The Passionist Nuns: From North America to Japan to South KoreaBy Sr. Helen Gallagher, C.P.
Fifty years ago, Passionist priests from the United States who were missioned in Takarazuka, Japan made a request to the Passionist nuns of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. A young Japanese woman was asking how she might follow the calling she sensed in herself to become a Passionist nun. St. Paul of the Cross himself, despite great personal suffering in his final years, devoted extraordinary energy to establish this community of contemplative women who shared his charism. Since the first nuns in Pittsburgh had come from Italy, the sense of mission was always part of the spirit in the North American foundations which flowed from Pittsburgh.
That young woman in Japan realized her dream because North American Sisters came to her native land. But the story does not end there. As the first Japanese Passionist nun, Sr. Maria Dolores would in her turn also become a missionary, though she could hardly have known that at the beginning of her life in the early days of the small community. Born because of the generosity of some who chose to make their home in a new land, the new Japanese community grew.
The story of the only South Korean Monastery of Passionist nuns began in 1986, when the Passionist nuns in Japan sent three nuns to the two-year Language School and the Religious Formation Institute in Seoul to prepare for a new foundation at Mipyong, a mountainous section in the province of Choong-Buk. These three nuns represented three different nations. Mother John Mary had come to Japan originally from a Monastery in Clarks Summit, on the outskirts of Scranton, Pennsylvania in the United States of America. Sister Maria Dolores had been the first to join the Takarazuka Monastery in Japan. The third pioneer in this new venture, Sister Maria Grace, was now returning to her homeland of Korea after initially joining the Japanese Monastery and spending five years there.
Korea’s Religious History
Although present-day South Korea is mainly Buddhist and Confucian, Christianity has experienced remarkable growth in the cities. Its history dates back to the invasion of Korea by Japan in the years 1592 - 1599. It appears that a group of Koreans were catechized and baptized, presumably by some Japanese Christian soldiers. This small beginning yielded little growth.
Then, in 1777, some Korean officials who were sent on the annual delegation to Beijing to pay the tribute, met Jesuits who supplied them with the Bible and Catholic literature. When Korean scholars studied these, they were convinced of the wisdom of Christian tradition and sought baptism. As the Catholic movement grew, intermittent persecution followed. But so strong had the faith matured, that hundreds gave their lives rather than renounce their faith in Jesus Christ.
Today, their courageous sacrifice is remembered. On September 20, the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar celebrates the memorial of 103 Korean martyrs. Among these were Blessed Andrew Kim, the first native Korean priest to suffer martyrdom in 1845, and Blessed Paul Chang Hosang, seminarian and catechist. With the division of Korea at the end of the Korean War in the 1950s, South Korea became a republic and pledged to guarantee religious freedom to its citizens.
Yesterday and Today
In the 1970s and 1980s, through the witness and missionary preaching of the Passionist priests and brothers in South Korea, some young women became interested in the Passionist nuns. The seed of faith planted centuries before began to yield in abundance. This eventually led to the missionary journey of the little international trio who came from Japan in 1986 to “The Land of the Morning Sun.”
Bread and Bricks
When the three founding sisters had completed their preparatory studies, they began searching for property, finally purchasing an old factory in Mipyong, located in the diocese of Cheong-ju. Of course, the factory needed much interior renovation to transform it into a monastery with individual bedrooms, a chapel, kitchen, and space enough for the Altar Bread Bakery. However, the nuns were equal to the task. By September 15, 1988, all was ready for the first Mass and blessing of the Monastery of our Sorrowful Mother.
The Community Grows
Meanwhile, through the ministry of the Father Rector, Rev. Justin Bartozek, C.P., three candidates came to join the community of nuns: Sisters Regina, Pauline and Cecilia. When the community grew to eleven nuns, with every square inch of space doing double duty, they decided it was time to build a larger, permanent monastery, even though they were as poor as the proverbial church mouse. The Passionist priests and brothers loaned them a small dwelling where they lived during the demolition and construction phases for the new monastery.
Hard Hats and Sneakers
In an effort to curtail expenses, the nuns climbed the scaffolding and worked under the able direction of Brother Matthias Jeong Jim Kim C.P. Wearing the required hard hats, the nuns poured their energies into painting, waterproofing, cementing, varnishing, and the other laborious tasks of every construction project. They worked six days a week — with time out for prayer and meals — until all was completed according to the architect’s specifications. Now there are twenty-two rooms for the growing community of twelve, and ten additional rooms for a small retreat center. Even with all the donations given by their benefactors, the nuns remain in debt of four hundred million Won, which equals about 450,000 US dollars.
On June 24, 2006, about one thousand people joined the nuns and dignitaries to celebrate the Dedication ceremony. The crowds of people who filled the chapel and adjoining rooms experienced overflowing warmth and devotion.
Bishop Gabriel Jang, D.D. congratulated Mother Mary John for her leadership in this new effort which came to completion on the 62nd anniversary of her profession as a Passionist nun. He led the worshipers in prayer for her as she continued courageously to bear with serious illness as she does still today.
The Passionist nuns in South Korea expressed their gratitude to their religious brothers and priests who share their commitment to spreading the life-giving memory of the Passion of Jesus. The charism of St. Paul of the Cross, who founded the first convent of Passionist nuns in 18th century Italy, had now taken root in another country in Asia. With a grateful sense of mission, the nuns now look to the future as they continue to witness to the primacy of God and the love of God revealed in the passion of Jesus. With them we pray: “May the Passion of Jesus Christ be always in our hearts!”
Ed. note: On July 24, 2008 Sr. Helen Gallagher, C.P. wrote: “Mother John Mary went home to God about 5 P.M. on July 23rd. Mother Maria Grace had brought her home two days earlier, and MJM breathed her last as they were all gathered around her praying the rosary. That was a great consolation to all of them.”