Sisters in Profile – Sr. Mary Dolores Callan

Oscar Bryan recalls the life and contribution of Columban Sr. Mary Dolores Callan (1894-1947). This article was first published in the March/April 2024 issue of the Far East magazine.

Margaret Callan was born on 5 June 1894, in Corderry, Co Louth. From her early years, Margaret exhibited remarkable compassion, dedicating hours to nursing sick farm animals back to health. Growing up, Margaret would frequently holiday with her maternal uncle, a parish priest in Armagh, and their warm relationship helped foster a strong connection to her faith.

After completing primary school, Margaret continued her education at St Louis Convent in Carrickmacross, Monaghan. At St Louis, Margaret excelled, frequently emerging top of her class. Recognising her academic potential, Louth County Council awarded her a scholarship in 1912 to study at University College Dublin, where she obtained both a BA and a Diploma in Education. Following her graduation in 1917, Margaret joined the teaching staff at St Louis.

While teaching, Margaret felt a certain void in her life, and craved to be a part of something larger than herself. Her fascination with the Columban Fathers in China, inspired by reading the Far East magazine, led her to contact the editor, Fr. John Blowick. Unbeknownst to her, plans to establish a new congregation were already underway, and Fr Blowick encouraged Margaret to consider joining once the novitiate was up and running.

In 1924, Margaret, now Sr. Mary Dolores, entered Cahiracon on St. Brigid’s Day, embracing life in the new community. Her final profession took place on 13th October 1929, and a week later, she embarked on the SS Malawa for China.

Sr. Mary Dolores
Sr. Mary Dolores Callan (1894-1947), the first Columban Sister to be summoned to her eternal home.

Within a few short weeks of arriving in Hanyang, Dolores was given the task of establishing a presence for the Columban Sisters in Sien Tao Chen. The new arrivals were still settling in when their compound was stormed by Red Army guerrillas in April 1930. Held under armed guard, when an opportunity to flee presented itself, the Sisters managed to escape back to Hanyang.

However, life in Hanyang offered no respite, as floods and famines led to a mass exodus of refugees into the city. Rising to the challenge, Dolores attended to both the medical and spiritual needs of the refugees, leading one observer to comment that her efforts “fully qualified her for canonisation.” By 1936, she was promoted as local superior in Hanyang.

In 1938, Dolores was transferred to Shanghai, where she served as the local superior and principal of Sancta Sophia, a school for the city’s Russian exile community. Working under Japanese occupation, she steadfastly followed the Eastern Orthodox liturgy, and refused to raise tuition fees for the financially strained students. Despite the challenges of the war years, this period proved spiritually enriching for Dolores, who maintained connections with many of her former pupils following her departure in 1945.

After seventeen years in China, Dolores returned to Cahiracon for the 1946 General Chapter. Her long years abroad had left her in a fragile state of health, which further deteriorated following a heart attack. Just as the Congregation was having its Constitution approved by Pope Pius XII, Dolores entered her final decline, passing away gently while surrounded by Sisters on 16th April 1947. Her final words were “I am ready to go.” Her motto for her first profession was: “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God.” She was the first Columban Sister to be summoned to her eternal home.

Sancta Sophia school Shangai
Sancta Sophia school Shangai, a school for the city’s Russian exile community. Sr. M. Dolores Callan (2nd in front row) served as local superior and principal of the school

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