Nun reaches her 100th birthday, reflects on her experiences in during difficult times
Sister Zong Xiuhong (left) translated for 100-year-old Sister Jiang Lihua who spoke in her Changsu dialect in an interview with ucanews.com on June 15. (ucanews.com photo)
At 100 years of age Sister Jiang Lihua may not hear like she once did but she has a clear mind and does not need a cane to walk.
Originally from Changshu in eastern Jiangsu province, the nun has lived through some of China's most tumultuous times.
"It is thanks to almighty God that I can live to this age of 100 after going through so much political turmoil. God has protected me," Sister Jiang told a group of Catholics who welcomed her on a visit to Hong Kong in mid-June.
More than 70 years ago, Sister Jiang joined the French Sisters of Charity in Shanghai and she is now affiliated to Nanjing Diocese.
She comes from a Catholic family of several generations and had an aunt who was also a nun.
From a young age, she was determined to be a nun and when she received a high school education at a Jesuit-run high school in Shanghai, her will was further strengthened.
Upon her graduation, the Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937. At the age of 23 she, and some of her classmates, joined the Sisters of Charity. She took her first vows in 1945.
"I didn't feel homesick. It was my father who often cried when he and my mother came to visit me," she said. "After all, I am his youngest daughter," she offered as a way of explanation for her father's tears.
"I did not feel our life was tough because the other sisters and I were companions. We could overcome difficulties together," she said.
Despite war in other parts of China during the 1940s, Shanghai, as a French concession, was relatively calm. There were many foreign religious congregations located there. It was there that she studied child psychology.
After she graduated from college, China's political situation became even grimmer when the Communist Party came to power in 1949. From there on the Catholic Church in China faced a decline and unprecedented hostility during the Cultural Revolution.
Sister Jiang witnessed it all.
After the communist takeover of China, the churches were taken over by the government and the properties managed by the Chinese government. The authorities also expelled foreign priests and nuns.
"The government made most of our sisters stay in Shanghai," said Sister Jiang. "But we gradually found that we could not follow the communist's ideology. Some sisters began to leave the congregation," she said.
Sister Jiang began to serve in a Shanghai parish in 1953 until the Red Guards forced her to leave in 1966, the beginning of 10 years of turmoil known as the Cultural Revolution.
She returned to her home village in Jiangsu province only to find that communist violence had changed everything.
Coming from a landlord family, her family suffered and her parents and her brother had died. Sister Jiang didn't explain further what occurred to her family during the interview but added only that her married sister remained alive. Beyond that, some of Sister Jiang's relatives were willing to help her but others looked down upon her because she was a nun.
Sister Jiang herself was scared of being persecuted during this period as Chairman Mao's radicals violently tried to stamp out religion.
No longer allowed to be a nun, she worked at a food factory. At other times she mostly hid herself at home.
"Life was worthless in those days. No one paid any regard to you," Sister Jiang said.
"Someone told me to get married but my sister did not agree. I did not want it too. I believe God would arrange everything for me," she said.
Sister Jiang's daily prayers to God helped her stay firm in her religious vocation. She worked during the day and afterwards prayed quietly at home.
"I did not recite the prayers in front of others but deep inside my heart, without any texts but all by memory I asked for God's help so that I would not be tempted to fall and have the opportunity to return to my congregation," she said. "I never lost hope because I had faith in God."
See Sister Jiang Lihua with Sister Zong Xiuhong in this video here by ucanews.com.
During the 1980s, religious activities were finally revived after the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976.
A former parish worker invited Sister Jiang to return to the church in Wuxi city in the south of Jiangsu province.
For the then 64-year-old, it felt like a rebirth. There in Wuxi she took care of all parish matters: be it preparing meals for the priests, leading fellow Catholics to pray, helping the laypeople to get water and even cleaning the washrooms.
At this time a relative also sent her a Bible, which she treasured. She hadn't been able to read the Bible for two decades.
Upon learning of Sister Jiang's situation, nuns from her congregation in Taiwan and France came to visit her.
In the Jubilee Year of 2000, she was able to visit the congregation's headquarters in France, and also took the opportunity to go to the Vatican where she was granted an audience with Pope John Paul II.
Sister Zong Xiuhong, who has lived with her for about 30 years, told ucanews.com an anecdote of the trip to France.
"The religious affairs bureau in Nanjing did not approve her visit and transferred her case to Wuxi where the religious director there, surnamed Zhu said, 'It is a good thing for Sister Jiang to visit France. I stand guarantee for her,'" Sister Zong said.
"So Sister Jiang made her trip but when she returned, she felt sorry to learn that Zhu was demoted for approving her trip," she said.
Sister Jiang was moved to see the pope and vowed her loyalty to him. Newspapers in France and Italy reported their meeting, but she dared not bring any clippings home. She also hid the photo she took with the pope as she feared getting into trouble.
It wasn't until the Mass to mark her birthday in May, that the hidden photo came to light in a slideshow on her life. The congregation clapped when they saw it.
Sister Zong described Sister Jiang as a shy person. "She feels uneasy taking photos and being asked questions even during this Hong Kong visit. I assured her no one would care. Do whatever you like," said Sister Zong, explaining that she was scared by China's political turmoil where she saw priests beaten and a nun suffering because her brother was the Salesian provincial superior in Taiwan.
"Even now on the annual commemoration of Sept. 9, she would only say this is a 'special day'," Sister Zong said.
Bishop Ignatius Kung Pinmei (alias Gong Pingmei, later cardinal) and many other priests were arrested on Sept. 9, 1955 in a crackdown on the church, accused of counter-revolutionary crimes.
However, Sister Jiang thinks the government officials' attitude has improved. "We had to report everything to them in the past. When foreign priests came to visit, we had to close the church door firmly. It is unnecessary now. The present policy allows priests to manage church money and they welcome us to visit Hong Kong," she said.
Despite her advanced age, Sister Jiang insists on continuing serving the 30,000 Catholics in Wuxi. She grows plants, hands out church newspapers and books to visiting Catholics who she likewise takes on tours through the church. She also sings hymns.
As Sister Jiang sees there is a lack of priests, she prepares good food for them while she leaves pickled vegetables and soya soup for herself.
Two years ago, Sister Jiang began to take care of a neighbor after the husband died and her son was arrested for taking drugs. She took care of the neighbor until she past away. Her charitable acts have touched many people around her.
Sister Jiang Lihua (center) serves other elderly despite her advanced age of 98 in this 2013 image. (Photo supplied)
Sister Jiang still maintains her opinions on social issues and describes herself as "old fashioned."
"Many things are unacceptable to me. The communist's education is different from the Catholic one. I often ask Catholics to bring their children to Mass but many people do not necessarily listen to me," she said.
Since the 1980s, Sister Jiang would organize catechism classes and Bible-study classes for children every summer with about 200 attendees. But now it has only about 100, sometimes even less with 80-90.
The drop in numbers is obvious and the courses are also different now.
"In the old days, the children started learning from making the sign of the cross, reciting the Commandments, daily prayers, the Rosary and the seven Sacraments. Now the young priests and nuns do not recite the Rosary and only preach briefly. I cannot accept that," said Sister Jiang.
"I cannot make any difference to the world at this age but I believe that God has his own plan for the Catholic Church in China," she added.
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