Dan Troy with parishioners from the Holy Family Church in Wuhan. - Photo: Dan Troy
As she stood near the door of Holy Family Church following the end of Mass for the international community in Wuhan, a smiling Theresa Alpha looked back on her three years of study at one of the city's universities. Her laughter overlapped with recalling stories associated with her time in this part of China.
Before coming to China to study for an MA in Business Administration, Theresa had hoped to see various parts of the country during her annual holidays. However, the COVID pandemic put an end to travel possibilities, the restrictions on international students often more demanding than for the wider population.
Theresa's opportunity to come to China was through one of the thousands of scholarships offered each year by the Chinese government to students from other countries. These scholarships have been in place for many years and are a way to strengthen ties between China and particular countries that seek such bilateral cooperation. This long-term policy eventually sees many graduates maintain contact with China after their return home, some of them having the possibility of eventually being in roles of political leadership in those countries.
Before leaving home, Theresa had been told by her father in Sierra Leone that she would need to become familiar with the practice of praying in her apartment rather than being a member of an active community at a church. The early advice was based on his assumption that there are no churches in China, an assumption that is not uncommon in other countries. Within two weeks of arriving in China, a fellow student told Theresa about the active international community at Holy Family Church.
Following her first visit to the church, the news was sent home to her father, who was quite happy to receive a correction to his assumptions about church life in China.
As the weeks went by, Theresa became an active member of the international community. But with the arrival of the pandemic in early 2020, all activities at the church were cancelled. Many members of the international community left China and, apart from a few who relocated to Wuhan from within China, no new members were arriving due to China's strict border control measures. During the second year of the pandemic, the small community was struggling to maintain its fragile administrative structure. Theresa kindly agreed to accept the main role of responsibility for the community.
Theresa Alpha - Photo: Dan Troy
Over the next year, as the international community could not gather at the church due to local regulations, Theresa encouraged members to attend the Chinese Mass. Occasional meals were organised to keep the community spirit alive, as well as a sports day at a local park. Holding the community's leadership role in unusual times, she occasionally spoke about the challenges of keeping a community together at a time when gathering at the church was not possible in the usual way. A few Sunday Masses at the homes of members of the international community took on a heightened significance, particularly the celebration on Easter Sunday morning, which was followed by lunch provided by the kind hosts.
Perhaps Theresa's most creative undertaking took place when the new bishop of Wuhan, Francis Cui Qingqi, made his first official visit to the parish. Following the Sunday morning Chinese Mass, Theresa and other members of the international community invited the bishop to join a group photograph in the centre of the church, with flowers presented to mark the important occasion. It happened with such efficiency that the new bishop was wondering how such efficiency was possible in a parish where news of his visit had not been officially announced.
Theresa also presented him with a selection of the yearly magazines published by the members of the community over the past ten years, the gift to the bishop being a gentle reminder that the international community was still present in Wuhan. It was also a way of communicating to him what had already been expressed in letters sent to him when he was the administrator of the diocese - a request to receive permission to resume Mass for the international community as soon as possible.
The diplomacy exercised that Sunday may have been providential. A few months later, a Chinese priest who had studied philosophy and theology in France was appointed to the parish. Within a few weeks of his arrival, the news was sent out that the community could gather again for Mass in either French or English. As Theresa's graduation day approached, she was seeing that things were now returning to a more normal situation, her patience and commitment on behalf of the international community bearing fruit for all.
At the time of her recent graduation, there was a job offer for Theresa with an international company in Shanghai, a possibility of getting good work experience for a few years, something that would benefit her career in the years ahead.
The transfer of Theresa's duties to somebody else within the community and her departure from Wuhan coincided with her last main responsibility for the community, the finalisation of the publication of the community's annual magazine.
It is a colourful production by people living through unusual times in this part of China. Within the magazine is an interesting group photograph showing Theresa standing tall and confident beside Wuhan's new bishop, Francis Cui Qingqi.
Presumably, a copy of the magazine will eventually reach Theresa's father in Sierra Leone. That is likely to be a day when he will learn even more about the life of the Church in China as he sees his daughter standing with one of China's newest bishops, appointed by Pope Francis. Despite many challenges, she has helped link members of the universal Church in several countries in a truly universal way.
Dan Troy lives and works in China.
Listen to "A woman's contribution to to Wuhan's International Catholic Community"
- Read more from The Far East - January/February 2023