sadly, failing eyesight soon made it impossible for him to exercise his priesthood.

The Sisters and other Mission staff stayed on, though the personnel of the Sisters' house changed from time to time. In March, 1929, Sisters Felicitas and Brigit died of poisoning when a native girl accidentally used rat poison in baking. The Community withdrew temporarily from the work, but resumed it in the early thirties.

The deaths of the two Sisters, and the sufferings and dereliction of Father Staunton, who died thinking his work at Sagada a failure, as well as the labors and trials of all the Mission staff who persevered in spite of official disfavor, all were to bear fruit when the war brought the Islands under a Japanese military dictatorship. In December, 1940, two Filipino women were professed in a native order, the Sisters of Saint Mary the Virgin, which undertook the direction of an orphanage. On June 4, 1941, Eduardo Longid was ordained to the priesthood, and two days later Albert Masferre was ordained in Bontoc.

In the midst of the Fiesta of the Conception of Our Lady, December 8, 1941, came the news of Pearl Harbor, to which the reports added that Camp John Hay had been bombed. Not long after, invading Japanese troops brought in bundles of pesos they had printed in preparation for the invasion, and prices immediately sky-rocketed. The Igorots built huts and gardens high in the mountains, but it was soon apparent that much suffering lay ahead for them. When General Douglas MacArthur offered missionaries transportation to safety, the Mission staff at Sagada decided to remain. Then missionary personnel were commanded by the Japanese to appear in Bontoc no later than 5 p.m. on May 25, 1942, or the Rev. Clifford E. B. Nobes would be shot. At 4 a.m. on May 24, the Sagada staff offered Mass and prepared to leave, bidding sad good-byes to many friends congregated to see them off. Though they had no money to hire cargadores, more than 150 Filipinos volunteered to carry their provisions down the tortuous corkscrew trail, the first of many acts of loving kindness which Filipinos were to perform in the terrible days ahead. After a brief stay at Bontoc, on June 16 they were ordered to Camp Holmes near Baguio. They loaded their array of washbasins, pails, pitchers, suitcases, cots and canned goods onto four trucks, which hurtled them down the hairpin curves at break-neck speed, leaving them all covered with thick coats of dust. En route they glimpsed United States military personnel, a sight that haunted them in the three years of imprisonment—gaunt, hopeless-looking prisoners of war, one of whom when he attempted to call to them, was slapped violently by a guard.

They were warmly welcomed to Camp Holmes, despite already crowded facilities. In all, six hundred internees shared the Camp's two dormitories, one for men and one for women, and the mess hall, where at first the Sisters were given a corner for sleeping. Many of the internees were missionaries representing various Christian groups, while some were mining-company executives and miners. The specialists all gave their services free for the benefit of the entire Camp—priests, doctors, dentists, nurses, electrical engineers, plumbers, carpenters and cooks. Three little tin huts, each one sixteen feet square, became "nunnery row," with the Sisters of Saint Mary sharing one hut with two lady missionaries; three Sisters of Saint Anne in another; and seven Roman Catholic Sisters of Maryknoll in the third.

Despite the irritations and frustrations of camp life, there prevailed a cheerful ingenuity among the internees. When the Sisters' door kept blowing open in typhoon winds, it was bolted for them by the distinguished architect J. Van Wie Bergamini, who was to rebuild the destroyed churches in the Philippines after the war. When cow's milk was no longer available for the camp's babies, the doctors worked hard at developing coconut and soybean milk, while the camp's erstwhile farmers imported goats and started a small dairy. When misunderstandings arose between the internees and their jailers, Miss Nellie McKim, an alumna of Kemper Hall, acted as emissary to smooth out difficulties, using her fluent Japanese and her position of trust and influence which the soldiers freely accorded her. From June, 19-42, until the autumn of 1943, the camp was under Japanese civil authorities, in charge of a Mr. Tomebe who had studied at the University of California, and was humane and just. In that early period, time passed quickly, even happily. Sister Juliana taught fifth grade in the camp school, which enrolled about one hundred children. Sister Columba and Sister Mary Oliva worked on a kitchen crew headed by a Seventh Day Ad-ventist missionary, extracting worms, weevils, and rubbish from the daily rice ration for the camp. They were allowed to augment the camp diet with food from the camp store and with gifts from friends outside. Bishop Wilner, Father Longid and the Filipino Sisters sent them money as they were able. The prevailing spirit of good-humored cheerfulness despite boredom, lack of news from home and inadequate diet was a perpetual puzzle to the Japanese guards.

Toward the autumn of 1943, the camp was removed from civil control and placed under the military. The new commandant, Lieutenant Cura, was so heartily detested by his own soldiers that they vowed to kill him, and his fellow officers refused to eat with him. He decreed irrational regulations and, as the Allied forces pushed the Japanese harder, near-starvation rations. A double fence was erected, and two internees escaped. The effect of this was an edict forbidding food bags to be brought in, so that only peanuts and sugar were available in the camp store. The daily rice ration gave way to coarsely ground fodder corn, with resultant illness. The chickens and vegetables the internees were able to raise were saved for "children and specials"—two chickens mixed with rice serving about one hundred of those needing better food. The commandant ordered internees aged six to fifty to work in the garden, and many kept small gardens of their own. One of the Sisters proudly produced from her garden an ear of sweet corn and four string beans, which provided a good laugh if not much nutriment. It is a tribute to human fortitude that the internees never forgot how to laugh. They even laughed at a pompous little martinet named Yamato who strutted about at daily roll call as if he were at Buckingham Palace, followed on several occasions by a soldier's pet gander, waddling behind in striking similitude. Their growing shabbiness afforded some amusement, for the Sisters' shoes were half-soled with slices of automobile tire which fringed out white along the sides, giving them a dashing "white-walled" appearance.

There were other sources of strength as well. Every day they were privileged to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, even if the shortage of wheat bread made it impossible to receive Holy Communion often. On their respective patronal festivals, the Sisters would invite the celebrating group to a party, even if the treats consisted of cornmeal cakes, peanut butter and hot water for beverage, as they did at the Epiphany party of 1945. On one Feast of the Purification the Mary-knoll Sisters presented the Sisters of Saint Mary with a luxurious plate of candy made over their charcoal stove. On another candle-less Candlemas, the Sisters of Saint Anne produced a carefully hoarded can of salmon and one of sweet corn for a banquet which concluded with rice pudding surmounted with grape jelly. Mother Ursula, O.S.A., composed witty commemorative poems for these occasions, in one of which she outpunned everyone with an allusion to "our common fete."

But perhaps the Sisters were most deeply touched and strengthened by the devotion of the Christian communities at Bontoc and Sagada. The people sent them millet, camotes (sweet potatoes), rice, calcium tablets and coffee, when they themselves were often in want. Sister Teresa, C.S.M.V., sent them some liver early in March, the first such luxury they had had since Christmas. Father Longid, the Filipino Sisters, and many laymen reached out hands of love the Sisters would always recall with tears of gratitude. On one occasion, a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl, unable to gain admission to the compound, sent them money with this note:

Dear Sisters: This is the only thing I can do to help you because yesterday I tried to buy bananas and some tomatoes but I could not bring it to you. I bought with $2.10 bananas but sorey I can't bring it to you. Hope there will be a time for me again because that is the only money I have. I sent it to Mr. Claunch when we went to pitch water. I will try to bring you again when my brother will come to get me. Hope God will ever permit you to come out in the concentration camp. God bless you forever. Just me, Rosario Colus

On the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene during a typhoon, they recited the antiphon "Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it" as the rain poured in and splashed on their heads, drenching the Sisters and their breviaries.

Before his departure, Mr. Tomebe had arranged for Red Cross boxes to be delivered. Their arrival at Christmas in 1943 came at a time when everyone's spirits were sagging and many were in real want. Each box weighed over fifty pounds, containing cans of butter, cheese, powdered milk, chocolate, canned goods and toilet soap. There were new shoes and shirts. But when the Red Cross supplies ran out, malnutrition set in with a vengeance. The price of eggs soared to sixty cents apiece. One meal in September consisted of blood pudding from the blood of their last cow, and it became common to see people picking through the garbage for something edible. When Sister Augusta, O.S.A., told her class of little children the story of Br'er Rabbit, their only comment was, "Wouldn't they taste good?!"

The first sight of American planes, in December, 1944, filled the internees with joy, but there was worse imprisonment ahead. The Japanese ordered the evacuation of Camp Holmes. The Sisters were in one of the first departure groups, on December 28, and for the next few weeks they shared and witnessed some of the agony of "Bilibid."

The journey down to Manila was miserable, with thirty-six persons plus baggage packed into each truck and no food provided for thirty-three hours. The sight of Baguio cheered them, until the horrified expressions of the Filipinos told them what their own physical appearance must be.

The Japanese assured them that Manila had been declared an open city and that they would be given comfortable quarters there. Neither statement was true. The quarters turned out to be the old Bilibid prison, abandoned by the Japanese for a new prison. The old one was a scarred hulk of a dungeon without windows or plumbing, both of which had been removed to the new building. The mattresses they were given were so filthy and infested that they preferred to sleep on the cement floors. For more than a month the food ration was barely enough to sustain life—bean curd residue, a cup of corn meal mush with weevils much in evidence, and camote greens decayed to slime. The water was unfit for drinking, and there was no firewood to boil it.

As the Sisters knelt on a narrow parapet overlooking the courtyard, they could see below fifty rude graves where lay American service men who had died of Japanese neglect and torture. One Sister was seriously ill, and in their weakness it seemed to them they would soon lie in that courtyard cemetery. Again their lives were saved by the selfless concern of many, including a Japanese guard who smuggled in food at the risk of his own life. The gallant Father Nobes, who arrived in a later departure group from Camp Holmes, brought them money he obtained by shrewdly selling their beds to Japanese soldiers. With this money they bought six coconuts and ten ounces of peanuts, the only food available.

The Sisters noted that their mental processes declined as their physical condition worsened, and that they were unable to remember simple facts they had known all their lives. They found that drinking a little boiled water in the middle of the day lessened the pains of starvation, and at the end of the day, if their rations had been hopelessly inadequate, Sister Columba would decide whether they should each have a tiny bit of chocolate from the piece they had hoarded.

Their spirits continued to be sustained by the offering of the Holy Sacrifice. In the courtyard was a path with five caged cells on either side, said to have been torture cells. The wall of one was inscribed in pencil:

We, the undersigned, broken in body and spirit from starvation and torture, expect those who come after us to work our vengeance on our enemies.

Below were the signatures of eight Americans. The Sisters complied in their own way—every morning they knelt in one of the cells and offered up Our Lord's redemptive life and death in union with the sufferings of the men who had formerly lived there, on behalf of the entire sinful world.

It soon became evident that Manila was by no means an open city. They were kept sleepless night after night by the shelling and the blasts of Japanese demolition. On February 2 before midnight they heard rapid gunfire from the direction of the waterfront and saw seven United States planes circling. The next morning they heard Mass over the din of gunfire, and sang the Te Deum. Mr. Eschbach called them together that morning and announced that they were released. They saluted an American flag one of the internees had made, and sang "God Bless America" and "The Star-Spangled Banner." Sister Columba noted all this in her diary with the laconic comment, "I never felt more patriotic in my life."

On February 5 the old prison was threatened by the encroaching fire destroying the city. The internees, with eight hundred military prisoners, all veterans of Corregidor and Bataan who had been starved to skeletons, were moved to an abandoned shoe factory three miles outside the city. Here they were received by American military personnel, who were taking over bit by bit. They were treated with great kindness, and the Sisters, suffering from the lassitude of starvation, remembered most gratefully a Roman Catholic chaplain who brought them fresh water and a can of vienna sausages. They saw also the prisoners from Santo Tomas prison in Manila, including a woman missionary who had been en route to Peekskill to enter the Novitiate when she was arrested and interned. When they returned to Bilibid they found it had been looted by gangs of Filipino thieves. Their few pitiful possessions had been stolen.

They were cheered, nonetheless, to learn that in a few days they were to go home. General Douglas Mac Arthur visited Bilibid one morning, and to Sister Columba's surprise, walked over and shook her hand. When he saw the condition of the internees, and even more of the military prisoners, he said grimly, "It has been too long."

By Shrove Tuesday the internees were eating fresh eggs flown from the United States, and Sister Columba wrote sternly in her diary:

Henceforth I shall chronicle no more food. We are back to normal with regard to food and are glad to have it play a less important part in our lives. We have been altogether too food conscious.

Their weights had shrunk to eighty-five pounds for Sister Juliana, ninety-seven pounds for Sister Mary Oliva and one-hundred-seven pounds for Sister Columba.

Within a few days they were homeward bound. They were received with much rejoicing by their Sisters in Chicago and in Peekskill. By God's great grace, the Community with its tiny missionary contingent had been permitted to share in some of the tribulations of the War.

The summer passed quickly, the Sisters gained back their strength, and a year after their return they made ready to return to Sagada and set about repairing the ravages of occupation. Sister Columba and Sister Mary Oliva sailed in September, 1946, accompanied by two Sisters going out for the first time. The service of Itinerary, always moving, was made more dramatic by the presence in Choir of the Postulant Marian Electa Davis, whose trip to Peekskill had been interrupted by three years of imprisonment in Santo Tomas.

As the Community approached its one hundredth birthday, Sisters were still at work and prayer in Sagada, though the Christian community in Luzon now had its own bishops, priests and sisters.

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