The new leadership team for the Missionary Sisters of St. Columban visited the Diocese of Buffalo this spring on a three-week fact finding trip. The sisters serve in cross-cultural missions, live in community, and commit themselves to helping the poor and marginalized. The four-member team is traveling to all the areas where the congregation serves. The next stop is Britain before going to Asia. Thirteen sisters live in Silver Creek, their only American province.
"Our main purpose is to see the sisters and to listen to each of them. From that to, maybe, hear what is the way forward for us," said Sister Kathleen Geaney, SSC, from Tipperary, Ireland. "In listening to the sisters we do hear a lot about what's happening around and what they are involved in or what they have been involved in."
One of the discoveries is that "the mission and ministry is strong in Silver Creek," according Sister Corona Colleary, SSC, the local coordinator and vocation director. The Silver Creek mission has been around for 48 years.
The first group of sisters came to the United States on Christmas 1930, settling in Silver Creek. They then moved to Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, and North Carolina. In 1969, they returned to Silver Creek. Within the past year, all the United States provinces merged into Silver Creek.
Today, the sisters have diverse ministries that respond to the spiritual, pastoral and diocesan needs of the local Church in several countries. Current projects for the sisters include parish work in Peru, a kindergarten in Myanmar that focuses on health care for children affected by HIV, and a special education center in the Philippines.
"It's actually a rich community, with a lot of us working in Korea, Peru, Chile, Philippines. And the community, itself, is an intercultural community - two Filipinas, Americans and Irish," said Sister Kathleen. "I suppose we feel that in today's world, our direction at chapter when we met, was the whole idea of being an intercultural group is a very rich resource for mission today where so many people are coming from other countries and trying to find a way to settle."
All their missions have a mixed group of sisters mixing it up with the local communities. Sister Rebecca Conlon, SSC, went to Pakistan nearly 20 years ago, just as the Gulf War began. Most of the sisters are from Ireland, where the order is based, but in Pakistan anyone white was considered to be American. Despite political tensions and religious differences, every single day when the students would be passing in front of the sisters' house, the Muslim teachers would stand at the gate to make sure the sisters were protected.
"When we went there in 1990, our whole focus was dialogue with Islam and also Hinduism," said Sister Rebecca. "In all our 28 years we have been very safe and the Muslims have been our best friends."
Their visas state they are there to work with the Christian community. So, Christians are their main focus. But Sister Rebecca does meet Muslim women in the women's prison where she serves. She's also involved in various projects through the diocesan offices of Family Life and Justice & Peace. Only 2 percent of the population is Christian. That includes Protestants and Catholics.
"It's a great blessing to be there. We find great faith in Pakistan. The Christian community is alive and active. When you're in the midst of the Muslim situation, the whole thing of prayer is very basic to Pakistan," she said.
Sister Kathleen serves in Myanmar, working among Buddhists and Muslims in Mandalay.
"Our particular purpose in Mandalay is to build bridges between the different communities," she explained. "We discovered, as a Christian community in Mandalay, small is beautiful. Because we are so small, we're not a threat to any of them. We're not a threat to the Muslims and we're not a threat to the Buddhists. There is a lot of tension at the moment in Myanmar because of the 370,000 who have fled in the last few months from Myanmar to Bangladesh. So, there is a tension between Buddhist and Muslim. We are in the position of being acceptable to both of them."
The sisters work with women of all faiths. The women, she said, seem to be more practical than ideological. "The concerns of women is usually how they are going to feed and clothe their children, send them to school," she said.
The sisters work on small projects, offering business loans, educations grants, and a small special needs program. They also maintain an interreligious dialogue and interfaith group.
During riots a few years ago, Sister Kathleen saw Buddhists guarding the Muslim mosques. "We only hear about the tensions," she said in her charming Irish accent.
Sister Angela Yoon, SSC, arrived in China in 2003 to work in basic health programs in the mountain jungle areas, offering a nutrition program for pregnant women. Deforestation, jade mining, opium trade and HIV have devastated the area.
"We try to support them, empower them, train them as the leaders of their own area. And also, building up their own faith," she said.
The sisters are not allowed missionary visas. Officially they are there as teachers. One problem they face is as the sisters retire, no one is there to replace them. They do not have English teachers anymore. Sister Angela, who has a background in pastoral work, serves in a parish offering retreats and working in formation.
The area became isolated after the Second Vatican Council. People did not know how to read a Bible or even own one. The sisters started groups of Bible reading, teaching the locals how to read the Bible how to pray, and how to reflect.
"There are many sisters and seminarians who do not have much opportunity to get an education," she said. "It's a huge gap. Some sisters can get an education, but other sisters do not live near an elementary school. Some sisters don't know how to write, even in Chinese. So, when they enter the congregation, they learn how to write the characters."
The life of a missionary sister can be a hard one. Unlike non-government organizations, which move into an area to complete a project then leave, the sisters stay for the long haul.
"As missionaries you're here to stay and to be with them in their pain," Sister Rebecca. "We hang in there."
"We offer to live deeply and closely with the people, and I think to find God in a different way. The God I knew in Ireland and the God I know now is the same God, but deeply changed," said Sister Kathleen.