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Our War: Ruma nun was prepared to die in WWII prison camp

Sister Mary Mary Anthony Mathews talks about her experiences in China.
Sister Mary Mary Anthony Mathews talks about her experiences in China.

Terror and misery were all around them, but it was the job of a small group of nuns from a tiny town near Red Bud to bring comfort and religion while China was a battleground.

In 1933, nuns from the Adorers of the Blood of Christ's Ruma Province answered Pope Pius XI's call for missionaries to spread the word of God around the world. Their job was to go to Japanese-held regions of China to help incredibly poor Chinese civilians survive. Although they were on a mission of mercy, they soon found themselves held in a military concentration camp along with political prisoners and captured Chinese soldiers.

The sisters traveled to China in small groups, and Sister Mary Anthony Mathews' turn came on Aug. 25, 1940, with a sendoff ceremony led by Bishop Henry Althoff.

"When the Pope called for missionaries to China, that's what I wanted to do," said Mathews, who is now 92 years old. "I thought it sounded wonderful to go to China and prayed every day that I would be selected."

Despite Sister Mathews' eagerness to go, nuns who volunteered knew they were risking their lives. Although war wouldn't come to the United States for more than a year after she left for China, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, a sense of its inevitability was in the air. And China was already at war with Japan.

Japanese troops invaded Manchuria in 1931 and fought several skirmishes with the Chinese during the next six years until 1937. Then all-out war between the countries broke out.

Sister Mathews remembered hearing a nun who helped make her clothes for the journey casually remark that she was honored to likely be able to say someday that she sewed the clothes of a martyr, according to an article in the diocese newspaper, The Messenger.

Sister Mary Colette Woltering, another member of the China missionary group, told the paper in 1983 that she was sure she would die on the trip.

"For me, this was it," Sister Woltering said of the day she left. "That was the last day that I would ever see my family because we didn't expect to come back."

All the nuns made it back to America alive. But Sister Mathews is the only member living from the group of World War II missionaries.

Born in Coulterville in 1916 and raised from the age of seven in East St. Louis, Sister Mathews said people today can't believe the nuns would volunteer to do such a risky job. But she said they were brought up in the church believing that they might someday have to give their life for God. The nuns were prepared to die.

Sister Mathews and Sister Maureen Shay traveled by train west to San Francisco. On the way they saw the Rocky Mountains for the first time before departing on a ship that took them to Honolulu, Tokyo and Kobe, Japan, before landing in Tsingtao, China.

When they arrived in China it took more than a month for them to travel by horse or donkey-drawn cart to Yangsin, where children greeted the nuns by singing songs in the streets.

In an area where there was a shockingly high infant mortality rate, one of the nuns' top priorities was to baptize babies who were in danger.

"We would put a mark on their head, with iodine I think, so people who followed behind us would know a particular baby had already been baptized," Sister Mathews said. The nuns also nursed the sick and set up schools and began to teach Chinese people while, in turn, trying to learn the Chinese language.

Trips into the countryside soon ended, however, when the Japanese Army placed the missionaries under house arrest inside a prison camp.

Sister Mathews said their captivity was a bizarre situation, very different from what Allied combatants faced.

The missionaries were provided with plenty of food while downed airmen and soldiers captured by the Japanese during World War II often had to make due on two or three rice balls a day. While the soldiers and airmen faced regular beatings, interrogation and constant threats that they would be killed -- which Japanese soldiers all too frequently made good on -- the nuns were never abused. They even had access to doctors, which soldiers did not.

"We were treated pretty well," Sister Mathews said. "We weren't hungry, but they often fed us an insipid soup that was made with stale bread soaked in water. It also had raisins or something like that in it."

Water in rural China was impure and had to be boiled before it could be consumed. Sister Mathews said the missionaries kept busy hauling water boiled in a big vat to the 800 or so prisoners in the camp.

While the missionaries received some privileges, they were completely isolated by the Japanese, who refused to allow them to send or receive letters.

And they were always in fear that their captors would have a change of heart and decide to kill them.

On Chinese New Year the sisters' hearts skipped a beat when they were told they had been summoned to the office of the camp's commander.

"We were told to come to the Japanese headquarters and we wondered what in the world was going to happen," Sister Mathews said. "So we marched, I think it was a mile and a half. We had a soldier behind each one of us and two soldiers at the tail end (of the group). We wondered what in the world would happen when we got there."

The missionaries' apprehension turned to relief when they were told that as a treat for the holiday the nuns would be allowed to go wherever they wanted -- within four miles in any direction of the camp -- to provide aid and comfort to civilians.

"We were overjoyed," Sister Mathews said. "We didn't know as we were marched into the headquarters if it was going to be jail or what it was going to be."

While the nuns wanted to be in China, the situation in China began to deteriorate in 1944 and their Japanese captors told them they should send for a ship to come get them and take them back to the United States.

Sister Mathews said the missionaries from her prison camp left in two groups, although other missionaries from the group located in different parts of China remained in the country. Some were later imprisoned by communists.

Sister Mathews said she didn't make it onto the first boatload of missionaries removed from the Japanese concentration camp. Waiting for a second ship was one of the longest times of her life. With such poor communications to the outside, all she could do was pray a second boat would come.

Finally it did. Sister Mathews came back to the states via San Francisco.

She taught at a Catholic day care in East St. Louis and has spent much of the past 64 years helping people at home instead of overseas.

But she still says the Lord's Prayer every day in the Chinese she learned during her missionary days.

"We loved the Chinese people," Sister Mathews said. "I still think about them quite a bit."

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at or 239-2626.