Sister Juliana Devoy served in Macau for over 30 years and championed women's rights until her death on Dec. 14 last year. (Photo: Macao News)
When Sister Juliana Devoy first set foot in Macau in 1988, she was dismayed to witness the scourge of domestic violence and human trafficking that plagued women and girls.
Determined to support helpless women, the American nun from the Sisters of the Good Shepherd congregation founded the Good Shepherd Center in 1990 to offer shelter to women in crisis in the Chinese territory.
The center sought to become a home rather than an institution and started offering food, accommodation and emotional support to women in distress, including victims of violence, pregnant teenagers, single mothers and underage trafficking victims as well as their children.
It became a home of compassion for short-term care in a safe and loving environment, offering individual counseling, small group activities, educational and recreational activities, referral and advocacy services.
The nun also waged a long, successful crusade against endemic domestic abuse against women and victims of human trafficking in the resort-cum-casino city.
The prolific nun, who died on Dec. 14 at 83, has been hailed as a great missionary and “pillar of justice and human rights.”
Good Shepherd nuns arranged for a simple vigil Mass and funeral for Sister Devoy at St. Lazaro Church presided over by Bishop Stephen Lee Bun Sang of Macau along with a number of priests on Dec. 22.
Bishop Lee termed Sister Devoy “a testimony of charity.”
“As St. Paul said, her love with Christ cannot be hindered in any environment. She followed Christ wholeheartedly, completed her journey in the world, and achieved a great victory,” the prelate said.
The bishop pointed out that Sister Devoy fulfilled God’s call in her four important roles as a nun, missionary, social worker and prophet.
A Requiem Mass followed the funeral presided by Father Peter Chong Chi-kin, vicar general of Macau Diocese.
Father Chong called Sister Devoy “the daughter of Macau.”
“As a missionary, she showed strength and dedication, not afraid of hardship and struggle. She gained the support of many people and offered dignity to many disadvantaged people. We thank God that Macau and the Church had such a strong witness of faith,” the priest said.
A lifelong missionary in Asia
Juliana Suzanne Devoy was born in a devout Catholic family in Norfolk, Nebraska, in the US in 1937 and grew up with six siblings. Her family moved around the country as her father was in the US Air Force.
In an interview, she once said how she felt compelled to follow Jesus at an early age, although she “didn’t like nuns very much” and found them “cranky.”
She graduated from school in 1954 at the age of 17 and decided to join the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Los Angeles after she received a brochure with an invitation. She studied social services at California State University for one year. She then moved to the congregation’s motherhouse in Angers, France, for further religious formation, where she pronounced her final vows.
She often quoted her favorite verse from the Bible, “Blossom where you are!” (Corinthians 20)
She had always aspired to become a missionary in China. The opportunity finally arrived as she landed in Hong Kong in 1963 when she was 26. The arrival marked the beginning of her 50 years of extraordinary missionary life in China divided between Hong Kong and Macau for engagement in social work.
Her missionary duties took her to various places including mainland China, Taiwan, Myanmar, Thailand, South Korea and Vietnam before she finally settled in Macau in 1988.
Buddhists account for 80 percent of Macau’s population of over 650,000. Christians make up about 7 percent thanks to the legacy of Portuguese rule from the 16th century to 1999. Macau Diocese has about 30,000 Catholics in nine parishes.
A champion of women's rights
On her arrival in Macau, Sister Devoy’s heart melted as she found on one side the plight of women and little legal and social protection.
In an interview with Macau Post Daily, the nun recalled the idea for the shelter came to her mind first as “many domestic violence victims choose not to prosecute their husbands because they consider it an internal family problem, which they do not want to be made public,” adding that “the victims also worry that nobody would take care of their children and support the family.”
Sister Devoy campaigned for years to press Macau authorities to introduce strong legislation to halt abuse against women by considering domestic violence a “public crime” instead of a “semi-public crime.”
In Macau, designating a crime public means the state is fully responsible to prosecute an offender, while defining it semi-public leaves it to the victim to prosecute the aggressor.
Her years-long efforts forced the authorities to draft a bill in 2011, but there was reluctance to broaden the definition of domestic violence.
The nun also joined an advocacy group, Anti-Domestic Violence Coalition, to strongly raise the voice of women. Her efforts won support from leading figures including Melody Chia-Wen Lu, an associate professor at the University of Macau, journalist-turned legislator Agnes Lam and Cecilia Ho, a lecturer from Macau Polytechnic Institute.
However, the efforts didn’t bear fruit until the elderly nun traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, to attend a meeting of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 2014.
She read a speech to the UN committee seeking to put further pressure on Macau by explaining how the authorities were violating international conventions by not passing a domestic violence law.
Her supporters and volunteers were skeptical, but her hard push worked. In June 2016, Macau passed a bill to prevent and combat domestic violence. The nun was overjoyed and arranged for a celebratory march to mark the victory.
The nun was also saddened by the abuse of victims of sex trafficking in the casino city. Many Macau and foreign women and girls end up as prostitutes in Macau’s glittering brothels, businesses and homes.
She collaborated with a government taskforce, the Human Trafficking Deterrent Measures Concern Committee, from 2009 to tackle the issue of trafficking and cooperating with each other as per the government guidelines on identification and support services for victims.
The nun also worked closely with Caritas Macau, whose secretary-general Paul Pun described Sister Devoy as a missionary with a big heart.
“Though she was not outspoken most of the time, she was a determined person and strived to help those in need, especially women of single families and victims of family violence,” he told UCA News.
Pun said he remembers a case when he collaborated with her to lend four apartments to serve as accommodation for women of single families.
She was also “the engine” promoting the family violence law in 2016, he said.
“She was a forward thinker and her spirit to serve is a model for the Church and society to learn about the importance of love and charity for the vulnerable people in our society," Pun said.
"She will always be remembered for her advocacy role in the front line to change the landscape of social work in Macau.”
Sister Devoy’s great work brought recognition. In December 2013, she was awarded the Medal of Merit for Philanthropy from the government for her decades-long social services in Macau.
Pun suggested that the Good Shepherd nuns launch a website to let more people know about the life and works of the great missionary nun.