CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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Trailblazers in Habits—
more than a Maryknoll story

HONG KONG (SE): The silver screen may affect the hue of life, but the images it reflects can be as removed from the reality they portray as the human imagination desires them to be.

The screening of Trailblazers in Habits on the lives and work of the Maryknoll Sisters held at the Rayson Huang Theatre at Hong Kong University on October 7 was followed by a panel discussion comparing the presentation of the real life  trailblazing sisters with some of Hollywood’s fantasied recreations.

Disrobing the myth to reveal the reality, the discussion combined the image Trailblazers presents with a study of Hollywood’s fascination with the stereotypical silhouettes of sisters it puts on screen, as revealed in Maureen Sabine’s book, Veiled Desires: Intimate Portrayals of Nuns in Postwar Anglo-American Film.

Trailblazers in Habits depicts the Maryknoll Sisters as hardworking, professional, modern women, who have, through the sweat of their brows and the dirtying of their hands healed the sick and educated generations, as well as bringing comfort to the afflicted, the downtrodden, the neglected and the forgotten in society.

The director of the movie, Nancy Tong, is what is commonly referred to as a product of the Maryknoll Sisters, graduating from one of their schools in Hong Kong.

She is a visiting associate professor at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre in Hong Kong and the inspiration behind a revealing movie on the Rape of Nanking, In the Name of the Emperor.

Tong calls Trailblazers a tribute to her old teachers. It features the stories of missionary women over a period of 100 years in their sojourns on several continents, portraying them as accompanying those who have been disenfranchised in their struggle for justice.

A press release describes her portrayal of the Maryknoll Sisters in this way, “By turns tragic and joyous, yet always inspirational, this insightful documentary is a revealing portrait of those courageous women.”

It describes the movie as weaving together the sisters’ own affecting accounts of imprisonment and personal struggle, with rare archival footage and poignant reminisces from those who benefited from their work.

“This film celebrates the intelligence and tenacity, the love, compassion and generosity of these early feminists,” the press release continues. However, for Hollywood, these are not the qualities which describe  or define the sister. It is the ethereal veil, which neither reveals nor conceals, but hides the reality to reveal the mystery, at best a relic and at worst other worldly.

Sabine responds by providing a framework for a more complex and holistic vision of a sister, dramatising their call to service, self-sacrifice and dedication, as well as desire for intimacy, achievement and fulfillment.

Three Maryknoll trailblazers were present at the discussion; Sister Rose Bernadette Gallagher, Sister Jeanne Houlihan and Sister Betty Ann Maheu—for a long time a faithful contributor to the Sunday Examiner with her regular China Bridge page.

Sister Gallagher entered Maryknoll in 1943 and served in China, Hong Kong, Thailand and, for a short time, the Sudan, in education, community development and women’s issues. 

Now in her sunset years, she is still a recognised authority on the trafficking of women and from her home at the Maryknoll Global Concerns Office in the United States of America, participates in Women’s Advocacy at the United Nations in New York.

Sister Houlihan arrived at Maryknoll in 1952 with a master’s degree in education administration. In Hong Kong, she taught English, scripture and home economics at the Maryknoll Convent School.

A figure far removed from the swishing veil floating motionlessly into the oblivion of the shadows of a mediaeval convent corridor, she was a school principal, served on the Management Committee for Vietnamese Refugee Children, taught at Hong Kong University and at the Ma Tau Wei Home for young women on parole from the courts, and is still a well recognised community figure in many facets of Hong Kong life.

Sister Houlihan spent 46 years of her life in Hong Kong and is now the sacristan and Planned Giving Officer at Maryknoll in New York.

Sister Maheu found herself teaching in Hawaii and the Marshall Islands after joining Maryknoll in 1949. A talented editor with a flair for journalism, she later became the coordinator of all publications for the Major Superiors of the World in Rome.

However, in the true spirit of the vocation of her congregation, the disenfranchised were never far from her thoughts and her great love in the Eternal City was the ever-growing population of refugees from Ethiopia.

After 40 years as a sister, she figured she had one more challenge left in her and went to China to teach English in Xiamen, later coming to Hong Kong, where she was the English-language editor of the bi-lingual publication of the Holy Spirit Study Centre, Tripod.

She now lives at Maryknoll in New York, busying herself organising the piles of undocumented history in the sisters’ archives.

While none of Tong’s trailblazers exude the mystique of an Ingrid Bergman, an Audrey Hepburn or Meryl Streep wooing their audiences as the obedient handmaidens of a patriarchal Church, the Maryknoll Sisters do live in the hearts of those who have been touched with their love and dedication, healed by their care or set free through their down-to-earth wisdom.


Truly women of the world, of God and of the Church, the trails they blazed even the most brazen of Hollywood’s silhouetted heroes may fear to tread.

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