Sister Jeanne Houlihan devoted 56 years to working as a teacher, supervisor and principal at Maryknoll Convent School, in Kowloon Tong, before retiring in 2011. But she was delighted last month to be back at the school, which was her home for more than half a century.
The American returned from New York to attend the Hong Kong premiere of Trailblazers in Habits, a 90-minute documentary made to mark last year’s centenary of the Maryknoll Sisters.
The Sisters, a group of Catholic religious women who devote their lives to service overseas, established the Hong Kong’s girls’ school, originally with only 12 students, in 1925. Its motto, Sola Nobilitas Virtus, means “Virtue Alone Ennobles”.
One theme of the documentary is the “spirit of giving”, said Houlihan, who started work teaching English, scripture and home economics at the school in 1955.
“This means to serve others, to look at generosity, at courage, at the ability to risk, to go out and to try new things. That’s the spirit of Maryknoll.”
In 1922, six Maryknoll Sisters, dressed in sweeping grey habits, arrived in Hong Kong by steamer to start their mission. The Sisters would follow the establishment of Maryknoll Convent School with five more schools and a hospital in the city, and also help lay the foundations for Hong Kong’s social welfare system.
Houlihan, who served as principal of the school from 1972 to 1986, before continuing as supervisor until her retirement, said: “When we first came to Hong Kong, girls were at a disadvantage because the boys had a better education. Now the girls can have equal opportunities, but I still think it is an important mission to educate everybody in life.”
She said the current plight of schoolchildren in Syria, caused by the continuing conflict, has greatly concerned her. Unicef, the United Nations organisation working for children’s rights, calculates that two million youngsters from the war-hit country have been forced to drop out of school. Many have been forced to flee to neighbouring countries.
“The refugees were trying to get away from the war, so their children had no schooling, no sanitation and no food,” she said.
“The biggest gift that we have is freedom and it’s our choices that make our life – and it’s not God who chose the bad things,” she said. “God didn’t put the guns in the people’s hands. It’s their choice.”
Houlihan, who was born in St Louis, Missouri, said she always wanted to visit China and work abroad. So she joined the Sisters after she graduated from university in 1952.
Leaving her close-knit family for Asia to live in Hong Kong, with its dramatically different culture, proved a big challenge.
“I came from a big family, so at first I did miss my family,” she said. “But then you have another family here, and there’s the joy that you learn about a new culture, a new language and you learn to love people here, so that balances the loss.
“Teaching was always my passion,” she said. “To me, it was a wonderful opportunity to come here to help girls to be who they’re meant to be.”
The documentary focuses on the Sisters’ global work in education, healthcare and promoting social justice. Funded mostly by donations from thousands of former students at the Sisters’ schools around the world, it was filmed by the award-winning, Hong Kong-born director Nancy Tong, who studied at Maryknoll Convent School.
Today the Sisters, who number about 500, live and work in 25 countries around the world - not only in the US and Asia, but Africa and Central and South America. They are dedicated to humanitarian pursuits and serve as teachers, nurses, doctors, social workers and advocates of youth issues and women’s rights.