Sister Henrietta Marie Cunningham, MM

Born: June 19, 1913
Entered: July 4, 1933
Died: February 12, 1988

We are gathered here this morning to celebrate the Mass of the Resurrection and bid farewell to our Sister Henrietta Marie Cunningham whose sudden death has surprised us all, and reminds us once again that life is God’s gift that is both precious and fragile. Sister died on February 12, 1988 at Phelps Memorial Hospital.

Sister Henrietta Marie was born in Framingham, Massachusetts, on June 19, 1913 and was baptized Margaret Mary ten days later on June 29. She kept this date as her Community feast day. Margaret was the youngest and only girl of three children born to William and Henrietta Erskine Cunningham. After her mother died when Margaret was barely 10 years old, her aunt, Mabel Cunningham, shared the responsibility of raising her and had a strong influence in her life. Sister Henrietta always maintained a close relationship with her family.

Sister attended Lincoln Junior High School and Framingham High School where she graduated in June, 1930. She obtained a teacher’s certificate from State Teachers College, Framingham, in 1933, and on July 4 Sister Henrietta made her First Profession on January 6, 1936 and pronounced her Final Vows three years later.

After Profession she worked at the Field Afar Office until her assignment to China in October, 1936. She went to Kongmoon for language study but after only a few weeks she was asked to go to Kowloon, Hong Kong, where in January 1937 she started teaching the Kindergarten and Second Grade pupils at Maryknoll Convent School. She continued learning Cantonese through her own hard efforts and mostly by listening.

During World War II, when Hong Kong fell to the Japanese on Christmas, 1942, Sister Henrietta along with other Maryknoll Sisters was interned at Stanley. In September, 1943, all prisoners of Irish descent including Sister Henrietta were freed. She and 3 other Maryknoll Sisters were permitted to go into the interior of China. It was a harrowing journey by boat and on foot, harassed by dive-bombing planes by day and bandits by night, before they reached the Maryknoll Mission in Wuchow. When the Japanese armies reached that City and bombed the Cathedral, the Sisters fled further inland almost to the border of India. In Chao Tung, they took refuge at a hospital run by Sisters from Yugoslavia. They helped care for the patients until the war ended.

Sister Henrietta was able to return to Hong Kong in October, 1945, and resume teaching, which she did with great enthusiasm for the next 23 years interrupted only by her decennial in 1949 and a year of study at Bridgewater, Massachusetts State Teachers College where she obtained her degree: a B.S. in Education on June 11, 1961.

At the 1961 Annual Recognition Day of Framingham State College, Sister Henrietta was given a citation as honored alumna for “her quarter century of complete and dedicated devotion to her chosen profession.” Her students from Hong Kong could vouch for this. She inspired and loved them and kept contact with many of them through letters and visits even up to this year.

Sister Henrietta had her first surgery in Hong Kong in 1963. After months of recuperation, she continued teaching although she had to use canes to get around which she did not mind at all. As she wrote in her 1964 Christmas letter, “I’m on two canes! However, I find them an asset in many ways… you would be surprised at how many approach a nun on canes who would never go near one with two good legs.”

In February, 1968, it became necessary for Sister to return to the U.S. for medical care. After recuperation, she requested to be with her father whose health had started to fail. While caring for her father, Sister Henrietta continued her ministry to Chinese immigrants at Boston Chinatown teaching them English and C.C.D. classes. After her father’s death in December, 1973, Sister searched for new ministry among the Navajo Indians in New Mexico. There she was engaged in Adult Education and C.C.D. programs until May 1977, when she needed further medical treatment. After recovery, she moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she worked as a Volunteer visiting the patients at St. Francis Gardens Nursing Home. She showed such care and concern for the patients, that the Administration recognized her valuable service and offered her a position as Social Service Director.

In January, 1982, the debilitating effects of her illnesses, necessitated her move to Manrovia, California. There she continued part-time ministry in the parish as part of a support group for many with personal or family problems, and helped with chauffeuring for the Sisters.

Early this year Sister Henrietta Marie came here to the Center on the start of her Renewal. She participated in the Central Governing Board Sharing Day and enjoyed two weeks of Mission Institute, although at the end of the program she remarked, “This could be my last one – it is getting too strenuous for me.” Sister was not able to complete her Renewal, but we believe that she is now fully renewed with her New Life in God.

We extend our sympathy to Sister Henrietta’s family and many, many friends. We welcome Maryknoll Father Pete Byrne who will celebrate this Eucharistic Liturgy with us.