Published in 2011 by Franciscan Media

Feliz cumpleaños. Gracias Maryknoll.” That’s what Father John Spain, M.M., will soon hear in El Salvador. In Taiwan, homeless women may greet Sr. Molly Mertens, M.M., in Mandarin: “Sheng ri kuai le. Xie xie. Maryknoll.” An AIDS patient in Tanzania may whisper in Swahili to lay missioner Elizabeth Mach, “Kumbukumbu njema. Asante. Maryknoll.”

Across the United States many Maryknoll supporters are celebrating a centennial of inspiring missionary service and also saying, “Happy birthday. Thank you, Maryknoll.”

The Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers began in 1911 and Maryknoll Sisters a year later. In 1975 the Maryknoll Lay Missioners were formally established, enabling U.S. men, women and families to serve three-and-a-half-year, renewable commitments in mission overseas.

Respecting Holy Ground

In Ossining, New York, a prominent statue of Mary rests on “Mary’s Knoll,” high above the Hudson River. Near a Chinese pagoda, an ancient, Asian bell rings whenever new missioners go forth. According to one veteran Maryknoller, “We were originally sent to transform Asia, but somehow God and Asia transformed us as well.”

Newcomers to Maryknoll are quickly advised: “Always remember that God was long present among the local peoples before we missionaries arrived. So respect that holy ground when you arrive. And don’t forget what one Filipino woman told a group of foreign missioners years ago, ‘Don’t come to walk in front of me or behind me, but walk with me.’”

Besides contributing greatly to our global Church community, Maryknollers have also inspired U.S. Catholics to promote a more just and peaceful society here.

The group seeks to empower poor people in struggling nations. Father Steve Judd, M.M., explains that in the 1950s Maryknoll shifted away from dependency models of mission. “Everywhere in Latin America,” he says, “Maryknoll took a leadership role in building up local Church structure and offices, working in grassroots communities.”

Sister Helene O’Sullivan, M.M., explains: “We are all called as baptized persons to announce and live the Good News and work together for the kindom of God on Earth. Kindom is not a spelling mistake; we are all meant to live as sisters and brothers.”

Vatican II (1962-65) invited the full participation of lay Catholics to seek God’s reign as well as to build global unity with other religions.

Revolutionary Beginnings

In 1910 at Montreal’s Eucharistic Congress, Boston’s Father James A. Walsh met Father Thomas F. Price of Wilmington, North Carolina. They shared a love for Mary, the queen of the apostles, and dreamed of engaging the Church in the United States with mission worldwide.

As Frank Maurovich, past editor of Maryknoll magazine, notes: “At that time, Rome had just removed the United States from the ranks of a ‘mission receiving country’ and promoted it to the status of a young but fast-maturing Church, able to send its own missioners abroad. The founders saw Maryknoll’s role not simply as a missionary organization but as a bold and prophetic movement of the entire U.S. Catholic Church, clergy and laity alike, to share Jesus’ vision, joy, hope, unity and love for the entire planet.”

On June 29, 1911, Pope Pius X approved the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, the formal name of the Maryknoll priests and brothers.

The first missioners went to China in 1918 (see sidebar for a Maryknoll chronology). Since then, more than 2,000 Maryknoll priests, religious brothers and lay missioners have served in nearly 50 nations.

Mary Josephine Rogers of Roxbury, Massachusetts, founded the Maryknoll Sisters in 1912 and became Mother Mary Joseph. She had worked with Father Walsh and later Father Price on The Field Afar, the predecessor of today’s award-winning Maryknoll magazine, to “interest all classes of people in Catholic missions.” The Field Afar began in January 1907. By the end of 1921, six Maryknoll sisters had left for China, shattering the idea that U.S. women were “too fragile” for such work.

The current Maryknoll Sisters’ president, Janice McLaughlin, emphasizes Mother Mary Joseph’s persistence: “This very wise and prophetic woman,” McLaughlin says, “founded the first group of American Catholic women to be missioners abroad at a time when women in this country did not yet have the right to vote. She described their spirit ‘as being a reflection of the love of God—nothing more nor less than that—a reflection of the love of God.’”

Maryknoll Sisters now come from 29 nations and serve in 26 countries. According to their mission statement, they “are committed to crossing boundaries, whether cultural, social, religious, geographic or economic, to proclaim the Good News of the Reign of God.”

Attracting Lay Co-workers

Sam Stanton, executive director of the Maryknoll Lay Missioners, served in Chile with his wife, Cecilia, and children. He notes that in the 1930s, Dr. Harry Blaber, a surgeon from Brooklyn, New York, served for five years at a Maryknoll leprosarium in China.

Stanton explains, “I believe there are elements of Maryknoll’s mission charism that have inspired laity to find an affinity with us. In Latin America, our lay missionaries are attracted to the ‘option for the poor’ and theologies that free people personally and socially.

“In Asia, it has been the efforts of interreligious dialogue and in Africa there is much more the response to such basic needs as health and education. I also believe the issue of building bridges between peoples and cultures in our broken world is a key motivation for laity to come to Maryknoll. The commitment to right relationship with all creation is also a leading inspiration.”

David Kane, who served in Brazil and is now with Maryknoll’s Office of Global Concerns in Washington, D.C., writes, “What originally drew me to Maryknoll was its reputation for working at the grassroots level to create structural changes to address poverty, exclusion and other attacks on human dignity. Maryknoll helps Catholics answer God’s call to be prophets to help provide solutions to all that ails our society.”

Anh Vu, a high school science teacher, escaped with her family to the United States in 1975. She later returned to Vietnam with Maryknoll, describing her mission as coming from “a sense of solidarity with the poor and disadvantaged that you can demonstrate by being in fellowship with them through their hardships and joys.”

Her ministry included street youth, children with autism, young people in trouble with the law and the visually impaired. Anh emphasizes that Maryknoll also taught her to “let go of one’s ego, allow the local individuals to take charge and let them teach you from the grassroots perspectives. Missioners need to be in the passenger seat, pointing out the directions and giving encouragement. But mission is also about learning from others, to realize that neither the United States nor anyone else has all the answers.”

Learning From Locals

According to Father Thomas Marti, “We Maryknollers are also formed by the people with whom we work. In my case, it was landless Filipino farmers and local Church workers seeking agrarian reform. They had a great influence on my ministry. Some of them were jailed and even killed by the Marcos regime.” Father Marti worked in the Philippines in the 1960s and ’70s, a very oppressive time.

“They encouraged me to understand the larger political and economic structures that cause oppression locally and globally—and then to find solutions to the poverty that grinds down millions of God’s people.”

Father Marti recalls Luke 4:16-30, where Jesus states his mission is “to let the oppressed go free.” Father Marti adds: “Notice that shortly after Jesus challenged his listeners to seek justice, some citizens of Nazareth were ready to throw him off the cliff. Jesus learned early on that persecution is to be expected if you stand with the lowly.”

Former Maryknoll Sisters’ president Sister Helene O’Sullivan now ministers in Cambodia, combating the trafficking of women and girls for prostitution. She has also organized a shelter for the women who have been rescued.

Sister O’Sullivan stresses that Maryknoll Sisters have sought “to keep before the American public the impact of U.S. foreign policy on the people of developing countries.” The 1980 martyrdom of four U.S. Churchwomen in El Salvador and the killing of thousands of ordinary Central Americans in the 1970s and ’80s represented, she notes, a time when there was “tremendous support from the U.S. Church to end our government’s support of military regimes and their death squads.”

Maryknoll Fathers Edward Dougherty, the men’s superior general, and Robert Jalbert identify other ways that Maryknoll has empowered people. The priests emphasize Maryknoll magazine’s wide influence and the founding of Orbis Books in 1970. Father Dougherty notes, “Orbis has given a global voice to the many indigenous Catholics and theologians from Africa, Latin America and Asia who have inspired many Maryknollers.”

Building Up the Local Church

Father John Gorsky, a Maryknoll missiologist, states: “Many of my fellow Maryknollers have aided the establishment of missionary congregations and organizations worldwide. For example, the Guadalupe Missioners in Mexico, Apostles of Jesus in Uganda, Peruvian Mission Association (that has produced 200 lay missioners), Philippine Catholic Lay Mission and others.

“We also help to assemble cooperative movements, organize two language schools to encourage dialogue and understanding, and have set up radio schools to teach the poor in Africa, Guatemala, Philippines, Bolivia and Korea.”

Having served in Africa himself, Father Dougherty recalls the work of physician Father Peter La Jacq, who organized Catholic medical schools such as the one in Bugando, Tanzania. It trains local health workers.

Father Dougherty also praises the efforts of Father Joseph Healey: “In Africa, he has done some remarkable pioneering of Small Christian Communities to enable local people to develop their own leaders, grow in their faith and work for social progress.”

What’s Ahead?

Maryknollers speak of linking people to share resources for mission animation. For example, they wish to encourage the Church here to reach out more effectively to Asian, Hispanic and other immigrants.

Maryknollers are also looking to increase their connections to U.S. seminaries, bishops and dioceses to deepen partnerships and twinning with churches overseas.

Merwyn De Mello, born in Kenya and of Indian origin, has served as a lay missioner in Japan, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. He observes: “Maryknoll has long contributed to cross-cultural ministry, community empowerment and liberating education. As the growing ethnic diversity in the U.S. population is reflected in the Church, my hope is that Maryknoll can offer its crosscultural experience in mission to U.S. Church leadership. I believe we can assist North American Catholics in addressing cultural challenges and with social issues such as globalization of the economy, youth leadership formation and immigration reform.”

Sister McLaughlin quotes their founder, Mother Mary Rogers: “Love, work, prayer and suffering will sustain us in the future as they have in the past. All who are here now, all who will come after us, will have no other tools than these with which to build. God has yet a great work for us to do.”

Maryknoll Brother Marty Shea, a prayerful, humble and holy missionary, has witnessed thousands of his Guatemalan indigenous friends being butchered in Central American wars during the 1970s and ’80s.

According to him, Maryknollers “recognize and awaken abandoned people to the wonder that they count, that they are important and vital within the body of the universal Church.” He offers, “That is the wonder for us. No one has a corner on God; God comes to us with a unique and personal and 
beautiful image.”

He breaks into poetry:

“It’s just being there
with others,
all the others in the crowd
as we seek to help one another
get close enough to touch the hem of His garment.”

Honoring Maryknoll

  • Do we empower laypeople of various cultures here, especially women, youth and those with few economic opportunities?
  • Do we prefer giving handouts to low-income people—that can be patronizing—or are we seeking solidarity with them?
  • Can we listen to the needs of our farmers and workers to understand the local and global roots of hunger and poverty?
  • How can our parish twinning relationships with Church communities in Appalachia, American Native reservations, urban areas or overseas avoid paternalism but instead build solidarity, transformation and conversion?
  • Can we seek social justice here by working with legislators for more just immigration policies?
  • Is God calling some of us to be Maryknoll missioners, serving hungry, forgotten and abused children?

Websites of the Maryknoll Family 

Video samples from Maryknoll Productions

1910 Fathers James A. Walsh and Thomas F. Price meet and dream of training U.S. Catholics for foreign mission work.
1911 Pope Pius X approves the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America.
1912 First Maryknoll brothers become members.
1918 Maryknoll priests arrive in Kwangtung province, China.
1920 The Maryknoll Sisters are officially recognized.
1930s U.S. lay missionaries begin to work informally alongside Maryknollers.
1942 Maryknollers accompany Japanese-American parishioners to California’s Manzanar Detention Center.
1950s Communists close Maryknoll mission stations in North Korea and China; some priests and sisters are expelled, jailed or die in prison, including Bishop Francis X. Ford (1952).
1970 Orbis Books begins.
1978 Maryknoll Sisters’ Office of Social Concerns begins. The priests, brothers, sisters and Maryknoll lay missioners later form the Maryknoll Office for Global Concern.
1980 Revista Maryknoll magazine begins in Spanish. Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, together with Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and Cleveland lay missioner Jean Donovan, are murdered by soldiers in El Salvador.
1990s Maryknoll returns to China to work in schools.
2011 More than 1,000 Maryknoll missioners serve in 38 countries.