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Recooking "The Art of Chinese Cooking" by The Benedictine Sisters of Peking, 1956 | Remixed by Fist of Kitchen 2013

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The Castor Oil Story

Castor Oil.

Mussolini was a horrible tyrant and mass murderer, but he knew well to respect nuns. Here’s a funny story from 1927 told by a colleague of the Sisters, an American priest from Pelkie, Upper Michigan, Father Clifford King from his memoir, I Remember. For missionaries, medical dispensaries were politically important social services to provide, to “win hearts and minds,” at a time when Chinese government lacked cohesion and there were no social services whatsoever. (For reference, this is what super-austerity looks like.) Chaos. Note that Sister Adela mentioned below is likely a Divine Word sister, and definitely not one of our eight Benedictine sisters.

excerpted from I Remember:

A medical dispensary, also in the charge of the Sisters, served as a very important means of breaking down prejudice and winning friends for our mission. In the course of a month as many as two thousand minor ailments would be treated. Sister Adela was in charge and frequently had to replenish supplies of medicines, bandages, and so on.

On one occasion our Father Superior called on Sister Adela to inform her that, as one of the Fathers was about to leave for Hankow to procure supplies for the mission, she might as well make up a list of any medicaments she needed for the dispensary. The Sister expressed gratitude, but told Father Superior that, as a large assortment of medicaments had just been received from Germany, the only thing needed just then was a good quantity of castor oil.

Father Froewis was quite a prankster, and that request caused something to click in his mind, so he said casually, “Why, Sister, I know of a man who has so much castor oil at his disposal that he had been giving it to people, free.”

The Sister quickly replied, “Well, that’s fine; why throw money away? Father ‚Ä®Superior, if you’ll be so kind as to give me the name and address of that kind gentleman, I’ll write to him and ask for five gallons of the stuff.”

Without blinking an eye, the white-bearded old priest took a slip of paper and printed on it DUCE BENITO MUSSOLINI, ROMA, ITALIA. He handed the paper to the Sister and then left without adding a word.

Castor Oil.

As Sister Adela (who never read newspapers) was not the kind who puts off until tomorrow what can be done today, she immediately sat down and wrote, in German, a long letter to Herr Duce Mussolini. She informed him about her work and her needs and expressed the hope that, being so well provided with castor oil, he might be so kind as to send her, free of charge, a good supply of that very important medicament. She gave the address of her dispensary and signed her name.

The following morning Father Kalwey called at the dispensary before he left for Hankow and inquired of Sister Adela whether she needed anything which he could buy for her. The Sister answered that her medical supplies were quite adequate, except for the castor oil, but that he would not have to buy any of that right now, as Father Superior had given her the address of a gentleman in Italy who had so much of that commodity on hand that he was giving it away free to people who did not need it nearly as much as she did. This information caused Father Kalwey to gasp with surprise and inquire the name of that generous Italian gentleman.

Sister Adela produced the slip of paper which Father Froewis had given to her. One glance at it caused Father to exclaim, “Mein Gott! Schwester Adela, you don’t mean to tell me you wrote to Mussolini, requesting him to send you five gallons of castor oil. Don’t you know that Benito Mussolini is the head of the Fascist party, now exercising dictatorial control over the whole of Italy? He may think that we are trying to make fun of him and retaliate by adopting an unfriendly attitude toward our missions.” Then he told Sister Adela about Mussolini’s method of punishing his political opponents, “He has his Fascist police drag them to the nearest drugstore and force them to gulp down large doses of castor oil. This symbolizes the political purge which the Fascist party is striving to achieve throughout the Italian peninsula.”

A few weeks after Sister Adela’s letter to Mussolini had been sent off, the Italian consul-general in the city of Hankow received the cablegram from the Italian government’s Rome headquarters. The cablegram instructed the consul-general to purchase twenty gallons of ricinus oil, to be sent to Sister Adela, Catholic Mission, Sinyangchow, Honan. A few days later that shipment was received in our mission dispensary and greatly appreciated. This goes to show that Duce Benito Mussolini, in spite of many harsh opinions expressed about him as a dictatorial potentate, was not without a keen sense of humor.

Father Clifford King, I Remember. (Techny, Ill.: Divine Word Publications), pp. 100-107.

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