CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 11 November 2017

Print Version    Email to Friend
One time China mission society closes doors

TORONTO (SE): Displaying an unusual sign on its website reading Celebrating 99 Years, the only mission society to have come out of English-speaking Canada has announced that it is celebrating the unusual anniversary because it will not be having a centennial, as it is closing its doors just short of making the coveted 100.
 
The Scarboro Foreign Mission Society was founded in 1918 by an adventurous priest from Toronto, Father John Mary Fraser.
 
He had dared to venture to China alone in the early 1900s, but, like Father Edward Galvin, who joined him along the way and went on to found the Columbans and become bishop of Hanyang, he saw the need for a society to provide a continuity in mission outreach to take it into the future.
 
Sociologists tell us that organisations like Scarboro usually can count on a shelf-life of somewhere between 75 and 150 years, depending on how they develop and adapt, but Scarboro has judged itself to be running out of puff about two-thirds of the way through the maximum projection.
 
A statement released by the general treasurer of the society, Father John Carten, says that of late, vocations have been scarce and even enthusiasm for the society’s once thriving lay mission movement has waned.
 
“We have had to take a hard long look at our limited possibilities of giving a good formation to candidates, as well as providing candidates with a peer group for ongoing support and community life,” Father Carten says.
 
“That’s why, after discernment and guidance from the Holy Spirit, we have decided not to accept any more candidates for the priesthood or the lay mission programme,” he continues.
 
While Scarboro is not the only society of apostolic life facing the prospect of diminishing returns, it is a bitter pill to swallow for those who have devoted a whole lifetime to the service of people and God within the charism of Scarboro.
 
There was great enthusiasm for the early ventures into China. The setting up of the first mission in Lishui in the province of Zhejiang in 1926 saw the society magazine, China, feature pictures of beaming, fresh-faced young priests chaffing at the bit to get going.
 
But life was never easy. The pioneer group landed in the middle of a highly unstable situation that posed many difficulties.
 
Sister Susan Daly, from the Grey Sisters that joined the Canadian mission in Lishui, tells of one Christmas when an anonymous donation of one million Chinese dollars came the way of the priests.
 
“I’m not sure how it was used,” she wrote. “The most urgent need was medicine for the clinic, but… it could have been used to plan a picnic, a dire necessity in those dark days.”
 
However, their enthusiasm and courage did not fade, and the priests remained faithful to their people to the bitter end when all foreign missionaries were finally expelled from the mainland in the early 1950s.
 
But the decades that followed were arguably the golden years for the society. With the closing off of China, it reinvented itself, changing its name from China Mission to what it is known as today, the Scarboro Foreign Mission Society.
 
It took on new mission lands in Japan, Latin America, the Caribbean, The Philippines and Africa. Its efforts to move with the times were rewarded with an increasing flow of vocations, which in the 1960s saw its elegant seminary in Toronto packed to the brim of near overflow.
 
But those were the heady years and in the vocation business the tough times, which have seen young Caucasian missionaries from the English-speaking world become a bit of novelty, were just beginning.
 
The drought has now bitten Scarboro to the point it has judged it cannot continue.
 
Closing a religious congregation is a drawn out affair. It begins with not taking on new commitments, either in accepting students or new challenges.
 
Scaboro announced that it will no longer accept donations, except those earmarked specifically for commitments that it is obliged to fulfill. 
 
This period can be a lengthy limbo, as its remaining members must be cared for and all contracts honoured.
 
It is also closing its long-running interfaith office in Toronto, which Bishop Douglas Crosby described as having had a significant pastoral impact in building relations among people of different faiths in the city.
 
The director of Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs in Toronto, Father Damian MacPherson, commented, “Scarboro is a gem in the world of interfaith… I’m sure the interfaith community itself weeps at the loss.”
 
The lay mission programme is to be an immediate casualty. Over the years, both lay missionaries and priests from Scarboro have gone to China under the auspices of the Hong Kong-based Association of International Teaching Education and Curriculum Exchange to teach English.
 
They have lived the life of inadvertent missionaries through their commitment to excellence in teaching and the witness of their simple commitment to faith in daily life. 
 
Father Roger Brenan described the mission as leaving a positive impression of the faith, while at the same time contributing good English skills.
 
The only Scarboro priest in Hong Kong, Father Ray O’Toole, is the secretary to the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences and, like many missionaries of the modern era, is not involved in a project directly sponsored by his own congregation, but works for another organisation.
 
He finds the news of the closure difficult. “We did not follow the emerging trends in foreign mission when others did,” he said, lamenting that Scarboro never internationalised, which to a certain extent left it out of the flow of the new tides in the ever-changing currents of the development of mission movements in the world.
 
Father O’Toole told the Sunday Examiner that he believes there were other models of recruitment that were offered to the congregation that were never adopted or embraced, which, while they may not have led the society towards infinity, would have allowed it to contribute to the new developments in modern mission.
 
But come December 31 of this year, Scarboro will close its doors on a proud history, which has reflected vividly the daring and faith of its founder. 
 
Father Fraser was introduced to the excitement of mission when he was sent to study at the Collegio Brignole Sale in Genoa in Italy.
 
There he met returning missionaries from all round the world and that is where he caught the bug. It was in that cradle his own mission vocation was born and nurtured.
 
Although it will not last as long as some would have liked, true to its missionary charism, Scarboro has bequeathed.
 
When travel in China for foreigners again became possible in the 1980s, Father Jack McGoey, who had worked there during the days of World War II, and Father Gerry Sherry made a return to Lishui and although the visible structures of the many years of Scarboro labour had mostly disappeared, the Catholic community had not.
 
Although Scarboro left in a time of chaos, as churches were being destroyed, foreign missionaries expelled, the people persecuted and local priests jailed or killed, 30 years later they met several people who remembered or had been told by their parents about the white priests from Canada who gave witness to the faith in what to them had been an alien, but a deeply loved land of wonderfully generous people.

More from this section