Interviewed by Sister Malia Dominica Wong, OP Hawaii Catholic Herald
“Don’t go back,” my sister said when I told her I would be returning to the missions. I am very close to my brother and my sister, but it is my sister who takes me around whenever I return home. She was thinking that I wouldn’t be able to travel that much more due to my increase in age and physical limitations. More so, she was afraid that she wouldn’t be able to see me again if I couldn’t return to Hawaii. I responded, “It’s okay. I will come back.”
Being brought up in a non-Catholic household, I was not exposed to the religious or missionary life. My parents however, believed that we would get a better education in a private school. So I was sent to St. Patrick School. In the sixth grade, as I was preparing for baptism, I remember thinking of a name that might sound nice if I were to become a religious. But I really wasn’t seriously entertaining the thought. One day though, in my senior year at Sacred Hearts Academy, Sister Mary Rose approached me and did ask if I had thought of being a religious. After talking to her, I started to go to Mass every day before school started. I entered the convent after graduation.
Following the completion of my religious formation, I was sent to teach. Later, after obtaining my master’s in library studies, I was assigned back to the Academy to work in the library. During the ‘60s there were a number of changes taking place in the church at large, and in my congregation. I had never thought of being a missionary, but when the Sacred Hearts opened the doors to minister in Indonesia, India and the Philippines, I volunteered to go — to Japan. I had an excellent helper in the library and figured someone else could take over my work.
For the past 30 years, I have been serving in the missions. I do not have a flair for languages. Thus, for the first two years in Japan, I did not understand much. But by just being present to the people, I felt I was helping the cause. I also sang Japanese songs in the choir and taught English, especially to the ladies whom we had invited over for prayer.
After we closed the house in Japan, I volunteered to go to India. What else was I going to do? Go back to Hawaii and the library? I felt I could still be of help to the Sacred Hearts presence there. I knew the sisters were assisting the brothers in their clinic for leprosy patients in Bhubaneswar. The sisters also had a hostel that they had started for girls without leprosy. The goal here was to give them an education so that they would be empowered by learning skills to be able to stand on their own, to do something better with their lives. I am grateful to be a missionary.
Sister Grace Marie Tom is a Sister of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and Perpetual Adoration. She is from Kapahulu and is 63 years professed. She resides in her congregation’s Formation House in Bhubaneswar, India.