The Maryknoll Mission sisters, an order established in early 20th century America, have travelled to exotic locations and have often been at the centre of important geopolitical events.
A documentary about the order, Trailblazers in Habits, was screened at Hong Kong University on May 29, and the audience had a chance to talk with the filmmaker, Nancy Tong, who is a visiting professor at the JMSC and was herself educated at the Maryknoll Convent School here in Hong Kong.
Tong said that the sisters’ influence helped her as a teacher, filmmaker and journalist because they taught her how to relate and be compassionate to people from all walks of life.
The film follows the work of the sisters, whose base is in Ossining, New York, as they carried out their mission in segregation-era USA and post-Pearl Harbour internment camps for Japanese, and in foreign postings in Latin America, Africa and China. In Hong Kong, the sisters established the Maryknoll Convent School as well as several other schools and hospitals for Hong Kong’s disadvantaged.
Tong collected a wealth of photographs and historical footage over four and a half years, which illustrate the varied and oftentimes difficult circumstances the women experienced in their work, and she interviewed more than 40 Maryknoll Sisters aged between 75 and 100 years.
The interviews were so touching, said Tong, that she was often moved to tears. The sisters would never take the credit for just how much they had helped people in need, but instead expressed gratitude to those who had welcomed them into their lives and allowed them to do their work. “The sisters were so modest,” she said.
Tong said in response to a question that in her extensive archive of journals, letters and other records she hadn’t found any dark side to the order. But the sisters sometimes clashed with the conservatism of the Catholic Church, she said.
The heritage-listed, art-deco Maryknoll Convent School in Kowloon Tong has educated many influential Hong Kong women, including former Legislative Councillor Tanya Chan and Canto-pop star Gigi Leung.
Stephanie Ip, a Maryknoll alumna who is now a Master of Journalism candidate at HKU, said the documentary gave her a new perspective on the sisters.
“I didn’t realize the Maryknoll sisters did so much for the people, I’ve only known them as my kind and soft-spoken teachers who were occasionally stern with us,” Ip said. “Watching this documentary made me really proud to be a Maryknoll schoolgirl and to have had the honour to be taught by these amazing women.”
Photo: JMSC Director Ying Chan with Filmmaker Nancy Tong after a screening of Tong’s new documentary Trailblazers in Habits.