Antonia’s parents sat in shock as their daughter told them what she wanted to do with her life. Antonia had always been a puzzle to them, but this — no, they just hadn’t seen this coming at all.
Now and then you hear of fathers who really wanted their daughter to be a boy. Antonia’s dad was not one of them. But from the time she could walk, Antonia herself seemed to think and act much more like a son than a daughter. Dolls were for babies, and dresses might be for other girls, but Antonia loved dressing like a boy and hanging out with boys, playing baseball and football, jumping fences, shooting marbles. She was known to boast proudly that she could compete on equal terms with the best of the boys on any game or sport.
Antonia’s parents loved her dearly and adjusted as best they could to life with an extreme tomboy. And here, in late 1920s America, they probably thought their daughter would want to grow up to be a stevedore or ironworker. Thus their shock when Antonia told them she wanted to be a nun.
“But…,” her parents must have stammered, “you don’t like spending time with other girls, and now you want to live in a community of all women for the rest of your life? We haven’t been able to get you into a dress for years, and now you want to wear a habit every day? We’ve never seen a smidgen of piety in you. Are you crazy?”
Crazy? Maybe. But Antonia was also determined; and unbeknownst to her parents she had prayed long and hard over this and knew with absolute assurance and clarity that she wanted to be a missionary and a medical doctor. And despite her family’s firm opposition, she followed her path resolutely, making her final vows and receiving her medical and surgical degree on the same day — her 27th birthday.
A month later, Sister Antonia was on a steamer heading to a remote and very poor part of China, to a small mission run by her Order. There she lived with a few other sisters and worked very long hours not only teaching the faith and making converts, but tending to the medical needs of people for miles around — sitting up with the sick and dying, helping bring babies into the world, mending broken bones, and removing tonsils and appendixes. She worked hard and never had enough time to pray, but she was happy in her vocation and in her work, and the Chinese people of the neighboring villages loved her.
As far as her ministry goes, Sister Antonia was no different from thousands of other heroic women and men who have left home and family to bring Christ and his love to people all over the world, and her work may have been known only to her Order, to those she helped, and to God, but for an incident that occurred one day, and that resulted in her story being told in the July 1940 issue of Catholic Digest. (It’s that story I am retelling here.)
In 1937, Japan invaded China (they had invaded Manchuria in 1931) sparking the first battles of what would become the Second World War in the Pacific. It was a brutal invasion filled with atrocities, and slowly the Japanese forces drew closer and closer to Sister Antonia’s mission.
The incident I mentioned happened one day when the Sisters and the children had joined Father Hilary in the chapel for the Rosary. Suddenly four Japanese soldiers burst in looking for an escaped prisoner. Sister Antonia held the children tightly and tried to calm the frightened Sisters while the soldiers smashed things in the chapel, swept everything off the altar with a bayonet, and wiped their boots on the altar linen. When Father Hilary tried to stop them, a solder hit him in the jaw with his rifle butt, sending the priest unconscious to the floor.
The children and the other Sisters screamed, but Sister Antonia leaped up to help Father Hilary. As she crossed to him, she passed the soldier who had struck the priest — and that’s when her tomboy past came into play. With a powerful sweep of her right arm she landed an uppercut squarely on his jaw, and this time it was the soldier who hit the floor unconscious, dropping his rifle as he fell.
Before his comrades could react, Sister Antonia picked up the dropped rifle by the barrel, swung it over her head, and took the other soldiers down one, two, three. Two fell with bad bashes to their heads, and the third fell by the foot of the altar, still conscious, and slowly regaining his wits. He drew his handgun to fire at her, but her reflexes were faster. She threw the rifle at him, knocking the pistol from his hand. Then, like the brawler she used to be, she jumped on him and began punching him with her fists until he passed out.
The second the battle was over, Sister Antonia became a gentle doctor again. She instructed the other Sisters to take the wounded Japanese soldiers to her dispensary while she worked on Father Hilary’s wounded jaw. After he regained consciousness, Father Hilary helped her tend to the soldiers — two of whom required surgery from their battle with a nun. One can only imagine what they thought as each regained consciousness to find the person who had beaten them senseless now leaning over them tending their wounds.
The ending of this incident is as remarkable as what came before. Weeks later, when the four Japanese soldiers had recovered, not one of them wanted to leave. They had grown not only to respect Sister Antonia’s uppercut, but her faith as well. They deserted from the Japanese army, were baptized by Father Hilary, and stayed as Catholic catechists in China, happily doing their work and — the 1940 Catholic Digest article concluded —glad they had fought a war with a nun and lost.
Sister Antonia’s tale is one of many fascinating articles Catholic Digest has published over its 75 years (and you can read more of them here on our website). I had read the story several months ago, but her tale of courage and compassion came back to me as I thought of the Lenten retreat we’ll all begin in a week or so and wondered, Can I show the kind of courage and compassion she did?
Of course, not every story of courage and fighting for justice turns out so well. I’m also thinking of a more contemporary Religious woman, Sister Dorothy Stang, who was murdered by two hired gunmen in 2005 for fighting for justice for peasants in Brazil. As I understand her story, Sister Dorothy knew there was a contract to kill her, even knew where, when, and by whom she would die, but, like our Savior, she stayed rather than run, not willing to abandon the people she loved, and willing to give her life for them.
And as Lent comes to a world crying and bleeding in so many ways, I also think of a 3-year-old Christian Iraqi boy named Adam, whose story was told by Cardinal George, who heard it from an American Dominican Sister in Iraq. After insurgents attacked a Christian neighborhood, killing Adam’s parents, the rest of his family, and most of his neighbors, the little boy followed the terrorists and screamed one word at them over and over: “Enough!” Enough! Enough! Adam yelled, until one of the insurgents turned around and killed him too.
So, Antonia, Dorothy, and Adam are all powerful Lenten challenges for me this year.
If I had the strength and the fighting skills to defeat a brutal enemy, would I finish the job in smug hatred and scorn as so many TV shows, video games, and movies seem to teach, or would I have the grace and compassion to tend to their wounds, and the love to help convert them?
Do I have the courage (never mind under the threat of death!) to stand up and be counted in a world crying for justice? With such violence everywhere around us, will I stand up and yell “Enough!” and then — because I am not a 3-year-old orphan — find ways to work to make it happen?
Each in his or her own way — Antonia, Dorothy, and Adam — takes us to the heart of what Lent is meant to be: not just a time for extra prayer or for giving something up, but for using the extra prayer, sacrifice, and all the daily challenges that beset us to take a hard look at what it means to be baptized, to be a follower of Jesus — and to experience a little more deeply what it means to die and rise with Him so that we can renew our baptismal promises with fresh meaning and power at Easter.
Of course, we don’t face what Antonia, Dorothy, and Adam faced. We have our own challenges this Lent. You know what yours are, and I know mine. What a wonderful thing it would be if we each could reach Easter a little more prayerful, a little more compassionate, a little more courageous, a little more able to say, “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me.”
For many of us, getting there may be a battle; but can it really be any harder than taking on four armed enemy soldiers and then converting them to Christ?
I hope you have a very powerful Lent. And may Antonia, Dorothy, and Adam keep us in their prayers.