Sister Maria Rita Syn, left, marked her golden jubilee as a member of the Benedictines of Jesus Crucified with her sister, Sister Margaret Syn, who traveled from China for the celebration. (Photo by Mary Chalupsky)
BRANFORD – For Sister Marie Rita Syn, 75, June 6 marked the celebration of her golden jubilee as a member of the Benedictines of Jesus Crucified, held at the Monastery of the Glorious Cross.
But making the day equally special was the presence of her sister, Sister Margaret Syn, 70, who traveled all the way from China where she serves as a member of the Canossian Daughters of Charity.
The parallel lives of two sisters from Singapore, who both entered the religious life and now live worlds apart, is something that the two can only attribute to guidance by the remarkable hand of God.
The two sisters, who have crossed numerous borders and together speak a total of six languages, sat down with The Catholic Transcript to talk about their conversion to Catholicism, their call to religious vocations and their unusual journeys as members of two international religious communities.
The sisters, two of the family’s six children, said their parents practiced a Chinese religion that they described as a blend of Taoism and Confucianism.
According to Sister Rita, their journey began to unfold after she developed an illness at a young age and landed in a hospital run by Franciscan Sisters. It was there that she was introduced to members of the Legion of Mary, and, at the age of 14, made the decision to convert to Catholicism.
Sister Rita noted that she soon began to feel what she described as a call to religious life. She first considered becoming a Carmelite; but, when a group of Benedictine Sisters passed through Singapore on their way to Japan, she contacted them, instead. In 1959, she entered the community at age 22.
Meanwhile, Sister Margaret said, their parents had enrolled her in a convent school run by French sisters. In 1949, though, when China became Communist, her father worried that the Communist Party might force students in the school to move to China. So, he transferred her to the school run by the Canossian community.
By that time, her older sister had already introduced her to the catechism and had even brought her to a priest for instruction that eventually led to her baptism at the age of 12. When her sister left for France to begin her novitiate, as Sister Margaret recalled with a smile, "that very night, I got the call that I wanted to give my life to save souls."
The next day at a retreat, she spoke to the retreat master about her vocation, and he directed her to the Canossian Sisters, a community founded in Italy that boasts Saint Josephine Bahkita of the Sudan among its members. "I joined as an aspirant, and after that, it was God’s work," said Sister Margaret.
"Our parents never objected to our conversion," said Sister Margaret. "They said, ‘This is your life. We cannot be with you all the time; so if this makes you happy, then do it.’ Our parents were very open."
Sister Margaret entered the community at age 17. She eventually became part of the first group of Canossian sisters to start a novitiate in Australia. After taking her final vows in Rome, she returned to Singapore to begin teaching, counseling and, later, training as a social worker.
In 1983, she was sent to Rome to help with the growing number of legal and illegal Chinese immigrants, including serving for five years in Tuscany at the request of the bishop there.
She then returned to Singapore, but in 1988, was invited to work in China, first in a rehabilitation program for spastic children in Beijing and then teaching English at a private school in Gunangzhou. After six months, she was sent to northern China to start a social service program at a home for the aged. Soon after, a cardinal asked her to return to Rome to look after Chinese sisters who were studying there. In 2004, she again returned to Singapore, only to return to China the next year to help promote and fund a Catholic social service program. Currently, she is working to raise funds for building water collection and storage units.
The last time the two sisters were together was eight years ago, when they visited a brother in Atlanta.
Also on hand for Sister Marie Rita’s 50th anniversary were a brother and sister-in-law from California and a niece and her three children from Singapore.
Sister Rita, who took her vows in France and eventually came to the United States in 1978, said her life hasn’t been academic, but it has been instructive.
"In looking back, I realize that the work came from God. I don’t have a degree in higher education, but I think our daily life is an education in itself," she said. "Sometimes, the things you learn can’t come from books."
Sister Margaret, who holds several certificates and diplomas, is equally philosophical. "I’m happy everywhere I work. I’ve had the freedom to do my pastoral work, which is the same wherever you go – working with the poor and youth, RCIA, fundraising – it’s the same everywhere," she said