UCA News

Columban priests 'never quit' on China

New book marks centennial of society's hard work to evangelize in the Middle Kingdom and Hong Kong
Columban priests 'never quit' on China

Pictured at the Irish Consulate in Hong Kong on March 15 for the launch of the new centennial book are (from left) Peter Ryan, Hong Kong Cardinal John Tong, Father Houston, Cardinal Joseph Zen and Father Dan Troy. (ucanews.com photo)

Published: April 27, 2018 10:33 AM GMT
Updated: April 30, 2018 03:31 AM GMT

The Columban Mission Society is feting its centenary this year (1918-2018) with a new book showcasing the history of its mission in Hong Kong and China as a testimony to what it has achieved.

Father Joseph Houston spent up to five months authoring the text, entitled "Columban Missionaries in Hong Kong."

The account of the missionaries originally appeared in the third volume of the "History of Catholic Religious Orders and Missionary Congregations in Hong Kong," which was published by the Centre for Catholic Studies of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

The latest book shows how integral the Columban missionaries' work was to the development of the Church in China and Hong Kong.

One of the society's founders, Bishop Edward Galvin, was inspired by a Canadian missionary. He formed a committee of interested priests to petition the bishops of Ireland to help establish a seminary for priests for China, the book states.

In 1918, the seminary and a new missionary society were set up. Later, the mission was named the Society of St. Columban after an early Irish saint. It was established with the purpose of evangelizing in China.

In 1920, Bishop Galvin arrived in the Diocese of Hanyang, located in Hubei province. The missionaries soon took over two newly established parishes — Nancheng in Jiangxi province and Huzhou in Zhejiang province.

Father Galvin later served as the first bishop of Hanyang.

The seminary trained priests for work in China and encouraged them to learn English so they could prepare for their mission.

Since then, many of the missionaries have traveled to China and served in the three provinces of Hubei, Jiangxi and Ganjiang, as well as in Beijing and Shanghai.

At the book launch, Peter Ryan, the consul-general of Ireland to Hong Kong and Macau, thanked the Columban missionaries for their humility, caring, empathy and contributions in terms of bringing Christianity to China.

"They bring real cultural understanding, real empathy, a natural way of missionary life, and a natural approach in dealing with people," he said.

"They don't ever come with a sense of superiority. Quite the opposite effect, I would say. They are so humble and low-key."

Even when the missionaries were suppressed and imprisoned in China during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), they never lost their faith.

After the book was published, Father Houston recalled Father Aedan McGrath, one of the Columban missionaries, describing how he was imprisoned in Shanghai from 1951 to 1954, adding that this was not enough to erode his faith.

Quoting from the book, Father McGrath said: "He was fine, in the best of spirits, fighting away every day with his guards over religion."

Father McGrath promoted the Legion of Mary in China in 1947 and established another base for it in Hong Kong in 1948, which he came back to visit in his later years.

It remains an important part of the church in Hong Kong to this day.

In 1920, Father John Blowick, another of the society's founders, passed through Hong Kong and was impressed by the impoverished lifestyles of Hong Kong Bishop Pozzoni and other members of the clergy.

He recalls being captivated by the beauty of the city.

Since then, Hong Kong has forged an indispensable role for itself in aiding the development of missionaries in China.

During the Cultural Revolution, when clergy, nuns and lay people were persecuted in China, Hong Kong served as a midway station for them as they transited to more "friendly" countries.

The missionaries at that time would help arrange accommodation for them and purchase ticket so they could sail to their next destination.

While the situation in China became increasingly severe, church property was confiscated and clergy and nuns were mired in poverty, often relying on handouts to survive.

"A priest mentioned that such items as sugar, meat and fish are just a happy memory," reads one passage in the new book.

In 1952, Bishop Galvin and other missionaries fled China. When the bishop arrived in Hong Kong, he was "thin, worn-looking, more like a beggar than anything else," the book states, quoting a sister who met him at the Columban Sisters at Ruttonjee Sanatorium shortly after he arrived.

"He struck everybody by the great dignity, courtesy, and air of triumph there was about him. It was the triumph of the Passion, the Victory of the Cross," the nun continued.

Another interesting narrative shows how the priest gave other clergy "the exhilarating sensation of being free at last" after he turned up at Lowu train station in Hong Kong.

Later, the territory served as a "halfway house" and helped clergy in Myanmar.

Although the missionaries' work in China was forcibly suspended, their hope that evangelism would spread in China never faded, and in the 1980s they returned there.

In 1987, Audrey Donnithorne, formerly a professorial fellow at the National University of Australia in Canberra, met a friend who had spent 20 years imprisoned for his faith in Guiyang of Guizhou province.

The friend mentioned how an Italian Jesuit missionary called Father Matteo Ricci had been able to work in China because of his cultural contributions to the country.

He suggested Catholics today could use the same method to gain entry to the country, where the ruling Communist Party maintains strict controls on the Church.

Donnithorne returned to Hong Kong and helped set up an organization that could make a contribution to China.

The organization was called the Association for International Technological, Economic and Cultural Exchange (AITECE) and featured the likes of Columban Fathers Edward Kelly.

By September of last year, AITECE had placed 395 teachers in 23 provinces and metropolitan areas of China.

It also promoted weaving industries to help local church communities be self-supporting, and helped make arrangements so Chinese students from seminaries and priests could study abroad and later bring the gospel to China.

Father Edward Kelly, a missionary who has been active in China, has liaised with Chinese bishops since 1986 and written numerous articles on the lay of the land in the Middle Kingdom.

In one he wrote: "Their [the early Columbans] legacy to us is their commitment to Christ and to China. That commitment needs to be continued with equal vigor today in the light of the Signs of Our Times. Our first task must be to understand these signs."

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