The Pakistan Mission: Sixty Years of Grace, 1958-2018

By Sr. Mary E. Dunning

In 1956, on behalf of the Sparkill Dominicans, Mother Kevin Sullivan accepted the invitation of the Dominican friars to work with them in their new mission in Pakistan. When Mother Kevin asked for volunteers, two hundred Sisters responded. Eight volunteers were assigned in 1957 to begin studying Urdu, the Pakistani language, to receive training sessions in meeting basic health care needs, and to take a Fordham University course in missiology. On September 12, 1958, the pioneer Sisters, under the leadership of Sr. Purissima Reilly, departed by ship for Karachi, Pakistan. Inspired by the words of the Gospel, “Go therefore and teach all nations,” the Sisters went to Pakistan convinced that their mission was not to proselytize, but to live a simple, prayerful, compassionate life which bore witness to their being followers of Christ. 

The eight pioneer Sisters aboard the USS Constitution headed to Pakistan in 1958. 

Sisters newly arrived in Pakistan faced formidable challenges—learning a new language, adapting to a previously unknown culture with unfamiliar customs and food, and becoming acclimated to the extreme heat of Pakistan from May to October. Sisters whose experience had been in US Catholic parishes and schools, were now working in an Islamic country with Christians who were a small minority, less than 2% of the population. But their zeal for their mission, the support they received from the community, and God’s grace helped them to accomplish remarkable deeds for the People of God, the Church of Pakistan.

From L-R: Sr. Catherine Raymond Solms, Sr. Rose Patrice Sasso and Sr. Gilbert Schutte. 

During their first decade in Pakistan, the Sisters established ministries that flourished in later decades and continued to serve both Christians and Muslims. Bahawalpur’s Dominican Convent School started with fewer than 70 students in primary grades. Today 1,352 girls and boys, both Muslim and Christian, are enrolled in classes from primary school to 12th grade. The government has recognized Dominican Convent School for its significant academic achievements. The tuition paid by these students helps to support Dominican Study Center, an Urdu Christian school that serves children whose parents cannot afford to pay fees. To make it possible for girls who lived in outlying districts to attend school, the Sisters opened hostels in Bahawalpur and Loreto, a Christian village in the Thal Desert, northwest of Bahawalpur. Ibn-E-Mariam (Son of Mary) School in Loreto has also grown ten-fold since its founding, and in later years Dominican Primary School was established in Multan. 

Above and below: Students of the Sisters’ various schools in Pakistan. 

Emergency and basic health needs of the people were served in medical dispensaries staffed by the Sisters in Loreto and Fatimapur. In response to needs expressed by the people, the Sisters started adult education—catechetical, sewing, typing, and English classes—with an emphasis on developing lay leadership. The Sisters knew that one day they would no longer be in Pakistan, and they resolved to work toward a future church of Pakistan that would be led by the native people of that land. That vision of the future has now become a reality. Catechists, members of religious communities, priests, and bishops of Pakistan are now almost all native-born Pakistani women and men. 

The American Sisters’ 1970 report to the congregation expresses well their shared convictions about their missionary efforts:

“We are there as missionaries to leave eventually. We are there now as witnesses of hope to a Christian and Muslim community. We are a sign of the contradiction of the times and for the life to come … Hopefully we are helping to create a Christian community. Human life and Christian life are inseparable and for this reason we cannot be looking to the future and at the same time be unconcerned for the needs of now. We must join in the never-ending struggle for peace, for dignity, for human rights, for good education, for adequate medical facilities, for love, for hope. We do this not in the hope of any earthly gain or reward but rather with the firm conviction that we are helping to bring human beings to a fuller participation in the life of the Resurrected Christ.”

Beginning in 1971 the Sisters became deeply involved in the work of the Pastoral Institute in Multan. There they have taught courses and given retreats for young women and men religious from many communities, worked with ecumenical groups devoted to deepening understanding between Christians and Muslims, and organized programs for seminarians, catechists, and adult faith leaders from parishes throughout the Multan Diocese and beyond. They have become vocal advocates for human rights protesting unjust treatment of Christians and other religious minorities. 

Sr. Maureen O’Toole (seated left) and Sr. Monica Lewis (seated right) bless the baby of a young mother. 

In October 1966, a novitiate was opened for native Pakistani women who desired to become members of the Dominican Congregation of Our Lady of the Rosary, the Sparkill Dominicans. At present there are sixteen professed Sisters, three novices, and two postulants (first-year candidates). Sister Maureen O’Toole who has been in Pakistan since 1969 is currently the only American Sister. Considerable attention has been devoted over the years to formation work with young candidates who are the congregation’s future in Pakistan. They will be taking on large responsibilities if they are to carry on the work begun by their predecessors. Periodically the Pakistani Sisters visit the United States to learn more about the community here and to meet the Sisters. 

A young Sister who recently took her First Vows within the Sparkill Congregation. 

In his eloquent reflection on what it means to be a Dominican missionary in Pakistan, the late Fr. Chrysostom McVey, OP, wrote:

“We seek to be a community that embodies the hurts of those who suffer because they are far from the powerful; the hurts of the sweeper, of women, of the bonded laborer. Though it is not easy … we seek to be powerless, vulnerable and compassionate because we believe this is what it means to be a gospel person and a Dominican in Pakistan. We seek to go where we are useful: to ‘the desert’ where no one wants to go; to ‘the periphery’ with the marginalized and those far removed from the centers of power; to ‘the frontier’ welcoming the new, the different, ‘the other.’ ”

The Pakistan mission has brought untold riches to the Dominican Congregation of Our Lady of the Rosary. Sisters who have served there have described the experience as some of the best years of their lives, and magnificent women born in Pakistan have become part of us, bringing all their gifts to the challenging enterprise of building the reign of God. Truly God has blessed us, and we pray daily for the blessing of peace for all our Sisters and brothers in Pakistan. 

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