The Maryknoll Sisters’ connection to mainland China began in 1921, when the first six Sisters began their mission life in Yeungkong (Yangjiang). But by 1952, no Sisters remained. The Communist government made it too dangerous for their work to continue. However, in 1979 mainland China opened its doors to foreigners again, and the Maryknoll Sisters found a way to return to their first foreign mission. Sister Rose Bernadette Gallagher was the first Sister to return to China, and this month we see her first impressions after 33 years away. Please click on the photos to see captions.

Sr. Rose Bernadette with local children in Wuchow

But who is Sister Rose Bernadette?

Sister began her mission to China in 1948 in Wuchow (Wuzhou). Here she learned Cantonese and worked in pastoral ministry to local families. She then moved to Hong Kong in 1949 to help poor refugees of WWII. In both places, she gave people religious and personal counseling, and helped connect families to resources like housing, education, healthcare, and jobs.

Sr. Rose Bernadette visiting a Hong Kong resident at her home

Sister Rose Bernadette worked in Hong Kong until 1973 when she returned to the US. While working at the Sisters Center in 1979, she learned of the chance to return to China as an English teacher. The Maryknoll Sisters had just created a China Task Force to coordinate with Sisters who wanted to teach. The Task Force helped find teaching jobs, complete paperwork, and keep the Congregation informed on Sisters’ new work. In 1982, Sister Rose Bernadette was the first Maryknoll Sister to return to China to work as a teacher.

Through her letters back home, we can follow Sister Rose Bernadette on her first two weeks as a teacher at Xi’an University in Shaanxi Province. How excited she was to return to her first mission country!

September 1, 1982

I just wanted to greet you from Xi’an. I came in [by] train yesterday evening about 6:30 P.M. The train ride from Beijing was about 22 hrs. I enjoyed the lush and expansive countryside. I was met at the train station by Mr. Ling and his companion then taken to the Foreign Teachers Flat. My living quarters are very adequate indeed; a large bedroom, office, sitting room, and bath accommodations are provided. Last evening, I met a Canadian teacher and an American who will be teaching at the university for the next year. We are all living in the same building…”

September 4, 1982

I will be teaching with Edna Heinz, a Canadian woman who is beginning her second year here. Edna is a lovely woman and already has been of invaluable assistance to me. Our formal classes begin on September 8th. Mary’s birthday, a nice day to begin isn’t it?… Yesterday three of us went into the city to do a bit of shopping. My first impressions were those of people and more people, of every kind of shape imaginable, and the great attraction the department stores have for everyone. Records, cassettes, tapes, small radios are in demand.”

Sr. Rose Bernadette with students at Xi'an Hot Springs, 1983
September 18, 1982

“Edna Heinz and I are now about two weeks into our teaching; we each have thirteen students. The young men and women are most diligent and can’t get enough input from us. Beginning on Monday, we will be conducting tutorials Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday for an hour in the afternoon. Oral practice and conversation with a specific theme will be our plan. On Saturday mornings we go touring with the students to various historical and cultural places. This morning we went to the Shaanxi Provincial Museum which features over 3000 exhibits of stone carvings and artifacts from the first centuries of China’s existence as a country. It was a rich experience to see this. Another day I must go back and spend hours just looking at one section of the exhibit. It is too much to absorb in a few hours.”