Maria's Diary 37
Father and Friend! Thy light, Thy love
Beaming through all Thy works we see;
Thy glory gilds the heavens above,
And all the earth is full of Thee.
We have had many more letters from Emily telling of her time after we left Hong Kong.
Dear Father and Maria and Edith,
I have just had your letter telling about your shipwreck and the awful time you had getting back home. How lucky it was that no one died. You must have lost so many precious things. I can fully understand how you will feel about losing your diary, Maria. You have been putting your heart down into it for many years now, and although you might be able to recollect and redo some of it, no doubt there will be some things that will be missed out.
As far as how things are with me, I am still with the French sisters, but I don’t know for how much longer.
Here is some of the background of the situation.
You know that we had the French nuns running the convent and orphanage which was going strong for many years. A very fine property in Queen Street had been gifted to them by Monsignor Forcade some years ago. His sister was one of the nuns.
He wrote, “If they should leave their house, it should become the property of the Mission, but the Mission should pay back the purchase price to the nuns.”
He got some of the parishioners to get together to make the Asylum, mainly an orphanage and rescue place for unwanted babies as it is now. They were offered two plots of adjoining land with substantial English houses on Queen Street, near the harbour. My friend Alfonso and his brother Jose were among those who contributed to the project. And what we have ended up with is two large houses, with dormitories for the boys in one building, and girls in the other. Each has their own refectory and class room, and then there are rooms for the nuns and luckily a spare room for me. There is also a chapel and we frequently have one of the priests from the mission to offer Mass for us in our chapel.
The nuns had some extra finances from their mother house in France, so were able to offer a small amount of payment for the abandoned children - sometimes as little as a penny for a baby who was almost dead, up to a dollar for an older girl who had been rejected by her family. They said that it was hard to not be able to buy all the children who needed help. They could only afford at first to buy the dying babies. But when extra funds became available they could afford some older children. Many bigger girls are sold by their parents to pagodas. And the prettiest and healthiest ones are sold to loose women.
Sister Benjamin arrived here more or less as you were getting ready to leave so I don’t know if you have ever encountered her, Papa, but she is a force to be reckoned with. Father Ambrosi knows that, and he finds it very difficult to deal with her. But on the day she arrived to take over being in charge of the groups of nuns, he told her she would have to leave the houses. He had already arranged to sell the property to a British man called William Herbert Vacher, who is the Consul of France. No doubt you know him, Papa. He married Elizabeth the only daughter of Edward Cunningham of Shanghai (sometimes called King Edward) in 1855. Mr. Vacher apparently has plans to have a Shanghai and Hong Kong bank which will have a branch in London. He no doubt put enormous pressure on Father Ambrosi to get the deal that he wanted. He actually was in charge of assessments of foreign owned property when he was in Shanghai, so he knew which property he wanted.
Father Ambrosi offered Sister Benjamin three times what was paid by them for the properties all those years ago, but she wasn’t going to be bribed.
He wrote, “From the very start of your arrival you have said to the Vice Prefect, Father Reina, that you were in Hong Kong but didn’t belong to Hong Kong. I know you say that your home society has paid your travelling expenses and costs. I have decided to cut short all arguing to finish once and for all the misery and then start something lasting which I am not able to do with you French Sisters.”
Sister Benjamin wrote back, ”I asked you to wait a few weeks for authorisation and you have refused. In our work we have saved 2734 souls in the 11 years we have been here.”
Of course, in that total, a very large percentage didn’t live much longer than their baptism. In fact there is criticism of the nuns, saying they are only interested in increasing the total of baptised Catholics, not in saving the lives of the children, which isn’t true.
The St. Paul nuns have as their motto that the children that come to them are with them from cradle to grave. Those girls who get to be of marriageable age, have marriages arranged for them. The local priest provides the male potential suitors, who have to be between 20 and 30, practicing Catholics, good characters, and financially stable. Then the nuns interview the possible men and decide if they are suitable or not.
The sisters are short of money, but the sister house in France has started a project where children from France are asked to send in their pennies to save the children in Hong Kong and that has provided some of the funds needed, but we also offer French classes for which we go to the person’s house and give private lessons, which we charge for. The sister in charge has hired a spare room in the town, and started a group of French students which is a better use of resources. I really feel my vocation is in teaching, and so little is available for these little orphans. But Sister Benjamin says that when she sorts out her problems with Father Ambrosi, we will start having a school, and I shall be the head teacher.
When they arrived one of the nuns wrote that Hong Kong society is distrustful and also hostile to western people. At the time of the poisoning, she said, “Everyone fears that the Chinese will rebel during the absence of the British and French troops, plunder, set fires to the European city and slaughter its inhabitants. But we don’t think they will attack the Asylums as when the shops were closed to Europeans, for several days, they still brought our usual provisions, so we were not disrupted by the tensions, but of course we did have to pay higher prices for the goods.”
There is news also that cholera that has hit the poorest parts of the island, is continuing to rage. Did you realise that we have seven hospitals on Hong Kong and only one of them deals with Chinese people, and that is only a very small way.
I asked how the Chinese cope when they get ill, and was told, they have many remedies that are passed down through families that they have faith in, but if it appears that there is no hope, they sometimes put out the very ill person into the street, to die and then be dealt with by the city officials. So far we have no cholera amongst us, but we have stopped going into the poor areas to collect children, until the situation improves. Sometimes the mothers bring their children to our door, and leave them there. We of course take them all in, and so far with careful isolation for the first period, we haven’t had any cases. One mother came the next day and offered to be a wetnurse. We pay mothers who have spare milk five dollars a month to feed our very small babies. I think this one was she who dropped off the baby the day before, as when she was employed, she searched for the baby she most wanted to feed and that was the newest one. Some of the nuns feel that she is taking advantage of the situation, getting rid of her unwanted child, and also being paid to have the care of her. But I feel that she probably very much did not want to get rid of her baby, so this is a system that works for the benefit of both mother and baby.
Much love to all,
Here is our next letter from Emily.
“I think I mentioned the situation with Sister Benjamin and Father Ambrosi in my last letter. They are both as pig headed as each other and neither is willing to give in. But I can see both points of view, so feel I am in the middle. I think Sister Benjamin is going to take it to court.
“Father Ambrosi as you know is from the Foreign Mission of Milan, and has the title of Prefect and he is the highest in church policy around here. He decided that if Sister Benjamin continues her fight to stay in Hong Kong and in their houses she is flouting his orders as the most important clergyman in the area. Father Ambrosi has not been acting rationally. He does complain about bad headaches and not feeling at all well, so perhaps he has a serious illness.
He became very angry, and in my opinion made a huge mistake, by using his religious authority to try to change Sister Benjamin's mind. He put an interdict on her and said she couldn't have the sacrament for three months, under pain of excommunication. There was a huge response from the rest of the nuns, and those of us who felt he was unfair, and his response was to take the sacraments away from all of the nuns too for a period of time. He said he had invited a group of Italian nuns to come to the Island, and that he wanted the French nuns to leave - take their mission somewhere else. He suggested Macau, and Sister Benjamin, seeing that things were not going well for them, went there with a few of the nuns to see if they might be able to move there.
He did temper his interdict slightly over time, so we could have Mass with communion twice a week for a while.
During this time we had a visiting French priest in Hong Kong and he wished to say Mass at our chapel, and Sister Benjamin agreed to it. Father Ambrosi was so angry that he has now put our chapel under introdict too, so we can not use it at all for religious services.
About this time Father Ambrosi came to me and suggested that I should wait to become professed until the Italian sisters arrived, as he was sure I would find it better than aligning myself with the French nuns. He said “I defy the person to show anything good that they did for the Mission.”
I said I was unhappy with the way the French nuns had been dealt with by him. He said that they probably had been giving me the wrong information. He said his plan was for the good of all Hong Kong, not just some abandoned babies, which was more or less all the French nuns did at the moment. I objected to that, but he told me to let him finish. “With the money from selling that beautiful property I can use it to set up schools, hospitals, an orphanage, and other things that benefit far more than what is happening at the moment.” When I heard him put it like that, I could see his point of view, so said I would ask Sister Benjamin if I could be released from my postulant status with them, in order to join the Italian nuns when they come.
So now the Italian nuns have come, and with Sister Benjamin's support, I have asked them if I can come to live at their house, and see if I am able to join their convent. I was very impressed with the Reverend Mother Sister Lucia Cupis. She is often referred to by others as a Saint, as she has all the qualities of patience and understanding with her high Christian values. She says she will guarantee that within a week or so of my joining them, she will find a place for me to teach which the French nuns were never able to offer me. They are now packing their bags and going to Macau, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they came back here after a while, especially if Father Ambrosi is not in charge any more.
And another one.
Let me tell you more about the Cannoscian sisters that I now live with. They arrived at the invitation of the Missionary priests here, and it was the first time they had gone outside Italy so they were full of anxiety, but also excitement.
The Daughters of Charity (their formal name) were founded in Verona in 1808 by the Marquise Madalena di Canossa. They quickly spread to Veneto and Lombardy, promoting the education of little girls and poor young women.
Those included were Mother Lucia Cupis, (who had been the novice mistress before) Sister Maria Stella, Sister Giuseppina Testera, Sister Rachele Tronconi, Sr Giaovanna Scotti and Novice Claudia Compagnotti who was almost ready to make her vows. When they arrived on the USS America, there was no one there to meet them. I expect it was an oversight on Father Ambrosi’s part, but it was me who saw them lost and looking very unhappy on Victoria Harbour. I took them, the six sisters and the priest Father Giuseppe Burghinold to the Mission headquarters, and they soon were made to feel more at home. But because Father Ambrosi had been so caught up in his fights with Sister Benjamin over their land, there was no place specifically put aside for them to live. I contacted my friend Leonardo d’Almada e Castro, who pretty much heads the planning section regarding houses in Hong Kong. He said he would put them temporarily in a house that he had just bought, meaning to do it up and sell it on. It wasn’t in very good condition, but it would be only temporary and at least they would have shelter.
I liked the nuns straight away and my favourite was and still is the Mother Lucia Cupis and I also very much liked Sister Maria Stella. Both of them have strong personalities. Mother is very gentle in her approach, but Sister Maria Stella is determined and lively with a rich personality, strong will, and is audacious in doing good. Sister Rachel Tronconi is responsible for the kitchen and orphanage. Sister Giovari Scotti decided to apply herself to the study of Portuguese, but she also carries out various chores.
When we finally got into the house, the first orphans were two little girls sisters, daughters of parents who were killed for having hidden a missionary in their house. Within the month we had 18 orphan girls, one cripled, one blind but very intelligent and interested in religion.
The house was only needed for a month, for by then Leo and his crew had found a set of houses for us on Caine Road. Sister Claudine, who is English, made profession in July. Soon after she took responsibility for the English school and infirmary. I take the Portuguese students, while we have two Chinese women who will come in to teach the Chinese ones. I am the Principal. We call it the Italian Convent School in Calne Road.
The plan is to have all sorts of activities in the future, so the houses are to gradually be made over to contain what was most needed. Father Riva is the architect, He will include the convent, three schools for English, Portugese and Chinese, a boarding school, and an orphanage.