Sisters of Providence first celebrated Chinese New Year in 1965, when Sister Jacqueline Fernandes was a novice, and prepared a meal for the sisters with the help of second-year novice Sister Felma Cerezo and others.
Fifty years later, the annual Chinese New Year dinner organized by Sister Jacqueline at St. Joseph Residence is a restaurant-catered, two-hour feast. It represents the essence of Sister Jaqueline: welcoming, gracious, hospitable, generous and full of fun.
But she is not perfect, this Jubilarian is first to admit. “God has given me the grace,” she explained. “I’m not intellectual, but I’m not stupid; I can learn. I have common sense and patience, and I like people.”
She was born in 1941 in Kowloon, Hong Kong, to a Portuguese father, Leopoldo Fernandes, and a Chinese mother, Rosalind Lee Fernandes. The dangerous war years kept the Fernandes family on the move. As her father, a British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) manager, was transferred from Singapore to Batavia, Australia and India, Mrs. Fernandes and her three children – Miguel, Valerie and Jacqueline – tried to follow.
Lived three years in Japanese concentration camp
En route to India, their ship was bombed by the Germans. The Fernandes family was imprisoned in a Japanese concentration camp in Fukushima for three years, with men and women separated. They were released in September 1945, and returned to Australia, then to Singapore and finally home to Hong Kong in August 1946. They also added two more children, Fred and Patricia.
In Catholic school, Jacqueline was taught by the Canossian sisters, some of whom have remained close friends. Just before her senior year she transferred to secretarial school and then became a secretary for an import-export firm. Her sister Valerie came to the United States after high school and lived with family friends while attending Seattle University, studying with Dr. Ralph O’Brien. The O’Brien family invited Jacqueline to come to the United States and go to school while living with them and caring for their three children. “It was very hard for me to consider leaving, but my father said, ‘You don’t have this kind of opportunity too often in life. You should take advantage of it.’” Jacqueline left Hong Kong as a freighter’s sole passenger, remaining in her cabin for the first two days until she ventured out.
Entered the community the year her father died
In the O’Brien home on Magnolia, Jacqueline learned to be independent and learned how to cook as her second family added two more children. She finished high school and studied business at Seattle Community College. She also explored the call to religious life that she first felt in Hong Kong. “I always wanted to be a sister,” she recalled. “I knew I had to learn, but I didn’t know I had to be educated. I learn from experience, not from education or a teacher.”
She met the Sisters of Providence and was encouraged to meet Filipino sisters and sisters from Daughters of Mary in Uganda at a retreat at Providence Heights. “I thought I would have a chance in the community,” she explained. With her father’s written consent and the encouragement of the O’Briens, she entered the religious community in 1964, the summer that her father died. “I asked Mother what I should do and she said, ‘Go ahead with your plans because that’s what your father wants you to do.’”
She was assigned to community services in the early years, and then joined the treasurer’s office, where she worked with the late Susan Hunsaker, “who taught me to be generous with the sisters. She became a wonderful mentor and friend.” Sister Jacqueline loved the variety the job offered, handling sisters’ moves, furniture, storage and cars. She stayed on for nine years. In typical Sister Jacqueline fashion, she learned to bring the movers lunch to save both time and money, and developed wonderful relationships with them.
Working with the sisters has been her “best ministry”
For 16 years she was registrar and office manager at Providence High School in Burbank, Calif., where she enjoyed being with students and occasionally substituting. “I told them, ‘I know your grades, so get your books and study.’ And I taught PE class with running and Richard Simmons exercise tapes.”
She was such a fixture there that a large contingent from the high school will come to Seattle for her Jubilee celebration.
In 1996 Sister Jacqueline began the first of two terms on the Provincial Council as the community formed the new Mother Joseph Province. Her prior ministry experience came in handy as she took charge of ministries, living arrangements, board affiliations and as liaison for associates and vocations.
For the past nine years, Sister Jacqueline has been the administrator/superior in charge of SJR, the home for retired Sisters of Providence and sisters from other religious communities. “Working with sisters has been my best ministry, from the beginning of religious life and now,” she said.
This Jubilee will be spent with friends and family, including cousins she has not seen in years, but she will be missing family members she has lost, including her parents, her sister Valerie and her brother Miguel. “I am grateful for what I have and grateful to my family,” she said. As she celebrates the past 50 years she plans to travel back to Hong Kong and Singapore for the first time since 2004 with Sister Felma, her longtime housemate and friend.