Sister Mary Diggins, MM

Born: January 10, 1924
Entered: December 8, 1941
Died: February 2, 2013

In the Gospel passage that will be read today, we will hear Jesus’ call to Nathanael. We chose this passage because we thought that if it were Mary Jesus saw under the fig tree and coming towards him, he would have said, “Here is a true Maryknoller, a woman without guile.” We gather this morning to say goodbye to Mary Diggins, one of Maryknoll’s great missioners, a woman of tremendous integrity, of generous heart, a devoted pastoral worker, and one possessing to a rare degree, the gift of a kindly humor.

Sister Mary Diggins, a longtime missioner to China, died February 2, 2013, at Maryknoll Sisters Residential Care III. She was 89 years old and had been a Maryknoll Sister for over 71 years.

Born on January 10, 1924, in San Francisco, CA, to John and Catherine (Cashman) Diggins, Mary was raised in St. Anne of the Sunset Parish, San Francisco, and graduated from the Academy of the Presentation, also in San Francisco in 1941.  She entered Maryknoll at the Motherhouse in Ossining, NY, on December 8, 1941.

At her Reception, she received the religious name of Sister John Karen. Following her First Profession at Maryknoll, New York, June 30, 1944, Sister Mary served in the Maryknoll Seminary kitchen until 1946, when she was assigned to the South China Region. She made her Final Profession in Hong Kong on June 30, 1947. Following the completion of Cantonese language studies, Sister engaged in pastoral ministry first in Wuzhou and Sye Wong in China’s Guangsi Province. With the Communist victory in 1949, Sister Mary, who lived with Sister Rose Bernadette Gallagher, in a two-Sister house, spent the next two years under house arrest. In 1951, when all foreign missioners were obliged to leave China Sister Mary was among a group of Maryknoll Sisters invited to the Island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, to work with the Chinese Hakka community there. She returned to Hong Kong in 1953 and until 1960, she worked in Chai Wan, an area where refugees fleeing the Communist regime, were flocking by the thousands. For the next 14 years, Mary served as a pastoral worker at St. John the Baptist Parish in Kwun Tong.

Sister Mary returned to the Maryknoll Sisters Center in Ossining, NY for congregational services in 1974. Upon being asked to do Promotion work, Mary said, “I will do whatever you feel is necessary…go wherever you wish…” then added in a way so typically Mary, “I just hope I will have a nice companion and co-workers.” Mary worked in the Development Department from 1974-76.  In 1975 while Mary was on promotion, a letter from the Women’s Association from St. John the Baptist Church in Kwun Tong was received by the Sisters leadership, which read, “Our parish needs a sister, our parish needs Sister Mary Diggins badly so we are writing to you now representing the whole parish, hoping very sincerely that you would give your permission for Sister Mary Diggins to return to our parish. We are all looking forward to having Sister Mary Diggins back here with us again soon.” She returned to Hong Kong in 1977, where she continued her pastoral ministry at Immaculate Heart Parish, Sau Mau Ping, until 1986.The pastor at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish was Father Raymond Nobiletti, MM. Mary, at her usual breakneck speed speech, described her work:  “Although the work was classified as catechetical, it was more socio-religious than church-centered: housing problems, school difficulties, medical difficulties, placing disabled children in institutions, transportation to hospitals for the ill, religious classes for adults and teenagers, preparing people for Baptism, group work, hospital and home visiting, marriages and attending marriage banquets, Sunday School classes, listening to people’s problems, and getting financial aid for the elderly.”

From 1986-90, Sister Mary returned once again to the Center in New York, where she served in the direct mail office. Returning to Hong Kong in 1991, and until 2001, Mary served as a pastoral worker at Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Macau. At the Easter Vigil of the Jubilee Year 2000 Mary, who found great joy in instructing people for baptism, wrote, “The priests and Sisters and people of the parish all shared in special joy. At Fatima Parish we had 36 catechumens baptized at Easter.” She herself had instructed eight of them.” It was a small number compared to the many others Mary had led to the baptismal font throughout her long years in pastoral work. But for her, each individual baptism was very special.

Throughout her long years as a missioner, involved almost exclusively in pastoral ministry, Sister expressed her goal this way: strengthen the faith of the Catholics; reach out to Non-Christians; give people a sense of their dignity, teach them that life has value and that we are important to one another. To accomplish these goals, Sister realized the importance of language and she spoke Cantonese well and fast! She said, “Language is of great importance; it conveys an acceptance of the people and their culture.”

Once Mary was asked, “What period of your missionary life did you find the most satisfying and why? Mary answered, “I guess most of my missionary life has been very satisfying. I have had my ups and downs, who hasn’t? But overall, it has been great. I like this ministry because I find that in some small way it has given people’s lives more meaning, more joy. My relationships with the people and very good community life with the Maryknoll Sisters with whom I’ve lived, have been two factors that have been great.” After a moment of reflection, she added, “Also being able to instruct others while they were catechumens and bringing them for the very first time to an awareness of God and their own great dignity has been a profound experience.”

“My dream when I entered Maryknoll was to work in China and do parish work. Both I’ve been doing and I hope it keeps on until I reach my last jubilee in heaven. I treasure the people with whom I’ve worked and lived over the past many years. They have given me more than I could ever give them. I have always loved working and living with the Chinese people. They have tremendously strong family ties. They work hard and are dedicated to their children and family members.” Mary had learned something else from the Chinese. She said, “We [Westerners] want to tear right into something, but with the Chinese you have to learn to wait…”

In 2002, Sister Mary retired to the Maryknoll Sisters residence in Monrovia, CA, where she was involved in volunteer work and community services. When she left Monrovia in 2011 to return to the Center in New York the Sisters in Monrovia wrote, “Mary will be a great loss to the Monrovia Community: her frankness, honesty, generosity and humor are greatly appreciated.”

Once back at the Center in New York, Mary took China/Hong Kong/Macau as her prayer ministry. Mary was part of the Chi-Rho Community and served on the Governance Team from January 1, 2013, until her death. Typical of her generous spirit Sister Mary donated her body to science.

Today, dear Mary, as we say goodbye, we remember you in prayer, in love and gratitude for your life among us.

We are happy to welcome our brother, Father Jack Sullivan, M.M., who will preside at our Memorial Mass.