Saturday, July 15, 2006

Mother Agnes' glass of water

Shi Xianzhi was the daughter of a rich pagan in Anhui. As a young girl, she had a difficult character but her friends in a Catholic school in which she enrolled changed her. She converted to the Catholic religion, even though she was faced with opposition from her family. She even refused to be married to the man which her parents chose for her according to the Chinese tradition of arranged marriage. She left her home secretly on the day of her wedding. Because of this, her father disowned her.

After leaving her home, she lived with the Ursuline nuns who baptized her and received her into their religious congregation. In her baptism, she took the name Maria Agnes. She was sent to Italy for her studies as a religious and returned to China to become a school principal. When the foreign missionaries were deported by the Communist government, she was made the superior of the religious congregation throughout China.

During the persecution, she moved to Shanghai and lived in secrecy in the house of a Christian. She continued training her two novices for religious life, placed them in different houses and dressed them in civilian clothes to avoid arrest. She visited the other Ursuline nuns in Xuzhou, Bengbu and Nanking, and in each of her visit, she brought them the Blessed Sacrament. However, the nuns are not just Mother Agnes’ problems. The money sent to her by the Ursulines abroad did not reach her in time, and the families of the other nuns lived in poverty and asked for material aid. Mother Agnes faced all these problems with strength coming from God.

Mother Agnes wrote to the nuns in Italy, “I pray to our beloved Mother and our Lord to give us the grace of martyrdom. We are all prepared.” In Nanking, Monsignor Peter Chang, who protected the nuns in Nanking, was arrested. Five more Ursuline nuns were arrested. Mother Agnes’ neighbors also began to look at her with suspicion.

Mother Agnes was arrested in her house during the celebration of the Chinese New Year. During interrogations, Mother Agnes remained silent or simply replied, “I don’t know.” The Communists called her “the tight mouth.” In 1959, she was sentenced to work as a farmer in Anhui. However, because of her heart problems, she was made to stay in the house for the domestic jobs. One prisoner said about Mother Agnes, “Each time we had finished our work and returned, we would always see her at the entrance of the dining hall picking vegetables or sweeping the floor. She would frequently prepare for us a container of hot boiled water and hide it under a coverlet, saying, “I only work at home and my work is far lighter than yours. Whenever the dining hall has hot water, I go and ask for a container or otherwise the minute you come home, other people may well push forward and you would lose an opportunity to get any.” A glass of boiled water, especially if it was hot, was regarded at that time as very precious. As for us Catholics, we would each beg the other to take it, each of us being glad to let another person enjoy a drink. Our mutual generosity could be seen even in the disposal of a drop of water. Mo. Shi’s glass of hot boiled water did indeed warm the hearts of everyone.”

In the early months of 1960, Mother Agnes’ health aggravated. In the end of October, she was sent to work in the farm. According to the other prisoners, Mother Agnes always talked about death. Once, Mother Agnes told a prisoner, “I am content to die here. For a Christian who lives in Christ, to die is to gain.” She also said to one prisoner, “I am a nun of the Ursuline Order. Should an opportunity arise for you to write a letter one day to the mother general of our order in Rome, please tell all of them that my soul sings praises to the Lord and that right up until the moment of my death I have kept all the rules of our religious congregation.”

In December, 1960, Mother Agnes suffered a fatal heart attack and was brought to the prison hospital, where she died alone. A non-Catholic prisoner said of her, “Look at her, she is still young but she died rather than renounce her faith.” While Mother Agnes was still alive, one prisoner wrote under her inspiration, “I live on the verge of death. To live one more day is to approach the grave nearer by one day. During the course of my life, I walk step by step, coming closer to death, with only the breath of life to divide life from death. What of life! What of death! To live is to live for Christ so that death comes as a blessing. This meeting with God is the highest ideal of our human existence.”


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