The Sisters of Shanghai

A Congregation of Nuns Flourishes in China

By 10:15 a.m. the pews in Shanghai’s immense Xujiahui Cathedral are nearly full for the 10:30 Feast of Ascension Mass. The few remaining seats are reserved for the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary. Today eight young women of the congregation will take their final vows. It is a special moment for the community, which suffered for years at the hands of the Communist government of China. Twenty years ago, only a handful of elderly sisters belonged to the congregation. Now there are more than ninety sisters, most under the age of forty. As they file in and take their seats, Sister Mary Pan, thirty-seven, one of the leaders of the community, watches from the front of the church. “We are young,” Pan says proudly. “That is different than when I took vows.”

The Sisters of the Presentation of Mary are not the largest group of women religious in China, nor are they the oldest. Yet it many ways they may be the most influential. Founded in 1855 by a French bishop, they were one of the first religious congregations created exclusively for Chinese women. Today they hold a prominent position in the Chinese church: they are located in Shanghai, the intellectual heart of Chinese Catholicism, and they have the support of a highly respected bishop. This provides them with remarkable visibility and influence. They, like other sisters in China, are also beginning to take a more active role in the church. While vocations among...

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About the Author

Adam Minter writes about China for the Wall Street Journal, Far Eastern Economic Review, The Rake, and other publications. He lives in Shanghai.