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Proud history of valiant women

HONG KONG (SE): The Catholic Women’s League celebrated its 80th anniversary on November 17 with a Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and reception in the Caritas Community Hall.
Just the second spiritual adviser to the League for the past 26 years, Father John Russell SJ said that there is much to be proud of in the 80-year history and spoke of “the valiant women who responded so generously to the needs of their impoverished fellow citizens, who were then facing an unpredictable future.”
Father Fergus Cronin SJ was the inaugural spiritual director until 1990.
Suffering an injury from a fall, Father Russell said from his wheelchair, “Today, we salute them and return thanks for what they achieved and for the legacy of service they have bequeathed to us. They set the gold standard for the league in Hong Kong.”
But while the League may have been highly active in those early days, keeping records was not its strong point and little is known about the foundation and early days of its existence.
It is known it was set up by two Irish women, but their names have been lost to the dust of history. Then as the tides of war turned against Hong Kong the League went into abeyance with the outbreak of hostilities and the occupation of the city by Japan, not to resurrect again until the late 1940s.
In an era when the city was flooded by refugees from China the needs were great and records do document Lilian Perry as the first post-war president in 1949.
But it was in the 1950s that the women of the League came into their own. Small scale clinics were the first project, beginning with one in the old gun emplacements and munitions store among homeless people squatting around Belchers Fort on Mt. Davis.
Others quickly followed until five were eventually in operation, with one, in which the workload was shared with the Canossian Sisters, operating from a sampan around Aberdeen among the thousands of floating homes crowded into the harbour.
A newspaper cutting from the Sunday Examiner in June 1959 shows a glimpse of the squalid conditions facing the people of Hong Kong at the time and the environment into which the women from the League chose to place themselves.
The current president, Maria Chu, teamed up with Fernanda Da Rosa in presenting a detailed history of the entwining of the Catholic Women’s League with the history of Hong Kong in the post-war era.
There were always projects and always a need for the money to pay for them. Imaginative fundraising campaigns, including mahjong and bingo afternoons at the Peninsula Hotel, Bring and Buy Bazaars run in conjunction with the Rotary Club, the inevitable raffles around parishes and auctions among members, as well as an annual bumper raffle that offered a car as first prize, were the daily fare.
But as a mostly expatriate group in the early decades, vestiges of which still remain as the group is still English-speaking, many were the wives of influential men, who were able to get things done and access the moneyed classes of the colony.
These activities brought funds to build cottage housing for people squatting in the hills and crevices of the territory and projects ranging from $50,000 to $80,000, which would equate to several million in today’s currency, became reality.
But life was not all about making money. The women were there to serve and serve they did, paying weekly visits to a home for the aged run by the Little Sisters of the Poor and bringing supplies of many necessities of life that were in short supply in those days.
These were combined with physiotherapy for those in need and the imaginative women doubled as entertainers running through a few numbers on the stage, organising group games and other antics, which brightened up many an otherwise dull afternoon for the residents of the home.
There were parties and picnics for children, mobile canteens aided by donations from the League in Australia and the United Kingdom, and subsidised education for the children of those who struggled to afford it.
The League also formed many and varied partnerships and involved a wide range of sectors of society in its outreach.
A group of Buddhist women volunteered to make padded jackets for distribution during the chilling winter nights that bite into Hong Kong in the early months of the year.
An emerging Chinese-speaking group in the League also took up the work, many of them from Shanghai and other parts of the Chinese world and they managed to keep up a constant supply for distribution throughout parishes around the city.
They were active in assisting new missionaries from Europe with their English and in any area where the women thought they could contribute, the League would be there.
But as Da Rosa pointed out, none of this can be sustained unless underpinned by a spirituality, explaining that the bread and butter of the League is a weekly Mass, holy hour and meditation session at the Catholic Centre in Connaught Road.
The spirit of dedication and spirituality of service imbued in the League has also brought people to faith. Joyce Chan had her first brush with the League in the 1980s. As the head of the Social Services of Caritas she became involved in the passing on of the last surviving clinic run by the League in Shanghai Street, Mong Kok.
Impressed with the dynamism with which the League went about its fundraising, Chan was able to add a new dimension, mobilising elderly people from Caritas homes to sell raffle tickets around the Star Ferry Pier and other hotspots in the city.
It was also the days when Chan was preparing a report for the 1985 International Conference on Women in Beijing and she believed that this special group that had grown out of faith in God and dedication to the Church and the people it is called to serve should be represented.
“We put together what the Church in Hong Kong had done to improve the lives of women and families,” Chan said.
But the spiritual blessing came for her family, as it was through the influence of the Catholic Women’s League that they came into the Church.
But the League is also about personalities and it has had a good share of them in its day.
Many may be like Hilda Garcia, who bearing a few of the ravages of time may only be a physical shadow of the sprightly young woman she was as president in 1979, but still remain the spiritual giants that epitomise the women of the League.
One of its longest serving presidents, the late Pacita Roads, was remembered as a trail-blazer in her own right.
The first Filipino woman to star in a Hollywood movie (The Avenger), she lived for over 60 years in Hong Kong and used her considerable talent and warm-hearted compassion to promote the status of women in society, which she firmly believed would contribute to peaceful coexistence among all peoples.
As president of the League for 12 years up to 2009, she told the Sunday Examiner that she believed, “People do have to co-exist and despite differences of race, culture and religion, we must all work for peaceful coexistence in a realistic way.”
Returning from an Asia-wide meeting of the League in Seoul in 2008, she said, “Such a peace is only attainable through respect for the dignity and worth of women and dialogue, listening, forgiving and loving is the way of accepting that God is the only source of true peace.”
The Catholic Women’s League was and still is a prophetic voice and concrete witness to the influence that the power of women can have on society and, as an eclectic group of nationalities, a fulfillment of Road’s prophetic words.