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July 9, 1900: Remembering China's Franciscan Saints | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | Ignatius Insight | July 9, 2011

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July 9, 1900: near the end of the Qing dynasty:

After a long drought, a slight drizzle began to moisten the dry fields of Shanxi province. But it was too late. Local peasants had already spread rumors – the Christians were to blame for the long-term lack of rain. Banners had begun to appear throughout the region: "The skies won't rain, the earth is scorched, all because the churches have blocked the heavens" (Taiyuan jiaochu jianhua, 311).

Two Franciscan bishops, two priests, a brother, and seven nuns had prayed for rain, but when it had finally arrived they knew it could not stop the tide of violence. Chinese Christians all around them were already being captured, ordered to renounce their faith in God, and executed if they refused. By the summer of 1900 a group of anti-foreign and anti-Christian men and women had organized themselves into roaming bands of martial artists groups carrying long swords, spears, and halberds; they called themselves the Yihetuan, or the "Society of Righteous Harmony." Their duty, they asserted, was to support the ruling court and "annihilate all foreigners."

At 4 o'clock in the afternoon, the Franciscan bishops, priests, and nuns were reciting the Divine Office together with Chinese faithful in Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi, when they heard the clamor of weapons approaching their small room. Instinctively knowing that they would soon be executed, those present all knelt before Bishop Gregorius Grassi, the ordinary of their remote Chinese diocese. Grassi trembled with emotion as he said to his fellow Christians, "The hour of death has come, my children: kneel down and I will give you holy absolution" (Franciscan Martyrs of the Boxer Rising, 14).

Bishops Grassi and Francis Fogolla, Fathers Theodiric Balat and Elias Fachini, Brother Andreus Bauer, seven nuns, fourteen Chinese Catholics, and a group of Protestants who had also been arrested, were each stripped to the waist, men and women, and tied together. On their way to the governor's mansion, where their execution ground was being prepared, the Franciscans were derided and beaten both by their guards and the mob that lined the street. As they walked a soldier sliced Bishop Fogolla's leg twice with his sword, and Bishop Grassi was struck on his head and shoulder with a saber (China's Saints, 141). It was their Via Crucis.

Once they had arrived at Governor Yuxian's official residence, the missionaries and native Catholics were ordered to kneel in the large courtyard. The governor struck Fogolla's chest with his sword after the hapless bishop implored him to reconsider, and then directed the attendant Boxers and his troops to execute the assembled Christians. There was no trial. In Cardinal Louis Nazaire Bégin's account of what happened next, we hear of how they were martyred:
'Kill them, kill them!' roared the crowd. Yu-Hsien striking with his own sword cried: 'Kill them!' At this sight the soldiers began the slaughter, dealing blows right and left, cruelly injuring their victims before giving the final stroke. Father Elie, aged sixty-one years, received more than one hundred sword cuts and at each lifted his eyes to heaven saying: 'I go to heaven.' During the scene the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary were spectators, for their executioners hoped the sight of the martyred priests would make their own death more horrible. They knelt in prayer with eyes lifted to heaven, praying for the martyrs, for the conversion of their persecutors and for the perseverance of the Christians. . . . The nuns embraced each other, intoned the Te Deum, and presented their heads to the executioners—a stroke of the sword and all was over! (Life of Mother Marie Hermine, 62-63).
The Chinese Jesuit, Father Li Di, who collected testimonies of what happened from eyewitnesses, described the Taiyuan massacre: "In a moment the blood gathered into flowing channels and countless corpses lay prone throughout the courtyard" (Quan huo ji, 340).

The seven nuns, all members of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary who had just arrived to China that year, died in a particularly stirring manner. After seeing the atrocious deaths of the bishops and priests, the sisters embraced one another, knelt, and intoned the Te Deum Laudamus, the hymn of praise attributed to Saints Ambrose and Augustine.

We praise thee, O God, we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.
All the earth doth worship thee, the Father everlasting.
To thee all Angels cry aloud, the Heavens, and all the Powers therein.
. . . .
The noble army of Martyrs praise thee.
The holy Church throughout all the world doth acknowledge thee.
. . . .
When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death, thou didst open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers.

As each nun was beheaded, the small chorus was diminished by one voice, until the last Franciscan sister was killed. The bodies of the slain Christians were mutilated and deposited unceremoniously into a pit allotted to common criminals; their heads were displayed above the north gate outside the city.

Around the same time of the massacre at Taiyuan, Boxers searched nearby areas for native Catholics, who were seized and ordered to apostatize. Among those captured was the holy Franciscan priest, Father Andrew Wang, who tried to evade the Boxers by wearing secular garb and taking flight into Shanxi's remote areas. Father Wang spent several days without food or shelter, and finally in a state of exhaustion, coughing blood, was discovered by his pursuers, who took him to the local magistrate for trial.

During his investigation, he was told by the local official: ". . . if you renounce your religion you will receive clothes and money, and your life will be spared." Father Wang calmly informed his judge that he was a priest, reasserted his faith in God, and asked to be executed on the grounds of his church, which had just been destroyed by the Boxers. Followed by a large assembly of curious onlookers, Wang was taken to his ruined church, where a Boxer took "him by the hair of the head with his left hand, raised his sword aloft with his right and brought it down with a violent blow across his throat" (Franciscan Martyrs of the Boxer Rising, 23). His body was then burned to ashes in a final act of disrespect. Father Andrew Wang's death was one of roughly 4,000 such deaths of Catholics during the Boxer Uprising of 1900.

After the summer of violence in northern China, peace was at last restored in August, and news of the deaths of Shanxi's Franciscans spread quickly throughout Europe. When Pope Leo XIII heard the news of the seven nuns, and how they died while singing the Te Deum, he asked his secretary, Msgr. Rinaldo Angeli, to write to the founder of their Order. "His Holiness blesses with all his heart the Institute which has given these spotless victims. I rejoice with you in this new pledge of heavenly graces given to your society" (Life of Mother Marie Hermine, 38).

The Vatican immediately requested that information and testimonies be gathered regarding the martyrs attached to the Franciscan mission in Shanxi, China, in hopeful anticipation for a day when their names might be remembered as saints in Catholic Church. And today, after the canonizations of many of these holy martyrs, a large number of Franciscans, including those who were executed on July 9, 1900, are included in the Church's long list of Saints, whose prayers in heaven serve those of us who call upon them today.

The aftermath of the unrest ushered in an era of spiritual renewal in China. The Qing government assigned a new governor, Shen Dunhe, to oversee Shanxi province, a governor who became a beloved supporter of the renewed Franciscan mission. Shen allowed the Franciscans to rebuild their cathedral, destroyed by the Boxers, which now stands as a towering monument of Catholic faith in Taiyuan, and ordered that a memorial to the martyrs be constructed beside his official estate. He also returned many of the bodily remains of those killed to the Catholic faithful of Taiyuan.

The blood of the Franciscan martyrs, who died on July 9, planted new seeds of growth in Shanxi: the seminary filled with new candidates for the priesthood, new Franciscan nuns, Chinese and European, operated an orphanage and medical clinic, and new churches rose from the ashes of the Boxer Uprising. Today, Shanxi boasts a larger Catholic population, per capita, than any other province in China, and the faithful there live peacefully with the local government.

We remember the holy Franciscans who died 111 years ago, and turn to them as examples of faith and endurance in an era of uncertainty and unrest. We also recall that the word martyr means "witness," implying that we, who are still bystanders of those who gave their lives before us, do well to recall the reason for their sacrifice.

As Soren Kierkegaard said, "The tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins."

Related Ignatius Insight Articles, Interviews, and Excerpts:

No Easy Answers: An Interview with Shanghai's Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian, S.J. | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | July 23, 2010
A Visit to China's Largest Catholic Village | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | July 12, 2010
"Oh, that I might be found worthy of martyrdom!" | From the Introduction to The Red Book of Chinese Martyrs | Gerolamo Fazzini
On Writing A History of Christianity in China | Preface to Christians In China: A.D. 600 to 2000 | Fr. Jean-Pierre Charbonnier
"Weaving a Profound Dialogue between West and East": On Matteo Ricci, S.J. | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
China, Catholicism, and Buddhism | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. and Carl E. Olson | Dec. 29, 2008
The Church in China: Complexity and Community | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | December 22, 2008
China's Catholics of Guizhou: Three Days with Three Bishops | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | October 3, 2008
China's Struggling Catholics: A Second Report on the Church in Beijing | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | September 13, 2008
China's Thriving Catholics: A Report From Beijing's South Cathedral | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | August 20, 2008
Two Chinese Churches? Or One? | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
Two Weeks in the Eternal City: From the Vatican Secret Archives to the Basilica of St. Charles Borromeo | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
Catholicism and Buddhism | Anthony E. Clark and Carl E. Olson

Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. (above, left) is Assistant Professor of Asian History at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington.

He completed his doctoral studies at the University of Oregon, where he studied Chinese history, literature, philosophy, and religion. His current research centers on the history of the Church in China, and he has recently finished a book on the Catholic martyrs saints in China. His other interests include East/West religious dialogue, especially between Catholic and Buddhist ideas of faith and salvation. Dr. Clark has written several academic books and articles on the topic of Chinese history and has been a guest on "EWTN Live," "Catholic Answers Live," and Relevant Radio to talk about Catholicism in China. He is also a contributing editor for This Rock magazine.

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