Sister Agnes Virginia Higgins, MM

Born: May 30, 1919
Entered: December 7, 1936
Died: August 1, 2005

Sisters were gathering in Residential Care IV’s Chapel for daily liturgy at Maryknoll, New York, on Monday, August 1, 2005, around 11:30 am, when Sister Agnes O’Keefe stopped by to see Sister Agnes Virginia Higgins who had suffered an injury. Sister Agnes arrived just in time to be with Sister Agnes Virginia as she died. Sister was 86 years of age and had been a Maryknoll Sister for 69 years.

Elizabeth Virginia Higgins was born to George and Agnes (Haggerty) Higgins on May 30, 1919, in Fairbury, Nebraska. She had five brothers and two sisters. She attended local elementary schools and did her high school studies at St. Agnes Academy in Alliance, Nebraska, where she graduated in 1936. During her last two years at the Academy, Elizabeth did normal school training, and received Nebraska State Certification as a grade school teacher.

Elizabeth entered the Maryknoll Sisters from St. Joan of Arc Parish in the Diocese of Grand Island, Nebraska, on December 7, 1936. Following postulancy, she received the religious name of Sister Agnes Virginia, which she retained throughout her life. She made her First Vows on June 30, 1939, at Maryknoll, New York, and was assigned to China where she made her Final Vows three years later.

Sister Agnes Virginia did two years of language study and began her mission in Kowloontong when China and Japan were at war and the world was on the brink of World War II. In 1941 she went to Wuzhou in the Guangxi Province of South China where she dedicated herself to catechetical work. In 1944 she went to Guiyang, arriving there two months before the war came to the area. She wrote of her experience of a bombing raid when she and other Sisters sought safety in the front of the Church. The Church, however, took a direct hit in the back and was destroyed, and the missioners had to flee to another town.

As the war escalated, Sister Agnes Virginia was among Maryknollers who returned to the United States. She arrived in California in January 1945 and served for a short period in Los Altos before being assigned in 1946 to Maryknoll’s New York City parish serving the Chinese. Here she did home visiting and catechetical work until 1949 when she was assigned to Boston’s Chinatown and continued the same type of work. She studied for a year at Maryknoll Teachers College, and in 1952, was assigned to open the Maryknoll Sisters’ parish ministry among the Chinese people in Chicago where she remained until 1959.

Because the Chinese Communist government closed its doors to missioners, Sister Agnes Virginia was pleased to be assigned to Taiwan in 1960. She studied Taiwanese for two years, and began pastoral ministry in Changhua where she remained for many years, working with Maryknoll Sister Etsuko Ogo. In 1966 she took a year of catechetical studies at Manhattan College in New York and returned to Changhua. In 1975, Maryknoll Bishop Kupfer invited Sister Agnes Virginia and Sister Etsuko to be in charge of a priest-less parish. This was a pioneer work at the time, and the Sisters chose Erhshui, a small farming area where Catholics were a tiny minority. Their goals were to develop a self-propagating, self-supporting and self-governing Christian community, a work they pursued for eight years through the establishment of a parish council. They then turned the work over to a group of local Sisters who had a school nearby.

In 1984, with the Bishop’s approval, Sisters Agnes Virginia and Etsuko moved to Lu Kang, one of the oldest towns in Taiwan and an historical spot. Sister Agnes Virginia described Lu Kang as a “folk religion center.” She wrote in July 1989 that they went there “to learn and understand more deeply about local customs and religions, and to reach out to peoples of other faiths in service and friendship.” As a true multicultural community of two, the Sisters offered free English and Japanese classes, and they kept the Church open, with a peaceful, welcoming and well-kept garden in front to dispel the people’s fears of Catholics and to invite dialogue. Sister Agnes Virginia described this period in Lu Kang as one of “more serious dialogue and sharing of religious experience than in any other previous mission.” After much hard work and encouragement, the Sisters once again established a parish council as a vital source of energy for the parish. Friendship was an important part of their ministry, including the witness of their own friendship. Sister Agnes Virginia loved the “haikus” that Etsuko would write. I quote two in particular found in a booklet of Sister Etsuko:

shared with another
joy doubled.

My friend is here
forget the haiku

In 1993 both Sisters decided it was time to return to the United States. Sister Agnes Virginia wrote that she wanted to make this move while she still had energy and enthusiasm. Three Korean Sisters responded to their invitation to replace them in the Lu Kang parish. At the time of their departure a parishioner wrote, “These days when I think of you leaving us, my heart becomes full of pain. From the time you have come to Lu Kang until now you have been like my mother, sharing our joys and sorrows. In order to repay your love for us we will reach out to love others as you have taught us, so that others will know we are Christians.”

Sister Agnes Virginia chose to go to Monrovia in 1994 to begin what she called her most important ministry, that of praying more and “learning to love.” Health concerns prompted her move to the main community at Maryknoll, New York, in 2000. In July of 2002 she was happy to have Sister Le Kheng Chen, MM, accompany her to Nebraska for a grand Higgins family reunion. In 2003 Sister Agnes Virginia became one of the 12 founding members of the Chi Rho community, and in 2004 she transferred to the Eden community.

Sister was very well loved by her family, the Maryknoll Sisters, her friends and by the staff in Residential Care IV. Her prayer ministry has been the future of Maryknoll and we will count on her continued intercession in this regard.

We welcome the Maryknoll Fathers who are here with us today and in a special way we welcome Taiwan missioner Fr. Peter Brien, M.M., who will preside over the liturgy of Christian burial.