A quiet arrival with a huge impact: The Canossian Sisters in Hong Kong

Early photo of Canossian Sisters in Hong Kong
Early photo of Canossian Sisters in Hong Kong

by Gianni Criveller

Among the thousands of events cancelled or pushed aside by the Covid-19 pandemic was the 160th anniversary of the arrival of the Canossian Sisters in Hong Kong on 12 April 1860. What they have done for the emancipation, protection and promotion of women is simply incalculable.

The Italian consul general to Hong Kong and Macau, Clemente Contestabile, aware of the fundamental contribution of the Italian sisters to the development of society, would have liked to mark the anniversary with an event. It was not possible. 

He wrote to the South China Morning Post (April 12) that the six who first arrived were “young, brave and capable,” adding, “With the strength of their faith and their determination, the young women brought hope and relief to many in Hong Kong, in the face of epidemics, natural disasters and a challenging social environment. Today, the message of peace, care and solidarity carried by those six young Italian women in 1860 still resonates strongly in Hong Kong and … it is a powerful source of inspiration for us all in a critical time for Hong Kong, Italy and the whole world.”

The consul general asked me to tell their story with a short video. I did it willingly, albeit aware of the few historical and pictorial resources available here in Monza, Italy. The video is accessible at https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=2570791559846140. 

The Canossian Sisters rescued thousands of girls from certain death. They trained generations of young women who then carved out a place in all sectors of society: religious, social, cultural, entrepreneurial, political. The current chief executive, Carrie Lam (alas, unpopular in these days!), was one of their pupils as well.

Through Canossa Hospital, they offered excellent health care. I, along with many other missionaries, loved and appreciated this institution where one felt not only best cared for, but also at home. In particular, I would like to remember Sister Giuseppina Gamba (Sister Jo, to all), who for decades welcomed us with grace and kindheartedness at the hospital reception. 

The Daughters of Charity (their formal name) were founded in Verona in 1808 by the Marquise Maddalena di Canossa. They quickly spread to Veneto and Lombardy, promoting the education of little girls and poor young women.

The six Canossian Sisters were the first Italian women to settle in Hong Kong. They arrived at the invitation of the missionaries of Milan (now the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions), who had settled in the then-British colony only two years earlier. It was the first missionary expedition of the Canossian congregation outside Italy, and therefore lived with great participation and anxiety. 

It was a long and difficult journey in the company of Father Giuseppe Burghignoli and, for some unfortunate miscommunication, no one was waiting for them at Victoria Harbour on the morning of their arrival and no place had been prepared for them. 

A few hours after they arrived on April 12, they met the young Emily Bowring, the favourite daughter of John Bowring, the fourth governor of Hong Kong. 

But they were women of great courage and devotion, able to overcome any challenge. In fact, they did exceptional things, leaving an indelible mark on the history of the city. Among them, Lucia Cupis (1820 to 1870) and Maria Stella (1832 to 1917), the first two superiors, stood out for their personalities. 

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Less than a month into their arrival, three memorable events had marked the start of the Canossian mission. 

A few hours after they arrived on April 12, they met the young Emily Bowring, the favourite daughter of John Bowring, the fourth governor of Hong Kong. 

The 27-year-old Emily was one of the most admired women in the colony who, a few years earlier, had shocked her family and society by converting to Catholicism. Emily made the sensational decision to become a Canossian sister. On 1 May 1860, or 17 days after their arrival, the Italian Convent School in Caine Road (now Sacred Heart Canossian College), was inaugurated with Emily Bowring as its first principal. On May 10, with the help of two young Chinese women, the Pui Ching Chinese school began.

The Canossian community became a centre of continuous development of educational, social and evangelising activity. They founded a boarding house for European girls, an orphanage for girls, a small hospital, a home for disabled people and a catechumenate. In 1880, they opened a school for poor children in Kowloon and other activities for young women and poor families.

These achievements were possible thanks to the strong personality of the missionaries, animated by exceptional faith and determination. Not a few of them succumbed to fatigue and health dangers at a young age. We can see how many Canossian died young at the tomb monument at St. Michael’s Catholic Cemetery in Happy Valley. 

The first on the list is Giovanna Scotti, a member of the first expedition, who died at the age of 29. Epidemics, natural disasters, shipwrecks, persecutions, misunderstandings even by ecclesiastical superiors marked their difficult and exciting journey.

In the summer of 1870, the two women who had the most influenced the Canossian enterprise in Hong Kong, the superior, Lucia Cupis, and Emily Bowring, who was only 37-years-old, died within a few months of each other in 1869 and 1870. They were women with strong personalities who understood and loved each other even though they came from two completely different worlds. 

Sister Cupis, who was 49-years-old at the time died, was generally considered a saint.

In 1868, Sister Luigia Cupis, with five companions from Hong Kong, opened a new mission in Wuhan in Hubei, amid serious privations and difficulties. Subsequently other missions were initiated in the provinces of Shaanxi and Henan. 

In 1874, the Canossian Sisters also settled in Macau. Missions, starting from Hong Kong, were opened in Timor, India, Singapore and Malacca.

Hundreds of sisters had come to Hong Kong, Macau and China to work in the fields of education, evangelisation and caring for orphans and the sick. At the same time, numerous Chinese girls and women entered into the Canossian community. Generally, they were tertiaries, or unmarried women, who dedicated themselves to the mission without public religious vows. 

In 1922, the first Hong Kong women’s congregation, the Precious Blood Sisters, was founded with the encouragement of Bishop Domenico Pozzini, from the Canossian group.

In April 1929, under the responsibility of Teresa Pera, Canossa Hospital was founded on Old Peak Road and is still at the same location. The original building was destroyed during the Second World War adn the current structure was inaugurated in 1960. In 1991, the hospital came under the responsibility of Caritas-Hong Kong, without changing the trademark name.

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In April 1934, Archbishop Mario Zanin, apostolic delegate to China, visited Hong Kong and was received with all honours at the most prestigious Sacred Heart School. The principal, Sister Mabel Anderson, chose a nicely dressed 14-year-old girl, to present the bouquet of flowers to the illustrious guest. 

One of her children entered the seminary and became priest and bishop. He is John Cardinal Tong, apostolic administrator of Hong Kong. This minor episode, which I am pleased to recount here, was told to me by the cardinal himself.

Incidentally, the little girl was born in Macau and was not a Christian. Yet she was proud of the privilege, which she recounted many times in her long life. Since then she had the highest respect for the sisters. 

Years later, she had to move to Guangzhou because of the Japanese invasion. Widowed and with small children, she was in a state of great difficulty and went from leaning toward Catholic faith to receiving baptism. 

One of her children entered the seminary and became priest and bishop. He is John Cardinal Tong, apostolic administrator of Hong Kong. This minor episode, which I am pleased to recount here, was told to me by the cardinal himself.

Between 1947 and 1951, most of the Canossian Sisters who were expelled from China came to Hong Kong and Macau. Education became the most urgent need for the large number of young refugees. The Canossians founded over 20 new schools, giving particular priority to girls from poor families.

The sisters who are Italian are few now. Among them, Sister Anna Viganò serves the Italian community with dedication. They meet on Sundays at the chapel of the Sacred Heart School, on Caine Road, not far from the cathedral. 

The Canossians are mostly Chinese, a sign that they have become part of the local community. 

I wish to congratulate the Canossian Sisters on their anniversary, but even more for the mission they continue to perform in Hong Kong and Macau. 

They are one of the most respected educational institutions in the two territories. They have made a remarkable difference in the life of thousands of women. 

Their past and their present command the gratitude of the Catholic community and of the whole society.

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