Hearts on Fire
By: Penny Lernoux
"Journalist Lernoux, a respected writer on Latin American issues, undertook telling the story of the Catholic Maryknoll missionary community of sisters (founded in 1912) as a personal labor of love, completing five chapters before her death in 1989. National Catholic Reporter editor Jones completed the book with Orbis editor Ellsberg. Through quotes from letters, diaries, and personal interviews, a powerful narrative of faith and courage emerges, ranging from the first American Catholic women missionaries to go abroad to today's members. The sisters learned, loved, healed, taught but especially shared the lot, even to death, of those they served. From the carefully edited fragments of personal accounts of work in Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the United States, there emerges a realistic picture of a community ceaselessly challenging itself, ever in transition, ever opting to help the poor. Recommended for collections in religion and social justice." - Anna Donnelly, Library Journal, St. John's Univ. Lib., Jamaica
"A marvelous book that tells a tremendously inspiring story."-- St. Anthony Messenger
In her final book, acclaimed journalist Penny Lernoux takes up the inspiring story of the Maryknoll Sisters. In a popular, fast-moving style, she recounts the history of an extraordinary community of women religious and their efforts - over 75 years - to remain faithful both to the gospel and to the signs of the times.
Hearts on Fire offers a moving and exciting window on a critical century in the history of the American Catholic church. Through the voices of the Sisters themselves, Lernoux draws an inspiring and moving portrait of a community in constant transition and shows how - in their process of growth and conversion - they left their indelible mark on the church and the world.
The Maryknoll Sisters were the first congregation of American Catholic women to serve abroad as missioners. Beginning with the founding of the Congregation in 1912, Lernoux offers a moving portrait of the early pioneers and of their founding leader, Mollie Rogers, who, as Mother Mary Joseph, instilled in her Sisters a spirit of individuality, heroic charity, and "the saving grace of a sense of humor." From their origins as "secretaries" to the Maryknoll Fathers, the Sisters finally won permission to go overseas in mission. In China, they defied the conventional image of nuns; instead of simply operating hospitals and orphanages, they also went out two-by-two in the countryside to spread the gospel.
Facing floods, pirates, and civil wars, the Sisters spread their work throughout Asia and other parts of the world. They survived the harrowing ordeal of imprisonment in Japanese prison camps during World War II, only to face further persecution in China after the Communist Revolution. By the 1950's, as a result of these sufferings, the Maryknoll Sisters were revered symbols of the American way of life, their Mother General featured on the cover of Time Magazine. Many Sisters accepted the anticommunist politics of the time, with little thought of questioning the impact of American policies overseas. This was to change dramatically in the years to come.
The early Maryknollers saw their task as converting "heathens" in "pagan lands." But with Vatican II and their own experience among the poor, the Sisters' understanding of mission steadily evolved. External changes, like giving up the religious habit, reflected deeper changes in consciousness. The emphasis now was on witnessing to the Reign of God, accompanying the poor in their journey of faith, and struggling at the grassroots to make the gospel more visible in the world.
In the 1970's, a new phrase, "the option for the poor," began to define the Sisters' mission vision. Maryknoll Sisters around the world began to describe their work in terms of solidarity with the oppressed, linking their witness to the gospel with the struggle for justice and liberation. For some, like Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, murdered in El Salvador in 1980, this meant accepting "the same fate as the poor." The death of these Sisters along with two other churchwomen helped galvanize protests of U.S. policies in Central America and elsewhere. It also prompted a backlash on the part of the Reagan administration and its supporters, who accused the Sisters of abandoning the gospel in favor of Marxist revolution.
Hearts on Fire concludes with an overview of the Maryknoll Sisters today - a smaller, older and more culturally diverse Congregation. With reduced and aging numbers, the Congregation faces an uncertain future. But they face the future unbowed and unafraid, guided by the vision of their founders, the experience of the past, and their confidence in the Holy Spirit.
Penny Lernoux (1940-1989) was an award-winning journalist who chronicled the hopes and struggles of the post-Vatican II Catholic church, particularly in Latin America. In addition to her many articles in The Nation, The National Catholic Reporter, and Sojourners, she wrote the landmark work, Cry of the People (Doubleday, 1982), as well as People of God (Viking, 1989).