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CRS President Woo, a Former Student of Maryknoll Sisters, Pays Tribute to Her Mentors

November 5, 2012 by

From Maryknoll Magazine: Carolyn Woo, president and chief executive officer of Catholic Relief Services, wrote the following essay in commemoration of International Women’s Day. She is former dean of the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

As I grew up, more important than wanting a different life was being able to imagine one. I want to pay tribute to the women who made that possible: the Maryknoll Sisters.

Exactly 100 years ago, the Maryknoll Sisters were founded by the big-hearted, faith-filled Smith College graduate Mollie Rogers. She pondered why Catholic women in the United States could not serve in foreign missions—then did something about it.

As Mother Mary Joseph, she recruited a small band of women to serve in places where few others would tread. Lucky for me, they chose to serve in China. Like my parents, they also settled in Hong Kong when the newly formed People’s Republic of China terminated their ministry.

At the Maryknoll Sisters School, our studies, starting in the second grade, were conducted in English because the material exhausted the Sisters’ mastery of Cantonese. What a sight it must have been to see Chinese girls in pigtails trying to imitate the American accent! In my 12 years at the school, I not only learned to read, but discovered a world of ideas. I learned not only to speak, but to give voice to my thoughts. I learned not only what was, but what could be.

The most valuable gift I received from the Sisters, though, was faith. We had catechism lessons, but, more importantly, we saw faith in action. Somewhere along the line, I concluded that God must be very real for the Sisters. Otherwise, why would they leave home, family and security to go to some foreign land to live in hardship, speak a new language, adjust to a new culture, face such risks? Why would they choose to serve us girls when they did not even know us? How did they know they would succeed? They not only did this, but they exuded so much joy and humor, grace and adventure.

“Can’t be done” was not part of their vocabulary. By their example, I learned to fight and love—two sides of the same coin when it comes to serving poor and marginalized people. I learned to trust God because they did.

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