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P.O.W. from Rhinelander in Japanese Occupied Hong Kong

The house where Beatrice Ann Stapleton (Sister Matthew Marie) grew up.
Wisconsin Historical Society
The house where Beatrice Ann Stapleton (Sister Matthew Marie) grew up.

Matthew Stapleton was head of one of Rhinelander’s oldest and most distinguished families. Stapleton settled in Rhinelander in 1883 and worked as an overseer of the Brown Brothers’ boom operation. In 1904 he was elected mayor of Rhinelander and later went on to serve as postmaster. Despite all that, it was his daughter Beatrice who made history during World War II.

Beatrice Ann Stapleton was born in Rhinelander on May 24, 1903, to Matthew and Alexia Stapleton. The Stapleton family were devout Catholics, which meant that Beatrice and her six siblings were raised under the moral umbrella of the church. Beatrice was educated at the St. Mary’s school in Rhinelander and attended Rhinelander High School through her junior year. She finished in Milwaukee as the family moved to that city at the start of her senior year.

After graduating from high school, Beatrice attended Marquette University for two years, but completed her collegiate education at Holy Angels Academy and the Milwaukee State Teacher’s College. Her mission in life was to serve the church, so in 1932 she became a novitiate at Maryknoll Sisters Motherhouse in Maryknoll, New York. At Reception she received the name of Sister Matthew Marie. The Maryknoll Sisters profess the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty, and obedience, and devote their lives to service overseas.

After taking her vows in 1935, Sister Matthew Marie was sent to Hong Kong and assigned as a teacher at the Maryknoll Convent School in Kowloon Tong. At the time she arrived, there were two Maryknoll schools in Hong Kong serving 500 students. In the school where Sister Matthew Marie taught, she was one of but 5 nuns working alongside 40 lay teachers, most of whom were graduates of the school.

The late 1930s was a dangerous time to be in China. The Japanese Empire invaded Manchuria in 1937 and rapidly advanced southward along the Chinese coast. As the Japanese expanded through China, the American ambassador on several occasions very graciously advised evacuation. The nuns refused stating that Catholic tradition required that they remain at their posts regardless of the circumstances.

Because it was a British protectorate, the Japanese surrounded the crown colony but did not invade until after the attack on Pearl Harbor. On December 8, 1941, the Japanese entered Hong Kong, and on December 10 Sister Matthew Marie and the Maryknoll nuns became part of the war.

On the morning of December 10, the Maryknoll school in Kowloon Tong was hit by an artillery shell. Japanese troops arrived soon thereafter and informed the nuns and students that they had one hour to gather their belongings. They were taken to a concentration camp where they were soon joined by over 1000 American, British, and Dutch nationals. They received no food that first night and were force-marched the following day to a more permanent camp.

Sister Matthew Marie kept a positive outlook throughout the entire ordeal and never complained of how the Japanese treated her or the other nuns. Her only grievance was that there simply was not enough food for all the children still under her care.

The Maryknoll Sisters spent seven months as POWs. Laureneo Marques of Portuguese East Africa negotiated a prisoner exchange with the Japanese, and on June 29, 1942, Sister Matthew Marie boarded the S.S. Gripsholm bound for New York.

She came to visit Rhinelander in the fall of 1942 but did not remain. In 1946, Sister Matthew Marie returned to Hong Kong to resume her life’s work.

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