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Updated: July 11, 2000 05:00 PM GMT
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Two of the five elderly priests in China´s Yunnan province, all unaffiliated to the government-sanctioned "open" Church, died recently, and two others are too sick to carry out pastoral ministry.

Father Louis He Dezong, Vatican-appointed administrator of Kunming diocese since 1950, died June 30 at age 84.

Father He had been sick for months and resigned as administrator before he died, Father Lawrence Zhang Wenchang of Kunming, 80, told UCA News July 5.

Like Father Zhang, Father He was an ethnic Yi and practiced his ministry privately but maintained contacts and supported young priests in the three dioceses in Yunnan -- Dali, Kunming, Zhaotong -- none of which have bishops.

On July 2, Father Tang Minggui of Zhaotong offered a requiem Mass for Father He in a church in Kunming, the provincial capital about 2,120 kilometers southwest of Beijing. Father Zhang officiated the funeral at a local funeral parlor the next day. About 100 Catholics attended each liturgy.

Father He seldom said Mass publicly, except in villages for major feast days, said Father Zhang, who remains active in the diocese despite his age and is now the only elderly priest serving Catholics in the remote countryside.

The two other Kunming elderly priests, Fathers Wang Feiyun and Joseph Huang Ruoshi, are too ill to perform priestly tasks, Father Zhang explained. Most young priests in the open Church of Kunming are unwilling to travel to the mountainous parts of the diocese, he added.

Father He was born into a Catholic family in Lunan, near Kunming, in 1915. After attending the Kunming seminary, he was ordained a priest in 1942. He taught in minor seminaries in Lunan and Kunming before serving in parishes.

The priest was named Kunming administrator a year after the founding of the People´s Republic of China, when foreign missioners were expelled.

After the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, Father He was forced to work in a coal mine for two years, and later transferred to a reform-through-labor farm. After his release in 1979, he returned to Kunming diocese.

Since the early 1980s he has been a librarian appointed by the local government. Father He devised a writing system for the Afxii, one of the 24 branches of the Yi, and published a book on Afxii grammar.

Another elderly Yunnan priest, Father Andrew Shi Guangrong of Dali diocese, died of lung disease on March 13 at age 80, reported the March issue of "Catholic Church in China," a national open Church quarterly.

Few Catholics attended his funeral because roads had been damaged by rains, Father Gregory Tao Zhibin of Dali told UCA News July 6.

Father Shi was too poor to see a doctor, and his medication was much delayed, said Father Tao, who appealed in 1999 for help for sick Church personnel in China.

The average income in Dali is less than 300 yuan (US$36) a month per person.

Father Shi entered the Kunming major seminary before 1949. He was jailed for his faith in the 1950s and released 22 years later in the late 1970s. He continued priesthood training in open Church seminaries and was ordained in 1987, after which he returned to Dali diocese.

Until Father Tao was ordained in 1996, Father Shi was the only priest serving Catholics in the vast and mountainous diocese, particularly the 10,000-20,000 ethnic Tibetan Catholics in Deqing autonomous prefecture, northwestern Yunnan.

He knew at least three minority languages including Tibetan.

According to Father Tao, Father Shi had lost all his teeth while in jail and had been physically weak for a long time. Still, his dedication to tribal Catholics had made him visit them even in his last days, Father Tao said.

"It was a great loss to the Church but a time for Father Shi to rest, as he worked so hard for the Church," noted Father Tao, in his 30s and now the lone priest in Dali diocese.


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