Maryknoll's sister act

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 November, 2007, 12:00am

The Maryknoll sisters had little idea they would become heavily involved in education the day they set off for Hong Kong from New York in 1921. The sisterhood was looking for ways 'to serve' but had no definite plans.

Four years later, at the request of the Portuguese community, Sister Mary Paul McKenna started up a kindergarten in the community room of their convent in Austin Road for 12 children.

Months later, an additional teaching room was opened in the garage. As the demand for education grew, more space was acquired on nearby sites in the following years.

That kindergarten laid the foundation for Maryknoll Convent School (MCS), one of the oldest in Hong Kong.

Maryknoll moved from Austin Road to its present site in 1937. The historic red-brick building in Kowloon Tong is now its primary section.

The building, already designated as a grade-three historic building by the Antiquities Advisory Board, is expected to be declared a monument soon, given its unique style. It was modelled on the conventional English school of the day, with a large open inner courtyard.

The structure also testifies to the different stages of social and economic development Hong Kong has gone through.

Its 70th anniversary was celebrated earlier this year, when the Maryknoll Foundation launched a photography contest on it, organised jointly with the Photographic Society of Hong Kong.

The winning photographs are on show at an anniversary exhibition in the primary school hall.

The government-aided English-medium school was forced to close during the Japanese occupation between 1941 and 1945, after the Japanese turned it into a military hospital.

Forced out of their convent building next to the school, the sisters retreated to the mainland.

When they returned after the war, all that remained was a looted shell, with the furniture, equipment and school records gone.

The sisters sought help from their headquarters and managed to reopen the school.

Eager students took their own chairs to school, while classes were often held on the sports ground or grassland because there were no desks, according to The Maryknoll Sisters in Hong Kong, 1921-1969: In Love with the Chinese, by MCS alumnus and Baptist University historian Cindy Chu Yik-yi.

In the early 1950s, part of the school complex was used as a base to give out food to the large number of refugees who had fled the mainland following the Communist takeover in 1949. The sisters also served in resettlement areas in Kowloon Tsai, Tung Tau Tsuen and King's Park, and ran a number of clinics.

'The food lines did not last very long because Chinese people are very industrious. As soon as they could become independent they did. The Chinese mentality and culture is to survive,' said Sister Jeanne Houlihan, 76, a former supervisor of both the primary and secondary sections of the school who came to Hong Kong in 1955.

A pivotal part of the sisters' mission was to enable women to better themselves. They taught them embroidery in the school's workshop and paid them to make vestments for the church.

In the late '50s, sewing classes were also held to help women support their family. These classes lasted well into the '60s, when the sister in charge died.

By then, Hong Kong was experiencing rapid industrial growth, which resulted in more available factory work. More educational opportunities also became available for women, Sister Jeanne recalled.

Also serving in the medical and welfare fields, the Maryknoll sisters in Hong Kong numbered more than 70 in the 1970s, though the number has dropped substantially in recent years.

On the education front, they put much emphasis on liberal education, encouraging students to develop their talents, be it dance, music or others, alongside academic pursuits.

MCS used to allow students from nearby boys' schools focusing on science subjects to attend its literature and economics classes. Now it runs an exchange programme with La Salle College, with students taking certain classes in the other school regularly.

'I heard recently somebody talk about the liberal Maryknoll Convent School, I guess it's an atmosphere of trust and freedom,' said Sister Jeanne, also chairwoman of the Maryknoll Convent School Foundation. 'We try to develop students' gifts to the best of our ability. Our task as educators is to lead out, in other words, to help that person develop.'

But letting students develop at their own pace is not popular with everyone, especially parents, she concedes. 'So many people want control, want to predict. There is quite an emphasis on 'you are getting this much money, therefore what are you producing'?' Sister Jeanne said.

'Education is not like that, it is like a bud coming open slowly because we are learning, maturing all our life. I don't mean I am not accountable but I don't want the emphasis to be on 'this child, we have invested so much money, so therefore what are you producing?' That's not a good way to go.'

Of MCS's 90 sixth-formers in 2006-2007, 11 entered university after the summer under the Early Admission Scheme. Others with varied academic performances won extra-curricular awards in areas such as surfing and drama.

MCS has long advocated whole-person development, seeking to expand students' exposure through overseas exchange programmes and local trips.

'I think we were ahead of the reform, if I may be so bold, in developing the all-round person,' Sister Jeanne said. 'Every school is involved in taking students out for visits but we did that years ago. We took them to the Supreme Court, the Fire Services Department, the Legislative Council. That's wonderful for the students.'

She added: 'A well-educated person is not a student with nine, 10 As. That looks very good on paper. I am not saying that that student is not bright but there might be somebody with eight Bs who is better educated in the sense that she is more well-rounded and has the understanding that learning is life-long. She has the tools to continue to be educated.'

A broad education is also increasingly important in today's world. 'Even a doctor has to communicate; he or she has to explain to the patient. Also, he can't be a doctor 24 hours a day. You need to have some other hobbies, exercises, some ways to relieve your mind of your daily occupation.'

She expresses confidence in implementing the new senior secondary structure in 2009. The future compulsory subject of liberal studies has already been taught at MCS for 12 years, after all.

'It fits well with our type of liberal education because it forces students not to follow what the teacher wants,' Sister Jeanne said.

What has caught the attention of the veteran educator is the quick policy changes over the past years and students' heavy workload. The learning of IT and Putonghua on top of English was a challenge to local children, she added.

'I think we are challenging our students quite a bit but my question is ... if we are too focused on examinations because the exam in England is so much easier than our local exams. Particularly any of our girls who go abroad to England, it's just unbelievable how they achieve straight As, even in English.'

The photography exhibition is on this weekend and next.