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Updated: December 15, 1993 05:00 PM GMT
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It has been more than 40 years since the Canossian sisters were forced to leave their missions in China, but they are still waiting for the time to go back to their "first love."

This year marks the 125th anniversary of the Canossian missions in China, which began when the Canossian Daughters of Charity arrived in Hong Kong.

According to Sister Dorothy Cheng Man-ling, provincial superior of Canossian Missions in Hong Kong, the sisters are preparing to return to China.

Canossian sisters are being sent to Italy and the Philippines for formation to study theology and spirituality. Some have also gone to England for professional training.

"Ten of them are abroad at the moment. When they come back, others will go," said 54-year-old Sister Cheng.

Hong Kong reverts to Chinese rule in 1997, which the sisters look forward to with hope, Sister Chen said.

"After 1997 we´ll be part of China," she said. "We are preparing ourselves: some sisters learn Mandarin and also English. We know Chinese people are interested in learning English, so we want to be able to teach it."

"We would be happy to go back to our previous missions in China as there is still a special link with those places," she said. "Some older sisters here always ask about going back to China. That´s really our first love."

"We are now reorganizing our work. If we have China in mind, we´ll have to take some sisters from our schools and hospitals here, and appeal to sisters in other provinces like Singapore to help us," the Canossian provincial said.

Since their work in schools in Hong Kong is still important, they will train laypeople or non-Catholics with Canossian spirit to replace them. "If we´re sent to China tomorrow, laypeople must continue our work (here)," she noted.

At present, their sisters sometimes visit China and meet local people, but, Sister Cheng stressed, "We´re not doing any religious activity there."

"We just want to get to know each other," she said. "Even if most of us are Chinese, the split with China is real. We have a lot to learn from each other. I don´t want the mainland people to have a cultural shock when they see us."

In 1860, the Canossians arrived in Hong Kong to set up a mission. A few years later, Franciscan Bishop Eustachius Zanoli of Hankou invited them to help his vicariate in Hubei province, central China.

Six sisters left Hong Kong for Hankou in 1868. The first reaction of the Chinese towards European nuns was rejection, according to Sister Cheng.

"But every time the Chinese people came for language help, they saw the work and kindness of the sisters and accepted them," she said.

During 80 years, about 100 sisters served in China, mainly among the poor and especially young girls, many of whom were abandoned at birth because traditional Chinese valued boys more, Sister Cheng said.

Their work was in harmony with the spirit of Magdalene of Canossa who founded the Canossian congregation in Verona, northern Italy, in 1808.

"Magdalene wanted to work for the poor children wandering in the streets of Italian cities in the 19th century. Today we work not only for the financially poor, but also for the spiritually and socially poor," the provincial noted.

By 1952, three years after communists took power in the mainland, the Canossian sisters -- with all other foreign missionaries -- were forced to leave, abandoning hospitals, schools and a lot of friends.

On Nov. 7, the Canossian sisters commemorated the 125th anniversary of their China Missions with relatives and friends in Hong Kong.

The Canossians have 112 sisters in the Hong Kong diocese, plus a postulant and three novices.


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