Project Canterbury

 Mother Eva Mary, C.T.
The Story of a Foundation

By Mrs. Harlan Cleveland

Milwaukee: Morehouse, 1929.

Chapter IX. Retrospect

THIS STORY OF beginnings is drawing to a close. I am not competent to carry the chronicle of the Community life through the twenty-eight years since its founding. To me has not come the experience of the constant daily effort of its routine of life and obedience to rule and the consequent unfolding of many differing natures transfigured by worship and work to fullness of stature in Christian living. I see the life in pictures. The rule is Augustinian in character, with American variations; the motto of the home, "Benignitas, Simplicitas, Hilaritas."

A snapshot of Mother Eva, caught in the act of perfect enjoyment, suggests the very spirit of the life through all the years--celestial laughter, selfless and care free--in the midst of such cares and responsibilities as only those with the spirit of God upon them dare to undertake, or can undergo without breaking. She had learned at last the secret of the "joy of the objective religion" and carried it into her community life, which to her seemed the only practical form of socialism in our selfish world. To her mind, community life was not "a return to a worn-out mediaevalism," but the only possible method of living, in a competitive civilization, by the precepts of our Lord, and the future rule of the Coming Kingdom. She was a practical evolutionist and willing to dare the next step higher, to live not the human but the Christ life.

She is one only of the countless host of men and women who through the ages have counted the world well lost in seeking the Kingdom of God and His Christ, but wherever such generous souls are found, they become at once centers of influence and of service. When one shows The Way, there are many to walk in it.

They came from many places seeking the Religious Life, and some found fulfillment; Sister Edith Constance, Sister Margaret, and dear Sister Irene; two others from New York; now a trained nurse and now a specialist with the needle; here and there a college graduate, and one a doctor by profession, and one or two teachers. Fraülein Glauser from Switzerland, visiting America for the first time, saw a Religious in her blue habit and knew at once why she had come all the way from the land of Calvin and Zwingli: "I would swallow those doctrines raw," she cried. "Why, I have seen the little chapel in my dreams."

So came Sister Clara with fine enthusiasm which never seemed to slacken or grow cold. "It is to live in Paradise," she always said, and soon the tiny chapel was made beautiful and rich with her own woodcarving and became indeed the chapel of her dreams.

And so they came, the dear Sisters, a long procession through the years, in cheerful blue habit and white veils, each one with a personal history of lovely supernatural interest. But time would fail to tell of all of them whose lives have been so useful and so hidden. Some of their own girls are among them, first daughters and then Sisters. Two nieces of the Rev. Mother entered the Community as they reached womanhood; Sister Olivia Mary, for ten years in charge of the Priory School, Honolulu, and Sister Mary Catherine.

I always think of that long procession of Religious and little children as entering the chapel. All in the Virgin's colors of blue and white, the little white veiled children looking so devout--there were always several babies, often little boys, at morning and evening prayer--sometimes they would quietly prowl about the floor or find their way into the choir stalls and the lap of a favorite Sister. An enthusiastic visitor said: "Even the babies go to sleep reverently in chapel."

Twenty-eight years have passed since those beginning days, and not so long ago, after years of absence, I was again singing Evensong in Bethany Home chapel. There were the Sisters in their stalls, a little older, with younger ones, some of whom I did not know, but the children seemed just the same. The same devout little faces, innocent, and for the moment, solemn. As they passed down the aisle, suddenly the faithful routine of those twenty-eight years rolled out before me in a panorama of children, little marching children, so many hundreds, through the faithful years. Every day, in all those years, little children such as these were cared for, dressed and fed, played with, prayed with, taught and put to bed, made happy and made good, suffered indeed to come to Him. One of the Associates on a visit to the Home wrote:

This is a most amusing place. Three babies came to the chapel service this evening and made a joyful noise unto the Lord whenever a hymn or a chant began, but they were very quiet otherwise. There was a baptism too, funny as well as impressive. Four children were baptized, one a Madonna-like girl of about ten or eleven who took all the vows upon herself with reverence and gravity, a small boy of three, and two mites of girls, one of whom was frightened out of her wits by the solemnity of the march up to the font. She sounded very much as if a small devil were wrestling with her small soul as she cried spasmodically, repeating "I don't want to, I don't want to." The Chaplain took the small boy first to show her that it did not hurt, interlarding the service with soothing and encouraging remarks to the children. The child was hysterical when he took her up, but quite still when he set her down again, saying: "You see it wasn't half as bad as you thought." The Rev. Mother gave us a quaintly interesting meditation on the Christian Home--especially the Christian Community Home--as the effort to make a home in the world for Jesus of Nazareth, who never has any place to lay His head unless we make it. The foxes have holes and the birds their nests but He has no place unless we make it for Him in our hearts. And then she said suddenly: "And what a troublesome guest He can be! Always doing something unexpected and awkward for you! If you once let Him in! Think of Peter's mother-in-law, how she got right out of a bed of fever to minister to Him. And of the crowds of noisy people who followed Him to the door. And of that other house where they let Him in and the eager people took the very roof off to get to Him; of course it had to be repaired next day! Oh, He isn't an easy guest even as only a guest, and if you make a home for Him, it will indeed be His, and not one little corner of it can you withhold from His loving uses. Many inconvenient crowds He brings with Him, the sick and the poor crowding upon Him, and then the children, always such numbers of little children. If your heart would make a home for Him it must grow large enough for them too." She looked heavenly happy and sweet as she spoke, and all those funny little things in their blue dresses and white veils seemed somehow transfigured into hundreds of Bethlehem babies, little playmates for the little Jesus.

As early as 1899 the first branch work was started in Cincinnati, a modest home for poor women who by reason of their age or weakness were unable to support themselves entirely. A house was secured and rent guaranteed by a friend of the Sisterhood, so that the little work these women were able to do gave them an independent living--each having her own room and doing her own light housekeeping. Bethany Home for Boys followed, under the care of Sister Clara Elizabeth. Two houses in Cleveland were undertaken at the request of Bishop Leonard, St. John's Orphanage and Holy Cross House for Crippled Children, and later a Widows' Home.

After fifteen years as Superior, the Rev. Mother felt that the Community would have a healthier development if a rotation in that office should begin and become a fixed part of their rule. She called the Chapter together, explained her wish, and felt some chagrin at the insubordination on this one point of her Sisters who insisted that a Mother was always for life. "Then surely," she said, "something will happen to me, for you need to learn leadership." She thought it might be her death and said afterwards, as the years rolled tranquilly on, "Indeed I did not enter Religion to make it impossible to die!"

The "something," however, happened on her next visit to Cleveland in the fall of 1913, when at Holy Cross House she was suddenly taken violently ill with septic pneumonia and for many days lay between life and death; feeling, as she said, like the flame of a candle beaten by contrary winds but never quite extinguished. During her illness vigil was kept night and day by the Sisters and the children at Bethany Home, nor could the younger children be kept out. At the hour of deepest crisis she heard her mother's voice calling through weakness and darkness. Resistence failed at the sound of that dear voice. She felt herself responding, when she thought, "If I were really dying it would be my Lord who would call me," so she turned her face to the wall and herself prayed for fifteen years of life to complete her work. Her prayer and theirs was answered.

"But why fifteen, Mother, only fifteen?" she was asked when she told her experience.

"I think that quite enough," she said, "that was the time given to King Hezekiah."

In her convalescence she made amusing rhymes on the ninety-nines of her doctor's tests, and captivated her rosy cheeked nurse, who shortly after entered the Community as Sister Constance Anna.

She was never again equal to the hard work of floor scrubbing, window cleaning, and cooking, in which she had taken her full share up to that time. She had served her apprenticeship. From this time on, the Sisters were eager to save her every unnecessary exertion, until she called herself useless--but it was time; the need of freedom for executive work became necessary as the works of the Community expanded.

The next work undertaken was in the foreign field, in which the Transfiguration has the honor to be the pioneer American Community, though soon followed by St. Anne's. In the spring of 1913 Bishop Huntington, of Anking, China, made application for Sisters to work in his diocese and in particular to start a girls' school at Wuhu. He came personally to the Mother House and talked over the details of the scheme with the Sisters, and two were sent out in the fall of 1914, and St. Lioba's School was started.

The Rev. Mother went herself to Wuhu to establish her Sisters and help them inaugurate their work, and after several years she again visited them, taking Sister Beatrice with her. On this second visit in 1922 she wrote:

The work here is so big and joyous and there is so much of the Good Samaritan in it that it has been a real pleasure to be here. The poor love the Sisters. Sister Constance tells me what is said of us on the street as we pass. Some one will ask: "Who are those foreigners?" and the answer will be, "They are the Sisters of the Shen-on-weh." "And what do they do?" "Oh, they have schools and a work room and they cure diseases." "They are good to us Chinese then?" "Yes, very good."

And the smiles that greet us wherever we go make us feel that we are among friends. Such strange things happen. Sister Constance will stop suddenly and speak to a woman on the street, an absolute stranger, and tell her to come home with us at once so that she can treat her eye, to which she was holding a cloth, and the floodgates of human sympathy and friendship would be opened and the woman talk a perfect stream all the way back with us. Then Sister Edith goes out walking and sees a man lying on a heap of straw by the wayside, and she asks him what is the matter, and learns that he has been taken sick on his way from Nanking to Hankow, and can only walk a little way at a time, so he carries a bundle of straw to lie upon when his strength gives out. So she sends him to the hospital, and calls on him the next day, and he is most pathetically grateful.

We go out to see a sunset and find a sick boy, and so it goes; every day almost it is something; once a dead child by the roadside to which they gave burial. There seem to be no barriers between the Sisters and the poor and at the same time there is not much imposition either. You see they come into such close contact with the real thing, they can tell quite readily the false.

Sister Constance's coolie talk is one of her great assets with the poor people. She understands them and they understand her, and both love and fear her, for she can scold with great energy when they disobey her orders. I made a round of visits with her on Sunday and oh, you never saw such places for human beings to live in; mud huts, floors and walls of rough mud, roof of straw, about twelve feet square, a bed made of boards on a trestle with a cotton comforter rolled up in a corner, a fire pot to cook on--perhaps a table, perhaps not--a shelf with a few dishes on it, and a stool about six inches wide. But to my mind the worst feature, after the darkness, for they were all veritable black holes, was the lack of privacy. The partition walls between the rooms were only six feet high and everything done in one family could be heard in the neighbor's room; not a word spoken in secret but would be published on the house top. And of course any one so minded could look over into the next room. I told Sister Edith, when we came back from that expedition, that if she could buy that strip of land on the other side of the road, I thought the next building enterprise undertaken by the Community should be a row of decent tenements, whitewashed, with windows and wooden floors and with four complete walls to each room. The great difficulty here is to get the land. Building is cheap, but there are always so many claimants in a land deal that it is difficult to get a clear title to anything in China. It would be lovely though to provide decent quarters for our Christian families to live in and to turn this gambling hell at our doors into a happy little village of Christian people.

There is to be a Retreat before, and a clothing--Sister Feng Ngai--on All Saints' Day, and a great baptism. I think there are about sixteen candidates for that, and a baptism here seems so poignantly significant, such a victory over the dark powers of the Devil.

We hope to have the cornerstone of the chapel laid on SS. Simon and Jude's Day. The contractor seems to be a good man and the work is going on steadily and quietly. Ninety feet from end to end and fifty feet wide, it is built of grey brick, with cornices and cappings and pillars of red brick, with a curly roof quite in Chinese style. A Jerusalem cross is set in the front façade, the west front, for it faces east. The transepts are used on the one side for sacristies and on the other for the Sisters' chapel, screened off from the main church with the movable partitions which they make so ornamental here. It is in this chapel that we shall have the Reserved Sacrament.

I have been gathering together the things that are to go into the cornerstone: A Chinese Bible, a Prayer Book, the Community Rule, our Office book in Chinese, a list of Founders including the architect and builders as well as benefactors, some coins in current use, and a Chinese newspaper of current date. Our Chinese friends are vividly interested, and I am very glad to show them how Christians found a building, not by sacrificing the lives of little children as was done in a most terrible way in the cotton mills here: two little slave children bought for the purpose, dressed up gaily and stupefied with wine, then cast into the fire when the furnace was first started--for good luck!

We had a sale here on Saturday for the industrial and dispensary work, which are both very costly. We have sales of our work in Nanking, Anking, Kuling, and Hankow, as well as in America. The Chinese dolls are taking well and sell as fast as we can get them out. It is very sweet to see the little girls of the industrial work, twenty of them on half time (the other part spent in school), sewing away for dear life--on doll clothes, such a normal occupation for little girls, and of course they chatter as much as they please while doing it. It is by these sales that the industrial work supports both enterprises.

The little village outside our gates is largely supported by our industrial rooms and it means to them houses and food and clothing. And even their more destitute relatives come down upon them for support, as is the way in China when anyone begins to have work or seems a little prosperous. One woman, whom we call Bonacher because she is always complaining of aching bones, having a mother of eighty-eight and a child of four years to support on one dollar a week, had a sick uncle suddenly arrive. She had only one room and two beds. She was so afraid that we would think that she was living with the man for money--common enough here but strictly forbidden among our workers--that she was in tears about it; so Sister Constance had him sent to the hospital at her expense. I suppose the sick uncle would have died on the roadside if Bonacher had not taken him in. Such things happen in China. You have never seen poverty in its absolute form till you have seen the poor of China. Here it is indeed like Poverty described in the book of Proverbs, the strong man armed that comes upon the unwary fool. Opium, gambling, in which as often as not wives and children are the stake, and drink, are the cause quite as often as disease and death. And you never saw such disgusted looking babies as the Chinese babies--they feel it is a mighty mean world they have gotten into and they had best get out of it as quickly as possible--and they do.

It is only by the straining efforts of the Sisterhood that we have been able to maintain the school, but it is challenging the interest and respect of the better people of Wuhu. The influence is overwhelmingly Christian; no girl stays long without desiring baptism. Our Sisters are not exclusive; we work with other Christian bodies. Yesterday we had an old-fashioned Protestant prayer-meeting in our parlor with the missionaries of the denominations gathered together, Sister Deborah led and we all offered extempore prayers for one another's work. These meetings for prayer were started by Sister Helen.

Another work of the Sisters at Wuhu was that of the Coolie Shelter for the two thousand human beasts of burden of that city. This was a long mud house where tea was served and the men waiting for their fares were at least protected from the weather; sores were dressed and a victrola amused the waiting men. Sister Beatrice Martha, during this prolonged visit with the Mother Superior, spent her afternoons at the shelter, dressing sore feet and small wounds which might become dangerous to these men so dependent upon the condition of their feet for their living--the coolie lasts, they say, about five years. She spoke no word of Chinese but was able to make herself well understood. On the day of their departure she went to make her last inspection of sore feet, and was met at the door by a delegation presenting an embroidered banner, the motto upon which was translated by one who understood:

"She loved others better than herself."

This expression of gratitude could not quite satisfy them, and as she turned to take her chair back to the Compound, the coolies surrounded it with loud and disturbing cries, displaced her own chair men, and bore her, chair and all in their midst, to her great consternation, hardly knowing what it all meant; the noisy procession crowding the street, the whole preceded by a coolie running like mad, three yards of fire crackers popping off at every step.

A part of the plan was to develop the religious life among Chinese women. A Buddhist nun was their first postulant, one who had "eaten bitterness" in the pursuit of Nirvana. At Wuhu they were joined by Miss Ruth Kent, already a valuable missionary in the field. She became Sister Ruth Magdalene and Novice Mistress of the several Chinese novices. The first novice to go through to her profession was Sister Feng Ngai. Father Gowen, chaplain to the Community in China, wrote an account of it for one of the Church papers, sometime in 1926, which I am tempted to quote almost in full:

WUHU, CHINA--On Ascension Day, the first Chinese Sister of our Church in China was professed. This event will be little noted at the present when attention is fixed on what people get rather than on what people give up, and yet, if our branch of the Catholic Church is to live and to enhance her influence in China, the first Chinese woman of her number to take vows and to offer her life as an undivided sacrifice to our Lord should be remembered and her name honored. Especially will she want the prayers of those who read these paragraphs to help her continue faithful to her promise and to incline others toward her path, that a portion of the Church which has taken the tremendous title, Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui--Holy Catholic Church of China--may not neglect one of the richest of Catholic vocations.

The Sisters of the Transfiguration were the first of our religious orders to send missionaries to China, beginning this work with the arrival of Sister Edith Constance and Sister Helen Veronica in 1914. After more than a year's study of the Chinese language, these two Sisters came to Wuhu, in the district of Anking, where they opened a convent and a school, dedicated, at Bishop Huntington's suggestion, to St. Lioba, Bishop Huntington felt that those usual patrons of girls' schools, St. Hilda and St. Agnes, had been more than amply honored, and he chose St. Lioba to bless this new work because she herself had been a missionary saint, especially chosen by her cousin, St. Boniface, to be abbess of the nuns he had collected near Mainz. At his command she forsook her native Wimborne and her West Saxon kinsfolk and went to an alien- country where, it is recorded of her, "she thought no more of her fatherland and kindred, but devoted herself wholly to fulfil what she had undertaken; to show herself blameless in the sight of God, and be an example to those set under her, in word and conversation." Her name is particularly appropriate because it is the Old English for Love, so that it can be translated directly into Chinese as Sheng Ngai or Holy Love. We are fortunate then in the name, Saint (or Holy) Love, Sheng Ngai, which makes its direct appeal the moment it is heard, and perhaps some of those who read this, who have never heard of St. Lioba, will be minded to join their prayers with ours on her feast-day, September 28th, that the full beauty of the name may be presented worthily in this work at Wuhu dedicated to her blessed memory.

The intention of the Sisters of the Transfiguration in coming to China was not only to conduct schools and charitable work--as they have done--but also to give the chance of the religious life to such Chinese women as might be disposed toward this vocation. Realizing that their stay in China, as foreign Sisters, is but temporary, they have wished to found a line that can carry on the work they have started. Especially did they hold in mind the widows of China, whose lives for the most part are pitiably empty of promise, an existence dragged out in homes where they are unwanted, where their rights are few, the rice and clothing they use begrudged them: to many of these the convent would mean their first acquaintance with the privileges of a home, and, in caring for God's suffering children, in praying for them, they could find themselves; they need not think life ended before it has begun.

It will take time for such a profession to be understood and welcomed: one must remember the degraded state of many Buddhist nuns has made the name "nun" a term of reproach on Chinese lips. Bishop Huntington told the Sisters when they first came to China, that in ten years they might have professed one Chinese Sister. Things have fallen out as he predicted: it is almost ten years since St. Lioba's Compound was opened.

The new Sister, now known as Sister Feng Ngai, was for some years a Bible-woman connected with St. James' parish, Wuhu, where her work endeared her to the members of that congregation. At her admission as postulant on St. Matthias' Day, 1922, there were many who expressed their regret that a good Bible-woman should be taken away and put to work saying prayers. Without troubling to controvert the point of view shown by such remarks, it is fair to say that Sister Feng Ngai at St. Lioba's has reached far more women and girls than ever she met in parochial work. St. Lioba's Compound, with its schools and with its dispensary and extensive industrial organization--this last employing upwards of 150 women--gives full scope for her labors as an evangelist. Even many who were most outspoken against her step now approve of it and are encouraging others to try the same vocation.

On All Saints' Day, 1922, in the presence of the Superior, the Rev. Mother Eva Mary, Sister Feng Ngai was clothed novice. During her novitiate the life of the Order attracted another woman, a girl who had been thinking of entering a Buddhist nunnery until a casual visit of Sister Edith and Sister Helen, calling upon her mother, directed her thoughts toward a Christian Sisterhood. Some years after this visit, on St. Luke's Day, 1923, she was admitted postulant and, after a long period in this stage, made longer that the impulses of her youth might be thoroughly tested, she was clothed as novice, taking the name of Sister Pei Ngai, on Rogation Sunday this spring, four days before Sister Feng Ngai's profession.

The profession itself was the occasion for the sending of gifts by Chinese friends and one of these cannot be passed without mention: this was the Bible of the late Catechist Lu which was given by the vestry of St. James'. Catechist Lu was himself a pioneer, one of the first converts of the American Church Mission in China. After perhaps sixty years in the service of the Church, he died at a great age two years ago. On the advice of the Chinese priest to whom this Bible had been left, the vestry of Sister Feng Ngai's former parish used the money they had collected for repairing the Christian cemetery, while the book itself, containing the written notes of one who was among the most lovable souls the Chinese Church has inspired, was presented to the Sister who in her own field deserves the name of pioneer.

And so, in the beautiful Church of St. Lioba, Chinese in style, Chinese in decoration, the service of profession was used for the first time in Chinese. The congregation crowded the aisles as the procession went its glittering way with incense, cross, and candles. The children's voices, without any help of organ, rose clear and true to the glorious music of the Missa Paschalis--for at St. Lioba's the plainsong is heard day by day and the Gregorian Masses, put into Chinese, are sung, each in its season. Before an altar bright with lights and flowers the ancient vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience were taken in a tongue remote from the Latin which first phrased them. No one could be present on this sunny Day of Ascension without feeling his thoughts lifted up by the splendor of the moment, by that ascension of the spirit of which gold vestments and the blue smoke of the censer were but accompanying symbols, lifted up with his own hopes and the hopes of coming generations to follow the Priest and King, gone long before to prepare a place for us.

In 1918 St. Andrew's Priory School at Honolulu was put under the care of the Community by Bishop Restarick, and Sister Olivia Mary was sent out as head mistress.

The Rev. Mother proved her power as an executive keeping a firm hand upon all the branches of the Community work. Difficulties and misunderstandings faded away at her coming, as she went from house to house on her visits; to cross the continent and brave the ocean to visit Honolulu and Wuhu was an instant's decision when the need arose. The work at the Mother House could be entrusted to others, her Sisters were never allowed to miss her care and help and wise sympathy or direction in any need of theirs. To put aside esteem and intimacy, mourning or praise, unconsciously to prefer others, to overflow with appreciation of her dear girls--"All Mother Eva's geese are swans" is said of her affectionately--these things were so natural as to escape notice. Generous wholeness, incapable of any meanness or exclusiveness even in spiritual privilege, Christian inclusiveness and overflow, this is the very atmosphere of the Transfiguration, to share all things.
One more picture and I have done. It stands out in my mind as the consummation of her growth through all the difficulties of nature and of circumstance--a moment of high triumph over some last shreds of Calvinism in her being.

It was at the Catholic Congress at Milwaukee in October, 1926. The large Presbyterian church was kindly lent for the occasion and a great crucifix rose above the pulpit. There in the happy communion of hundreds of likehearted Christians, Canon Douglas at the piano and Father Mobrey beating time, we sang, "Ye who own the Faith of Jesus."

In the midst of that happy company stood two Sisters in blue habits, one from the land of Calvin, Sister Clara Elizabeth, and the other the Rev. Mother of the Transfiguration; and I feel and see, as well as hear, the exalted enthusiasm of their singing:

"Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary full of grace."

I would close this inadequate chronicle with the perfect tribute to the life work of the Mother of the Transfiguration. It was Father Burton, Superior S.S.J.E., who said to me in the fall of 1926, "In spite of her very pronounced personality the Rev. Mother has somehow managed not to mould the Community upon herself but completely upon the personality of our Blessed Lord." * * *

Died--On Friday, July 6, 1928, at Denver, Colorado, MOTHER EVA MARY, Foundress of the Community of the Transfiguration. May she rest in peace and may Light perpetual shine upon her!

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