China: Praying and waiting for the tide to turn

The ancient Gingko tree by Wuhan's No 5 Hospital

The ancient Gingko tree by Wuhan's No 5 Hospital

This is the third exclusive ICN report from a Catholic - who lives in Wuhan and prefers to remain anonymous - giving a first-hand account of the situation in the city at the centre of the coronovirus infection.

In Wuhan I frequently visit the Sisters of Our Lady of Hanyang. Their convent is located just beside St Columban's Cathedral, a short distance from where the Han River enters the much bigger Yangtze River.

Almost as impressive as the Yangtze River is the towering 550-year-old ginkgo tree that stands across the road from the convent. Under its shadow stands the original hospital run by the Missionary Sisters of St. Columban until the late 1940s. The original building is now part of an expanded complex known as Wuhan's Number 5 Hospital. Two weeks ago this hospital was designated to receive patients suffering from the coronavirus.

Hanyang's famous ginkgo tree has witnessed many historical events. Dynasties have come and gone, floods have risen and abated and wars have taken their toll on the people. Now as the tree stands without leaves following the visit of another winter, it is witness to an event that poses as big a challenge as any that has gone before. Considering its long years, perhaps it is no surprise that the tree is now protected within a neat compound. An elderly couple living in small home at the compound entrance ensures that the tree and its history are protected.

In 1931, prolonged summer rain combined with torrents of melt water from snow on the heights of the faraway Himalayas. The Yangtze River burst its banks in Wuhan and many areas outside the city. Refugees from devastated rural areas moved to the city in the hope of finding relief. In a city that was struggling to cope with floodwater, taking care of refugees was seen as a task beyond its capacity. Acutely aware of the deprivation of the newly arrived refugees, Bishop Edward Galvin, co-founder of the Missionary Society of St Columban, began coordinating a relief effort. This involved providing shelter, basic food supplies and medical care for tens of thousands of people. For some, the only available accommodation was in small tents as they huddled together on Black Hill, a mound of ground that still stands beside the Han River as a silent reminder of previous times.

With limited resources and using boats to transport supplies, the 1931 relief efforts gradually became established as all available Church personnel became involved. Uniquely the relief effort was considerably bolstered by a number of Catholic teenage girls who took on a dynamic role. The contribution made by these girls warmed the heart of Bishop Galvin in a way that was to prove providential. Six months later as the relief effort reached a gradual conclusion Bishop Galvin began preparing the way for the founding of a new diocesan congregation of sisters. The first members of the new congregation came from the teenagers who had shown such selfless dedication during the flood relief efforts.

By the late 1940s political upheaval eventually led a tearful bishop to give permission to the sisters to go home to their families and, if they saw it appropriate, to get married. Their departure from the convent was a day of bitter sorrow for all. Forty years later, as if to prove that nothing is impossible for God, eight of these women gradually returned to Hanyang and began living in a simple residence within the parish compound. A few years later the church reopened.

In the years since 2001 I often shared meals with five of these elderly sisters at their convent. They were undoubtedly people of deep faith who had seen the full range of possibilities that life can put before anyone. Their humility and trust in God's ongoing protection in the face of huge historical events could only be admired.

Two years ago, the last remaining sister of that generation died. Sr Li Fenfang was 99 years old. As if to underline how God does work in mysterious ways, the life of the congregation still continues through the younger generation of sisters who have joined since the mid-1990s and who provided such dedicated care for the older sisters as age became an increasing factor in their lives.

During these weeks the younger members of the Sisters of Our Lady of Hanyang can look across the road at the hospital where patients are being treated. However, they cannot become directly involved in the care of patients or their families. They live with the same restrictions of movement that are imposed on everybody throughout the city at this time.

However, the sisters are in regular contact with their own parishioners about the unfolding issues. A number of parishioners have family members who have contracted the virus. The sisters support them through regular communication. They have also contacted friends to seek financial support for some projects connected with the medical emergency. Faithful to their commitment as a congregation, they have also committed themselves to extended hours of prayer, sometimes throughout the night, as they pray for those who are most affected by the coronavirus. While living with some restrictions is inevitable at this time, the location of the sisters' convent so close to the hospital has given their prayerful presence a deep symbolism.

Each day the prayers of the sisters merge with the prayers of so many other people as we all wait to hear news about the number of new cases each day. We still wait for news of a decrease.

At one side of the hospital, Hanyang's impressive ginkgo tree remains calm. Its branches are bare. Just a short distance away is a hive of essential medical activity. We would certainly rejoice and give thanks to God if the faint emergence of new leaves on this giant tree would coincide with a turning of the tide in this latest chapter of challenging history in central China.

Tags: Coronavirus, China, Wuhan, Gingko Tree, Sisters of Our Lady of Hanyang,

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