History of Maryknoll

The Maryknoll founders with Pope Pius X In 1910, co-founders of Maryknoll Fr. James Anthony Walsh of Boston and Fr. Thomas Frederick Price of Wilmington, North Carolina met at the 21st Eucharistic Congress in Montreal, Canada where they talked about the mission of the Church and how the US Church would not flourish until it sent missioners overseas. In 1911 Walsh and Price traveled to Rome and received permission from Pope Pius X to establish a seminary to recruit, train and send U.S. Catholic missioners abroad.

The mission effort attracted 30-year-old Mary Rogers of Boston. Although she came to assist the new Society, God had greater things in store. She and other volunteers soon disproved the commonly held perception that American women were too fragile for the rigors of overseas mission. Mary Rogers became Mother Mary Joseph, foundress of the Maryknoll Sisters.

In 1912 the young missionary Society established their headquarters on a hilltop farm above Ossining, New York. The founders dedicated the hill, or knoll, to the Blessed Virgin. Thus, Mary’s Knoll was born. In 1918, Maryknoll sent its first members to China, including Father Price who died the following year. Three years later, the Maryknoll Sisters sent their first six missioners to South China. The mission soon expanded to include northern China and Korea.

"Be forever bigger than your Society," Walsh, now a bishop, urged his spiritual sons. The Society did not hesitate to try new approaches to attract and include as many people as possible. Before it had its first seminarian, one young man applied who felt called to mission but not priesthood. Thomas McCann became the first Maryknoll Brother in 1912.

As early as 1922, Bishop Walsh envisioned sending Catholic lay volunteers overseas. Lay people, such as Dr. Harry P. Blaber, worked with Maryknollers on an individual basis since the 1930s, but the lay mission program was not formally established until 1974. Twenty years later, the Maryknoll Mission Association of the Faithful became the third branch of the Maryknoll family.

For most of the century, the history of Maryknoll intertwined with the history of Asia. Japanese imperial expansion, World War II, the Chinese Communist Revolution and wars in Korean and Vietnam all took their tolls. Maryknollers were imprisoned or expelled from China and Korea. Bishop Francis X. Ford died in a Chinese prison. Bishop James E. Walsh (no relation to the founder) spent 12 years in prison and under solitary house arrest. Some missioners followed the Chinese people into exile in Taiwan; others opened missions in the Philippines. Bishop Patrick Byrne died on the North Korean Death March. Sister Agneta Chang was captured and never seen again. As a chaplain in Vietnam, Father Vincent Capodanno was killed in 1967 as he ministered to a wounded soldier. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

These tales of heroes and martyrs captured the imagination of U.S. Catholic youth. During these decades, vocations from the immigrant populations, mostly Irish, German, Polish and Italian, flourished. As war or unrest made mission impossible in one area, Maryknoll went to other regions: Latin America in 1942 and Africa in 1946, just as these continents entered eras of military conflict and social upheaval. Missioners often suffered the same fate as the poor with whom they worked.

While some Maryknollers were persecuted by the communists in Asia, others were later accused of being communist sympathizers in Latin America. Father William Woods, who died in a plane crash in 1976, received death threats for helping Guatemalan Indians. Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke were among the four churchwomen raped and murdered by army troops in El Salvador in 1980.

The founders' dream still inspires missioners as they face new challenges in the new millennium. Today there are more than 375 Maryknoll Priests and Brothers serving in the fields afar.