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Why Does Mu Mu Not Come to See Me?The Story of Sister Madeleine Severens【Parent-Child Reading Guide】

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Once upon a time on the Matsu Islands, there was Sister Madeleine Severens. Everywhere she went, children were drawn to her, calling her Mu Mu. Later on, even the adults and the elderly addressed her as Mu Mu. As of 2019, 9 years after she passed away, middle-aged and older locals still identified Mu Mu with Sister Madeleine, also known as Sister Shi Ren-ai. Mu Mu means someone as close, kind, affectionate, and beloved as one’s own mother, and the people knew of whom they bestowed the sobriquet on. Mu Mu was like a mother to every Matsu Islander, always there when help was needed.

Madeleine Severens was born in a Belgian farming village near the Dutch border on November 18, 1918.Her family was of meagre means; the father and the mother were both laborers that toiled from dawn to dusk.One cannot, however, accuse Madeleine’s parents of ignoring their 12 children’s upbringing. They were examples of devotion, the mother especially, who prayed every day and hoped for evangelistic futures for her children. Whenever Mu Mu reminisced about her childhood in poverty, she spoke of her parents’ cornucopia of love for all her siblings, and the joy of the whole family attending Sunday Masses. Of the 12, Madeleine was the second youngest; two elder brothers became missionaries, and another elder sister took up the vows.

Madeleine discerned her vocation from an early age. At fifth grade, a schoolteacher told the class about Pater Damiaan (January 3, 1840 – April 15, 1889; canonized in 2009), a Belgian who went to Molokaʻi in the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi to care for lepers, but contracted leprosy himself and died on the island dearest to him. Right then, Mu Mu decided to become an evangelist like Pater Damiaan, and to dedicate her life to the Word. When Mu Mu was 19, her mother passed away, so she put off her aspiration to watch over the youngest sister.

Mu Mu did eventually explain to her father the wish to become a nun. At 24, Mu Mu joined the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (ICM). The organization had been sending a lot of missionaries abroad, instructing them to live out Christ’s Gospel and do what the Lord commanded. On an assignment to Kunming, China, in 1947, the airplane Mu Mu boarded crashed near the destination. The pilot died instantly, many Catholic fathers and sisters were maimed, though Mu Mu escaped unhurt. She stayed in Kunming to look after the wounded sisters, and was then transferred to Inner Mongolia to serve in a Catholic hospital. Two years later, Mao Zedong came to power, forcing all foreigners to leave China by the end of 1951.The foreign missionaries, including Mu Mu, were unwillingto abandon their posts, and were consequently imprisoned.The two years thereafter Mu Mu experienced worseningjailing conditions and the death of her father back home. Nevertheless, Mu Mu genuinely cared about the prison guards, constantly asking after and praying for their wellbeing.

Released, Mu Mu was deported to Belgium, where she took up advanced studies. She graduated from the University of Leuven with a degree in nursing and midwifery in 1957, and came back to the Far East, this time to Taiwan, in 1966. Her first station was St. Joseph’s Hospital in Taipei (now Yonghe Cardinal Tien Hospital). In 1974 she began working in Kinmen’s only hospital, where she was 24-hour on call to keep expectant mothers company through the toughest parts of labor.

Mu Mu came to Matsu in 1976.She was 58 years old at the time, and would go on to serve the community for a quarter of a century.

Back then there were barely any accessible medical resources on Matsu. Mu Mu went out every day carrying her instruments and supplies. To anyone she encountered she would ask, “How are you? If not feeling well, come with me to Sister Stella’s Clinic.I will fix you up, free of charge.” The islanders, however, were afraid of foreigners. Old and young, they all ran away, and shut doors and windows on her. Undeterred, Mu Mu packed candies in her bag and gave them out to children on the streets, gradually befriending the locals. They realized Mu Mu was a kind lady who saw patients and dispensed medicine without taking money, and started coming to Sister Stella’s Clinic. They also found Mu Mu to be a licensed midwife, and began to summon her whenever a relative entered labor. In the wake of the Chinese Civil War, until 1992 the Matsu Islands were a militarized zone, which for civilians meant curfew at 6 pm and absolutely no going out after 8.As the only midwife about the islands, one time Mu Mu was asked to deliver a child in the middle of the night.She was intercepted by soldiers en route. In the heat of the moment, Mu Mu charaded her way out of the checkpoint and arrived at the pregnant woman’s in time. The very next day, Mu Mu submitted her application for an ‘after-hours pass’, so she would not be stopped again while on duty. Mu Mu was responsible for almost all births on Matsu during those years.

Mu Mu lived simply and ate plain food. Often she would have a piece of white bread as the day’s sustenance, and give everything she could do without to the islanders most in need. She focused her efforts on the straitened local families, providing their young with milk powder, new clothes, new toys, and so on. ‘Red envelopes’ from Mu Mu were also commonplace.

There was finally a public hospital on Matsu in 1983.From then on, Mu Mu did less midwifery and more elderly care.She visited several households a day to bathe the seniors, help them change clothes, brush teeth, to clean and cook for them, and to chat with them. Many of these old islanders spoke only Hok-chiu, while Mu Mu knew only Mandarin. Curiously, they seemed to understand each other, and could talk for hours on end, to the satisfaction of both. Maybe Mu Mu‘s love truly transcended the barriers of language and nationality.

There were several detention centers across Taiwan for processing illegal immigrants from Mainland China. One such place was established on Matsu in 1992 and sheltered these ‘people of the Mainland Area’ awaiting deportation. Mu Mu often visited the detained migrants at the center, even delivering their babies and helping with postpartum recuperation. Mu Mu was of courseherself imprisoned in China once, so she was in a perfect position to empathize with the detainees. In return, the migrants viewed Mu Mu as family. Their lives were in limbo and depressing, but a visit from Mu Mu could always cheer them up.

Back on the main island of Taiwan, people became aware of Mu Mu’s good deeds on Matsu. She won the 1995 Medical Contribution Award at the age of 77, and the Freedom of the City of Matsu in 1999.The older Mu Mu became, the more love she had for the islanders.More than once she maintained her health to the ICM mother house and expressed her wish to continue the ministry on Matsu. She also asked her Belgian friends and relatives to pray especially for Matsu. The islanders, in return, loved Mu Mu all the more. Some were willing to build Mu Mu a mansion; some petitioned the ICM for Mu Mu’s right to retire on Matsu. When all was said and done, the islanders simply wanted to have Mu Mu around, even though there would be a day when Mu Mu was too old to do anything for them. In the end, Mu Mu accepted the ICM mother house's resolution. She moved first into a dormitory attached to Nankan Sacred Heart Church, then in 2001 to Cardinal Tien Hospital in Taipei for a year of retreat, and finally settled in Leuven, Belgium, at ICM’s retirement home. Mu Mu passed away on June 4, 2010, and was interred in the ICM mother house's cemetery. She lived to 92 years old.

Mu Mu’s condition went quickly downhill back in Belgium, especially in terms of memory loss. Nevertheless, until the day she truly left this world, Mu Mu never forgot to pray for every Matsu Islander and recollect all those alleys she walked. Toward the end, Mu Mu forgot so many things, but every islander’s face, every sight and smell of Matsu, was etched on her mind. Matsu was in her eyes Heaven on Earth. Mu Mu gave it all, the love she received from God, to these islands on the edge of a continent.

In the preceding story, Hsiao Ma (not his real name) was one of the few wheelchair users on Nankan, Matsu’s largest island. Mu Mu thought the smallest and the neediest should be given the most love; that was why Mu Mu paid special attention to Hsiao Ma, and often helped his family in one way or another, acts that deeply touched Hsiao Ma’s mother. The Matsu Islanders might not know everything about Him whom Mu Mu worshipped and spoke of, but through her they did catch a glimpse of His Grace.