May Leong travels the path to sanctity

May Leong had a perfectly normal upbringing during a very unsettled time for Chinese-Americans.

Her father, a schoolteacher in China, came to America and became a businessman in the 1920s. He overcame the effects of the Exclusion Act and was successful at importing and exporting supplies for Chinese restaurants. He even constructed his own office building in 1929.

After six years of making a life in the United States, Leong’s father brought his wife and family to the country. May was born in 1930; “the reunion baby,” she says.

She grew up in Chinatown, N.Y., where there were “many Christian missions looking for us lost souls,” Leong says.

“I remember the singing and being taught that Jesus loves me, and the candy at Christmas time,” said Leong, whose parents were Buddhists.

At 14 she was baptized in the Lutheran church. She and her siblings all became Christian.

“Buddhism is not a proselytizing religion, but rather a personal religion,” she said.

While their children became Christian, her parents maintained their Buddhist practice. They helped establish the first temple in the area after the war.

She said the spirituality of her Buddhist parents was very influential to her own.

Regarding the rising popularity of Eastern religious practices, she said, “Meditation can bring you in touch with yourself, but it should also bring you to a higher power. With true spirituality and prayer, you should realize that you need more than yourself.”

The Leong children were encouraged in academic pursuits.

“Our father was always the scholar,” Leong said. “He always had a book in his hand when he had a free moment. As long as we wanted to go to school, he supported us. We were lucky that way.”

Leong majored in pre-med at Smith College in North Hampton, Mass.

She worked at the naval research lab in Washington, went to Europe with some friends, and returned to work at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York as a technician. That was when she decided on medical school.

At the University of Buffalo, N.Y., she was one of five women among 80 men.

She said the professors were particularly harsh on the women.

“They would try to trip us up, but we were warned by women in the upper classes,” she said.

After the first snowstorm, however, Leong was sure to make good grades so she could transfer south to Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. There, she was one of 40 women in her class. The college was the last all-women medical college in the country.

She did her internship and specialization at Temple University Hospital, and later did a sub-specialization in hematology.

Leong opened an internal medicine practice in Brooklyn Heights in the 1960s. After six years, she moved to Ridgefield, Conn., where she practiced until the 1990s.

Leong retired to Hilton Head Island. She had bought a home there in 1985 after visiting the area with friends.

It was in Hilton Head that she returned to her Lutheran faith.

“As my spirituality grew, I needed more,” she said.

Taking after her father, Leong always did a “tremendous amount of reading.”

It was her studies, meeting Catholic friends in her Ultreya group, and prayers that led her to the Catholic faith.

She joined RCIA at Holy Family Church and was confirmed last Easter.

“We are always in a process of conversion,” she said. “We’re on a path of increasing sanctity that we must try to achieve in our lives. I’m so happy that I now have the real fullness that’s offered to me by the church.”

She attends Mass every morning.

This summer, her path to sanctity continued on a pilgrimage in Spain.

She walked eight to 10 miles a day from July 14-26 on the path of St. James, the Camino de Santiago. She said that God’s grace enabled her to complete the physically demanding trail.

Traveling the northern countryside of Spain on the road to Santiago de Compostela, Leong felt spiritually fulfilled.

“People have been doing this pilgrimage for 1,000 years,” she said. “I walked those same steps.”

She ended the pilgrimage by going to the cathedral in Santiago. Leong visited the statue of St. James, whom the Spanish honored in grand style on his feast day, July 25. When the feast of St. James falls on a Sunday, as it did this year, the cathedral declares a Holy Year. More than 10 million visitors are expected to visit the shrine in 2004.

The cathedral site is believed to hold the relics of the apostle James, whose remains were brought to Spain after his martyrdom in Jerusalem in A.D. 44.

The pilgrimage was an affirmation for Leong that she had found her home in the Catholic Church. She said she always feels guided by the Lord in her life, but she never questions. After all, she said, “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”