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Sr. Grace Clare Shanley in China

Posted on January 8, 2021, by Susanna Pyatt

We have two interesting artifacts at the Heritage Center that nearly bookend the 15 years that Sister Grace Clare Shanley, SL, spent serving in China. The first is a small scrapbook of her journey overseas in 1934. She used a pamphlet printed by the steamship company to record her travels for her friend Sister Leonella Scherer, writing letters and inserting postcards and other keepsakes as she sailed across the Pacific Ocean. Her cheery record of this voyage as she ventured to her new teaching post in Hanyang has a far different tone than a prayer card she sent to another Sister in 1948. This card had a printed image of Christ speaking to a group of Chinese men with the caption “Go, teach all nations!” On the back of the card, Sister Grace wrote simply, “Please pray for us in this land of rumours and uncertainty.”

Pages from Sister Grace’s scrapbook describing a stop in Hawaii.
Prayer card printed by Catholic University Press (Peking, China)…
…and inscribed on back by Sister Grace.

Sister Grace’s experiences in China between 1934 and her departure in 1949 offer a glimpse at what life in the Chinese missions was like for Sisters of Loretto. When the opportunity to serve in China arose in 1923, many Sisters of Loretto volunteered enthusiastically for the initial six positions. The Sisters took charge of an embroidery school in Hanyang, and in 1933 they also took charge of a school in Shanghai that served the daughters of the city’s international population. The Sisters in China continued teaching and doing other service work through a series of difficult events, including multiple wars and, in Hanyang, catastrophic floods and epidemics.

Sister Grace was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1893. She entered Loretto in 1924 and taught in California and Texas before moving to Hanyang in August 1934. There she was assigned to work with Sister Patricia Hughes, with the goal that eventually she would be able to take over Sister Patricia’s position of instructing the students in embroidery. Sister Grace was in Hanyang for the devastating summer floods that occurred in 1935, so she may have helped with efforts to assist people who were displaced from their homes.

After almost two years at the embroidery school, Sister Grace was reassigned to Loretto’s school in Shanghai. She had come to Hanyang needing to learn both the Chinese language and needlework. That proved to be too tall an order, so it was decided that, since she did not have the skills needed by the Hanyang school, it would be better if Sister Grace put her teaching skills to work in Shanghai.

Sister Grace with Chinese students, likely in Hanyang.
Embroidered silk pin cushion made in the shape of a shoe. Belonged to Sister Grace. According to Sister Antonella Marie Gutterres, shoemaking was part of the curriculum of the Hanyang embroidery school partly because the girls would be expected to make quality shoes for their husbands and children.

Throughout Loretto’s time in Shanghai, the Sisters moved their school and convent from place to place. They were not able to purchase a suitable location for the school until the late 1940s. Their mobility was heightened by the Sino-Japanese War and World War II. In 1937, just months after Loretto School held its first graduation, the Sisters had to evacuate from the building they had been using to the convent of the Sisters of Charity in Shanghai’s French Concession. Despite the difficulties of moving their furniture and other possessions from a Japanese-occupied area to the French Concession, the Lorettines were able to find another building to rent, and they continued to hold school.

The Sisters changed the school’s location yet again in the summer of 1939, and they continued teaching even as the storms of World War II gathered. By 1941, overseas travel was no longer safe enough for them to evacuate back to the United States, even if Grace and her fellow Sisters had wanted to leave occupied China. Eventually any communication between the Sisters in China and the rest of the congregation was impossible. Resources in Shanghai were scarce, and the cost of food and other necessities soared as the city faced wartime shortages and rationing.

Nevertheless, Loretto School opened with over 300 enrolled students in September 1942. Just two months later, all of the American-citizen Sisters of Loretto in Shanghai were interrogated and interned by the Japanese. Catholic officials made special arrangements for all the Religious serving in Shanghai to be interned together at Catholic institutions, with the caveat that they would not receive rations from the Japanese. Sister Grace, along with 13 other Lorettines, was interned at the compound of the Religious of the Sacred Heart (RSCJs) for the rest of the war.

Despite their internment, the Sisters were able to continue contact with some of their students. The Sisters were given part of the third floor of a classroom building for their living quarters. Outside visitors were allowed into the compound, so the Sisters offered private lessons, including in English and high school subjects, for some of their pupils. With 96 Women Religious interned in the RSCJ compound, the Sisters also connected with and learned from members of other congregations as they all weathered the war together.

Prisoner of war badge worn by a Sister of Loretto interned at the Sacred Heart Convent, Shanghai, April 1943 – August 1945.
Drinking glass made from a broken bottle, used by Sisters of Loretto during their internment at Sacred Heart Convent.

When peace came in August 1945, communication with Loretto in the United States resumed, and wartime shortages were gradually addressed. The RSCJs offered for the Lorettines to continue living and teaching in the Sacred Heart compound until they could find a suitable new location. In the fall of 1946, the Sisters at last found a permanent location for their school and convent, purchasing a 20-room house on enough land to allow for expansion.

High enrollment quickly filled the house with students and made it necessary to find or adapt other buildings for classroom space. Not only was enrollment high, but there was a strong Catholic spirit in the student body. Many students participated in religious extracurricular groups, especially the Legion of Mary, a branch of which was organized at the school in 1948. Sister Grace and the other teachers saw four of their post-war students off to the Motherhouse in Kentucky, while two former students returned to Shanghai as newly professed Sisters of Loretto.

Sisters of Loretto teaching in Shanghai, c. 1946-1948. Sister Grace is on the bottom row, far right.

But there were already hints of further trouble. The Chinese Communist Party was taking over the country. By 1948, members of other religious orders were leaving China, as were some of the Loretto’s pupils with their families. The Sisters of Loretto felt like they were safe in Shanghai, and most decided to stay despite the “rumours and uncertainty” Sister Grace mentioned. They felt secure enough to refuse to leave when the Mother General back in the United States ordered their evacuation in April 1949. Within a month, however, the situation had changed. Catholic leaders felt it would be best if Sister Carlos Marie Lubeck, one of the Shanghai-born Sisters of Loretto, left the country before China refused to let native Chinese people out of its borders. Sisters Grace and Doloretta Marie O’Connor accompanied Carlos Marie on the steamship to the United States, departing Shanghai on May 4. The Communist Army entered Shanghai on May 25. While the remaining Sisters kept the school open until the fall of 1952, they and their students faced persecution due to their Catholic activities.

Like the other Sisters of Loretto who went to China, Sister Grace resumed teaching in Loretto schools upon re-entering the United States. Several letters in her archival file demonstrate that she tried to stay up-to-date with the wellbeing of her colleagues, former pupils, and friends who remained in China and who had evacuated elsewhere. Sister Grace was the first of the Loretto missionaries to China to pass away, dying at the Motherhouse in March 1954.

Passport photo of Sister Grace as she returned to the United States, May 1949.

Further reading:

Antonella Marie Gutterres, SL, Lorettine Education in China, 1923-1952 (United Publishing Center, 1961)

Patricia Jean Manion, SL, Venture Into the Unknown: Loretto in China 1923-1998 (Independent Publishing Corporation, 2006)

Susanna Pyatt

Susanna Pyatt

Susanna Pyatt is the curator for the Loretto Heritage Center. A graduate of Western Kentucky University's Folk Studies program, she geeks out over American communal societies, historic buildings, and the artifacts of daily life.
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