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July 9, 1900: Remembering China's Franciscan Saints | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | Ignatius Insight |
July 9, 2011
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
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).
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,
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
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.
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
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
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.
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."
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"Oh, that I might be found worthy of martyrdom!" | From the Introduction to
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On Writing A History of Christianity in China | Preface to Christians In China: A.D. 600 to 2000 | Fr. Jean-Pierre Charbonnier
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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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