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Divine Word Missioner Remembered In Shandong, Where He Worked And Died

Updated: October 02, 2003 05:00 PM GMT
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Catholics in eastern China are delighted that a Divine Word missioner many learned about from their predecessors who knew him is being canonized.

Blessed Joseph Freinademetz, born in an area of northern Italy then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, came to be known as "Mother of the Church in South Shandong" because of his pioneering work in Shandong province, where he died in 1908.

He and Blessed Arnold Janssen, founder of the Society of the Divine Word (Societas Verbi Divini, SVD) are to be canonized Oct. 5 at the Vatican.

Many priests in Shandong with whom UCA News spoke remember first-hand accounts of people who knew or benefited from Blessed Freinademetz, known locally as Fu Shenfu (Father Fu).

Bishop Zhao Ziping of Jinan said Sept. 29 that he and many other Catholics are excited about the canonization. "We were very happy, especially the older generation, when we heard about it" he said. Jinan, the Shandong capital, is 370 kilometers south of Beijing.

The 82-year-old bishop said he still remembers his seniors talking about the missioner, including his efforts to build churches. "Catholics in Shandong will pray to him to help the Church and society in our province develop well in all ways," he said.

Blessed Freinademetz is set to become the 122nd saint in China but the first who was not martyred. Saints are canonized either as confessors or martyrs. The existing 121 saints in China comprise the 120 Chinese Martyrs canonized in 2000 and Saint Joannes Gabriel Perboyre, canonized in 1996.

Blessed Freinademetz entered the Divine Word Society in 1878. The following year he went with confrere Father John Baptist Anzer to Hong Kong, where they stayed two years preparing for mission work in China.

The two priests, the first Divine Word missioners in China, started their mission in the southern part of Shandong. When they arrived, there were 158 baptized Catholics among 12 million people in the province.

According to Bishop Zhao, there are still a few Chinese Divine Word priests in Shandong. All foreign missioners were expelled from China in the 1950s.

The bishop said that unlike the canonization of martyrs in 2000, which sparked strong criticism from the Chinese government, the canonization of Blessed Freinademetz has drawn no comment from authorities. He added that his diocese would not have much of a celebration, but he would send his congratulations to Divine Word members in Germany with whom he has contact.

According to Father Niu Shanliang of Yanzhou diocese, Father Freinademetz´s tomb was destroyed by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). It was located near the church in Daizhuang, a suburb of Jining, a city about 140 kilometers south of Jinan.

"When the corpse of Father Freinademetz was taken out from the tomb, it was said to be in good shape. However, it was burned by the Red Guards. One of the Red Guards who was at the scene is still alive, living in Jining, " he said.

A memorial with a commemorative tablet has been built at the tomb site but can only be reached by going through a former Divine Word hospital.

Local Catholics, if not in a large group, can visit the memorial, Father Niu said, but outsiders are not allowed access.

Some Catholics in Yanzhou, northeast of Jining, told UCA News Oct. 2 that a picture of Blessed Freinademetz put up in the church there was ordered removed by the government a few days ago.

In Qingdao, eastern Shandong, Father Thomas Chen Tianhao, parish priest of St. Michael´s Church, told UCA News Sept. 30 that he only heard that day about the coming canonization.

Many people in Qingdao diocese know about Blessed Freinademetz through accounts from Divine Word members in the past or from books brought by Taiwan Catholics. The pioneer missioner is very much respected in Shandong, the 43-year-old priest added.

He said that were Father Paulus Guo Dianxiu, who died in 2002 as the last Divine Word priest in the diocese, still alive, he would be especially happy. But Father Chen said he knew of no plans for celebrations in the diocese.

In Heze diocese, west of Jining, 33-year-old Father Wei Ligen told UCA News Sept. 29 that he only heard about the canonization from priests of another diocese. He said he would announce the news at Mass as most Catholics might not know about what he called a great event.

Elsewhere in Shandong, Bishop Fang Xingyao of Linyi said Oct. 2 that a Mass celebrating the canonization would be held in his diocese. Linyi is east of Jining.

Father Freinademetz worked to form lay catechists, priests and other missioners in various part of Shandong. He died in a village in the province on Jan. 28, 1908, from typhoid that he contracted while working with patients. Pope Paul VI beatified him and Blessed Janssen in 1975.


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