“Faces of Mission” is a bi-weekly blog series produced by the United States Catholic Mission Association highlighting our membership and all their work in and for mission. This week we feature Sr. Jean Schmid, a School Sister of Notre Dame focused on reaching out to the poor. Sr. Jean spent 35 years in mission work in Japan and India.
A Life of Mission in India and Japan
An Early Inspiration for Mission
Sr. Jean Schmid, SSND credits her mother and grandmother for inspiring her to enter a life of mission. Her grandmother would always receive Maryknoll magazines and a young Jean would read them from cover to cover. Upon getting married, her parents had committed themselves to donating to Maryknoll every month for the rest of their lives, starting out with only a dollar, leaving a lasting impression on Sr. Jean.
As a youth, her interest in foreign lands and foreign mission work led her to read many biographies about foreign missionaries. In high school, one of Sr. Jean’s teachers had a sister who was a Maryknoll Sister and Sr. Jean would always remember her in her prayers. All of her experiences culminated in Sr. Jean joining the School Sisters of Notre Dame and living a life of mission.
School Sisters of Notre Dame
The School Sisters of Notre Dame were founded in 1833 with a ministry focused on the education of poor girls. In 1948 right after the end of World War II, the Sisters were invited to go to Japan. They accepted the invitation and began their ministry educating Japanese girls, the first non-Christian culture the Notre Dame Sisters ever reached out to.
The first Notre Dame school for girls in Japan was established in 1952. Sr. Jean remembers hearing about the courage it took for Japanese parents, so soon after the ending of the war with America, to entrust the education of their daughters to the Notre Dame schools run by Americans. Before the war, Japanese girls on the whole were not well educated and helping to overcome that was one of the thrusts of the Sisters’ budding ministry in the country.
35 Years in Mission
Sr. Jean was initially not interested in Japan. Her mission interests lay more in Africa. This all changed at a convent in Illinois where she met some Sisters on their first home visit from Japan. After meeting these Sisters, Sr. Jean immediately “got hooked” on Japan. She would ultimately spend 35 years there, from 1965 until 2000.
While in Japan, Sr. Jean was very interested in getting her students to reach out to the poor. But at the time, there were not many visibly poor in Japan and Sr. Jean had to look elsewhere for such an opportunity. In 1977, she traveled to India and became acquainted with an Indian Sister who would become her long-term collaborator. During her visit, Sr. Jean was struck by the incredible poverty and, upon returning to Japan, she began a fundraising program for the education of poor village children in India. Because the Notre Dame Sisters could not get a visa to do this work in India, she worked through the Indian Sister’s congregation to bring education to these poor children. Every year for the next 23 years, Sr. Jean fundraised in Japan and spent every spring break in India at these education projects.
Sr. Jean describes her work in India and Japan as having a “dual connection”. “It was really a bridge building experience not only in terms of fundraising for education but bridging between two peoples,” she says. And St. Francis Xavier being the patron of missions for both India and Japan made the work even more meaningful for her.
Even now “that connection is still there” and donors from Japan are still helping to support 17 projects in India. The majority of the donors in Japan are non-Christian, Sr. Jean says, but they trust in the School Sisters of Notre Dame and in the Catholic Church to do this work.
Seeing the Power of Mission
During Sr. Jean’s ministry there was a little girl named Mary from one of the Indian fishing villages. She was 5 years old and wearing rags when she first came to school. Little Mary did so well in the school that she went on to complete high school and then college, earning her bachelor’s degree in social work and then her master’s degree. After working in the villages for a time, Mary was able to get a government position in social work.
It was always stressed to the students to try and give back in some way for their education, Sr. Jean says. When the parents of Mary’s niece and nephew died of AIDS while the children were still young, Mary and her husband took them in to raise and educate them. When Sr. Jean and Mary met again years later, Mary told her that this was her way of giving back.
Being Missionary in the Here and Now
Sr. Jean believes strongly that “it’s so important here at home to be missionary, not only in the foreign missions.” She continues to work to instill that value in school children, “to build awareness among children how they can be missionary here and now, in their families, in their schools, spreading the love of God, being open to others, being open to their traditions and their culture and their religions.” Sr. Jean now continues her ministry in mission education, visiting schools, parishes, and wherever she can get her foot in the door to speak with people about the importance of mission.