chinesesisters2Still fast friends, from left to right, Srs. Eugenio Chu, Mary Ann Belland and Miriam Terese Yost pose for a photo at the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi motherhouse. Sr. Eugenio was living in the Shandong providence of China when at the age of 17 she entered the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi. Soon after in 1948, the communist regime in the area shut down their convent, and Sr. Eugenio, along with 21 other Chinese sisters and one novice, left for the United States to continue their ministry. (Catholic Herald photo by Amy E. Taylor)

When Eugenio Chu was attending high school during the 1940s in her hometown of Shandong providence, China, she had no idea that a visit to a sick teacher would eventually guide her life on a different path through the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi.

“One day one of the American sisters was sick; she was in the hospital for a few days. One Sunday she came back, so in the afternoon I thought, ‘I’m going over to visit Sister.’ So, then we talked, and along our conversation she asked me, ‘What are you going to do when you grow up?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘I have no idea.’ She said, ‘Would you like to be a sister?’”

The young Chinese girl, who came from a modest family with four children, pondered the words of her teacher. It was World War II, work was scarce and her future looked bleak. Although she had never considered joining a religious community, she always knew she wanted to somehow take care of unwanted children. After meeting with the mother superior of the order and discussing the options available to her, Sr. Eugenio took a leap of faith and joined.

Parents unsupportive

Telling her parents, however, proved to be a challenge.

“My family was very against (the idea), especially my father,” Sr. Eugenio said. “I have no money, and I cannot ask for it from my parents because they won’t give me money. They don’t want me to be a sister … by the time I have to go to the convent, all these things happen and my family knew nothing.”

After meeting resistance from her family, Sr. Eugenio turned to a priest who worked in her school, and discussed with him her impending journey into the religious community. Together, he and some of the other sisters helped her prepare for the lifelong commitment, without her parents’ help. 

“They helped me get the necessary clothes, so when the time came to go to the convent, I went home early in the morning before 7 o’clock,” Sr. Eugenio recalled in her Chinese accent. “I said goodbye. My parents said, ‘For what? Where are you going?’ I said, ‘I’m going into the convent.’”

Journey to America

By 1948 Sr. Eugenio had been teaching English for five years in China when communists occupied the region. Because of the harsh religious climate, all religious schools and convents were closed by the communist regime. The Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi told her that she had two choices: receive a dispensation of her vows and return home to Shandong providence as a lay person, or travel to the United States with her American sisters. Sr. Eugenio, along with 21 other Chinese sisters and one novice, chose the second alternative. 

“I thought, ‘I had a hard time getting my vocation; I’m not going back,’” Sr. Eugenio recalled. “So I said, ‘I’m going to America.’ So, we came here. I was in the motherhouse for a couple of days and I was sent to St. Coletta’s for special children. So, I got all the kids I wanted. I work there with the special ed for over 50 years.”

In 1968, Sr. Eugenio returned to Taiwan, planning to teach English. However, the director of Kuang Jen Primary School, a Belgium priest from the Immaculate Heart of Mary order, believed the Catholic Church should be doing something for the many children with mental disabilities, and so he asked Sr. Eugenio to start a program at the school because of her experience with working at St. Coletta. She accepted the challenge.

In the early 1970s, Sr. Eugenio built a special education department for students 6 to 13 years old with mental disabilities. Her first class quickly filled, and each year another class was added. The program was so successful that teachers trained in Taiwan by Sr. Eugenio  continue to serve children today. In 1983 Sr. Eugenio returned to Wisconsin where today she lives at the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi Motherhouse with her fellow retired American sisters.

Sharing the Chinese culture

According to Sr. Rose Sevenich, director of vocations for the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, Milwaukee, all of the American sisters who have come into contact with Sr. Eugenio – herself included – have learned much about Chinese culture.

“I look at my (Chinese) sisters and I think, they’re not only survivors, but they’ve thrived and they’ve taught us,” said Sr. Rose in reflection.

She explained she’s learned about the Chinese Zodiac which relates each year to an animal and its reported attributes. Last year was the year of the rabbit, and 2012 is the year of the dragon, an extremely important year, according to Sr. Eugenio.

“Everybody wants a baby born during that year,” said Sr. Rose, explaining that those born in the year of the dragon tend to be innovative, self-assured and brave.

Learning the traditions that originate from China and their meanings has been a great learning experience, said Sr. Rose.

“It’s one thing to go into a Chinese restaurant, and then you sit down and you have a placemat, and then you have all these things and then you look where you are,” she explained. “But to be with women that have lived this … they have been very gracious to us, our sisters, in sharing their food with us. And her mom was right. I don’t know how you folks ate our food when you came here,” she laughed. 

“You get used to it after 60 years,” Sr. Eugenio modestly explained with a laugh.

‘Everything is medicine’

Sr. Eugenio also taught the other sisters that nearly everything in nature can be used as medicine.

“The leaf of the tea tree is medicine,” Sr. Rose explained. “And oh, we would have so much fun with garlic. I mean, forget an aspirin, just eat part of a garlic and then you wouldn’t be sick. But what we’ve noticed is that you wouldn’t want to be around them because of the smell!”

Drinking a mugful of water with brown sugar for a cold is also a natural remedy that works well, Sr. Eugenio added.

Traditional Chinese food was a great experience for the American sisters. 

“We throw away – as Americans – we throw away the best part, but they make the wonderful soups from all of the broth and everything. It’s just a whole different way of looking at things,” Sr. Rose explained.