Today Passionists throughout the world celebrate the Feast of the Glorious Wounds of Christ. They are glorious wounds, marks of risen life, not of death. They are bathed in the light of the Resurrection. When Jesus showed his wounds to his disciples after he had risen, they “rejoiced at the sight of the Lord.”
Today marks the anniversary of the death in China of Fathers Walter Coveyou, Clement Seybold, and Godfrey Holbein on April 24, 1929. After taking part in a community retreat the three young Passionist priests were traveling to the mission at Yuanchow, Hunan. After spending the night at an inn they were attacked by Chinese bandits and murdered. They were the first three American Catholic missionaries to be killed in China.
We marked their death with a symposium organized by Rev. Robert E. Carbonneau, CP, Ph.D, of the Passionist Historical Archives, here in Union City, NJ. Portraits of the three were exhibited and their legacy explored.
What did their lives and sacrifice accomplish? Six scholars looked at the time and circumstances in China when the missionaries were killed:
- Dr. Jeffrey Kinkley, Ph.D, Professor of History, St. John’s University, NY
- Dr. Joseph Lee, Ph.D, Professor of History, Pace University, NY
- Dr. Kathleen Lodwick, Ph.D, Professor of History, Penn State University, Fogelville, Pa.
- Rev. Marcel Marcil, SJ, US Catholic China Bureau, Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ
- Dr. Edward Mc Cord, Ph.D, Professor of History, George Washington University, Washington, DC.
- Rev. Robert E. Carbonneau, CP, Ph.D. Passionist Historical Archives, Union City, NJ.
Western Hunan was a dangerous, bandit-ridden place at the time, controlled by war lords and their roving armies. Central and regional governments had little power, especially in Hunan, probably the most lawless place in China.
Foreigners traveling in the area needed armed escorts to get from place to place. It was similar to Somalia today. The missionaries who were killed were unarmed and unprotected.
The Passionists, like other missionaries at the time, brought needed food and medical help, but also some basic order to the troubled territory where they were and offered it a connection to the outside world. Reports of religious orders like the Passionists, found in their archives today, offer essential information about Chinese history, culture and political development. They were early ethnographers, as their descriptions of China found in articles in The Sign magazine, make clear.
The missionaries won converts to Christianity through families, usually through the elders, and Christianity became a strong community based movement through family structures that remained even through the Communist era. The missionaries taught basic Christian beliefs, but they were tolerant when families used customary Chinese religious practices for funerals and weddings. The recent transferral of the graves of the three missionaries to an honorable resting place witnesses the reverence Chinese Christians have for these ancestors in the faith. The missionaries have become embedded in their family tree, so important for families in China.
The death of these three missionaries in 1929 came as North and South America were turning from their own continents to the world beyond. China was the first destination for American efforts. The tragedy shocked the Americas, where interest in China was high among American Christians.
Often enough in dire circumstances like those in Western Hunan, various Christian groups showed a surprising cooperation with each other and united to bring common relief.
We think of globalization as a recent movement, but we can forget the global effects Christian missionaries like the Passionists initiated.
Probably those who killed the missionaries were robbers looking for whatever valuables they had and had no religious or political motivation. But the heroism of these men, who left home and the world where they were born and grew up, and united themselves to troubled land and people has to be praised.
We rejoice in their wounds.
You can read more on the Passionist China missionaries at www.cpprovince.org/archives
You can see a video on the mission in Hunan at http://www.vimeo.com/3545520