Here is an excerpt:
29 Years in Laogai
I am all yours, my Queen, my Mother, and all that I have is yours.
– Frank Duff –
“Legio Mariae: The Official Handbook of the Legion of Mary”
“Chu lai! Chu lai!” commanded unfamiliar voices on the other side of the closed door, ordering, “Come out! Come out!”Startled, Matthew Koo sat up in his bed, wakened in the pre-midnight hours, caught somewhere between the black of night and first of light, somewhere between dreams and reality, somewhere bathed in the sweat of a balmy September slumber in Shanghai, China.
Following orders, the 22-year-old, third-year seminarian reached for the mosquito net cascading over his mattress and found an opening in the mesh. Clambering to his feet, already wearing shorts and a shirt, he slipped into a pair of shoes.
With sleep weighing down his body, he stumbled through the doorway of his dormitory room on the second floor, never looking back. He would never see his room again.
“Downstairs!” a stranger ordered.
Matthew rushed down the steps, heading toward one of the classrooms on the first floor of Zikawei (Shanghainese for Xujiahui) Diocesan Seminary, normally bustling during the day with the swoosh of Chinese scholars’ floor-length robes, the gentle chime of bells, and the syllables of Occidental Latin blushed with Oriental tones.
“Sit! Head down! No looking up!” ordered one of the plainclothes officers from the Zikawei District Police Station.
Matthew slid into a seat, surrounded by dozens of fellow seminarians and a few of the Jesuit instructors.
Several officers, dressed in street clothes, stood with their backs against the walls and pointed their weapons at the passive group of religious believers. A single officer brusquely read down a list of names, intermittently raising his hand and shaking the papers filled with lines of Chinese characters.
When Matthew heard his name, he stood up. A stranger pushed him into the next room and stuck a pistol in his chest.
“You’re arrested!” the stranger said, sliding his handgun into its holster.
Matthew offered no resistance, as he felt his arms pulled behind his back and the handcuffs clamped around his wrists. Led outside, he was shoved up into one of several trucks, waiting with engines idling. Normally used to transport coal, a layer of black powder dusted the interior of the truck’s dumping bed, where he squatted down among his confreres.
With the moon waning in its last quarter, the night hid in a darkness as black as the coal dust. Matthew could see and hear very little. Other than the revving of engines, the yelling of officers, the banging of doors, he heard only the nervous breathing of others squatting nearby. No one dared to whisper a word.
Eventually, the driver slid the transmission into first gear then stepped on the accelerator. With a start, the engine roared as the truck rolled ahead, gears grinding, tires crunching over the gravel, and its human load swaying with the motion and centrifugal force.
It was September 8, 1955, Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
That night, as part of the Communist regime’s Campaign to Eliminate Counterrevolutionaries, launched earlier that year, all throughout Shanghai a counterrevolutionary apprehension task force had been dispatched to seize those men, women and children labeled enemies of the State, those counter to the People’s Revolution.
The authorities had rounded up seminarians, half a dozen instructors from Zikawei and hundreds of others, including the Most Reverend Pin-Mei “Ignatius” Kung (old form of Pinmei Gong, 1901-2000), bishop of Shanghai and Soochow (old form of Suzhou).
Political enemies, they were the worst of the worst criminals: faithful Roman Catholics.
Only the previous Saturday, September 3, when the seminary had opened its doors for the start of the new year, Matthew had arrived early in the day and had watched as several men surveyed the premises, for sanitation purposes, they had claimed, a common excuse authorities frequently relied upon to gain access to privately owned homes and facilities. Upstairs and downstairs the men had walked, through one room then the next, whispering to one another and taking notes.
The men must have been mapping out the rooms for their planned attack, Matthew realized, thinking back.
Abruptly, the 10-minute ride in the truck ended. A foot slammed down the brake pedal, and the engine’s roar decelerated to a murmur. It was the end of the road and the end of freedom for Matthew and the others. They had arrived at Zikawei District Police Station.
“Come down!” officers yelled as they popped open the tailgate.
Herded to a cell, Matthew wasn’t informed of the charges against him, but he felt certain that he knew what his “crime” was. Years earlier he had joined a religious organization, the Legion of Mary, which consisted of faithful Catholics united by good works – a crime in the Communist dictatorship of the People’s Republic of China, where the Party was the savior, not the foreigners’ Man on the Cross.
he formation of Legion of Mary chapters began in China in 1948, when Archbishop Antonio Riberi (1897-1967), apostolic nuncio to China, ordered Father William Aedan McGrath (1906-2000, Missionary Society of Saint Columban) to establish the Catholic grass-roots organization, as far and as fast as possible.
With determination and dedication, the 5-foot-tall Irish missionary readied the native Chinese Catholics for what the clergy believed would be the oppression and annihilation of the Church by the blood-drenched hammer and sickle of destruction that would undoubtedly be wielded following the Communist rise in power.
Religious persecution seemed imminent.
War had ravaged the Middle Kingdom for decades.
The death of Empress Dowager Tzu-Hsi (old form of Cixi, 1835-1908) and the subsequent coronation of her named successor, 2-year-old Pu-Yi (1906-67), had opened the door for change. The following uprising on Double-10 Day (October 10, 1911) led to the collapse of the Ching (old form of Qing) Dynasty, finally ending the centuries-long dynastic rule of Imperial China.
After the Republican Revolution of 1911, the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuo Min Tang, old form of Guomindang) quickly rose to power and was infiltrated by Communists soon after their Party opened its first Chinese chapter, in 1921, in Shanghai.
When the Reds were purged from the ranks of the Nationalists, in 1927, the ouster sparked the Chinese Civil War between the two factions, which lasted, on-again and off-again, until December 1949, when one-time President Kai-Shek Chiang (old form of Jieshi Jiang, 1887-1975) retreated from the mainland for Formosa (Portuguese name for Taiwan), where, in Taipei, he reestablished the capital of the diminishing Republic of China.
Chiang had already lost face. He suffered the public humiliation on October 1, 1949, when Tse-Tung Mao (old form of Zedong Mao, 1893-1976), the chairman of the Communist Party, stood behind a bouquet of microphones atop Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, and announced the Communist takeover of the nation’s political seat of power.
“The Central People’s Government Council of the People’s Republic of China took office today in this capital,” he proclaimed.
Gradually, methodically, patiently, the Communists, for whom nothing is sacred except for the Party, began the destruction of the nation and its people, who attempted to live their lives as normally as possible under the ever-changing policies.
By 1951, Matthew was a student in the top of his class at Shi Dai Secondary School (formerly Saint Francis Xavier College), previously staffed with Marist Brothers and once renowned for its exemplary English-language program.
A normal teenager, he didn’t have a natural inclination toward the holy. But during Lent of that year, Matthew, a fourth-generation Catholic, readily became a member of the Legion of Mary when asked by a schoolmate. After all, he didn’t have much else to do with all his free time after the regime banned Western films and replaced those with backward Communist propaganda reels filled with oversimplified slogans used for the ideological indoctrination of the masses.
From that first day as a Legionary, his life changed forever as he sat before the Legion’s standard: a vexillum topped with a dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit of Truth, hovering over a representation of the Miraculous Medal’s Immaculate Conception.
In his heart he vowed, “I am all yours, my Queen, my Mother, and all that I have is yours.”
In addition to the weekly meetings, much of the time he tended to a small mobile library, lending out religious books and American tales of adventure about the Wild West, all translated to Chinese. But most importantly, as a Legionary he was to regularly perform corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
Although born and raised in Shanghai, where beggars and bankers walked the same streets, Matthew had never been exposed to poverty and misery.
His father, Francis Xavier Koo, whom his children lovingly called Tia-Tia, was a highly successful, self-made, rags-to-riches import-export businessman who owned his own company, Chung Hsing Lace (old form of Zhong Xing), located in the International Settlement.
Rejecting China’s cultural tradition of concubinage, he was a devoted husband to Teresa, of the Kung clan from Putung (old form of Pudong), and the two were the very proud parents of seven children: Francesca, Mary, Dominic, Joseph, Matthew, Agnes and Gertrude.
Tia-Tia lavished his large family with anything and everything his wealth could buy. They lived in a beautiful three-story home, at 15 Museum Road (former name of Huqiu Road), consisting of two conjoined buildings filled with luxuries and antiques from the West. To keep the family comfortable, the home was staffed with several live-in servants, which included cooks, cleaners, wet nurses, nannies, rickshaw runners and even a chauffeur when Tia-Tia bought an automobile. The Koo children attended the best Catholic schools, and each had their clothing personally tailored and their leather shoes custom made.
In his life of privilege, Matthew had only experienced joy and happiness. But in the Legion, he witnessed for the first time the great suffering and sorrow of others less fortunate than himself.
One day, he and another Legionary, Jui-Chang “Rose” Chen (old form of Ruizhang Zhen), visited a bedridden woman. They knocked, opened the door and walked into a shabby room with a single bed, a decrepit table and a few rickety chairs. At the dying woman’s bedside, Matthew looked in horror at her visibly caved-in abdomen.
The woman, so poor and so sick and enduring all with such a dignity and such a grace, genuinely touched his heart. He felt a great compassion toward her and perhaps even a twinge of guilt, because she had nothing and his family had everything. She died only days later.
But Matthew’s family did not remain wealthy for long after the Communist takeover. In an effort to gain control over privately owned real estate and finances, the People’s Government targeted foreign businesses and prosperous native-owned enterprises, charging excessive taxes and forcing unreasonable regulations.
The stress caused countless suicides and untimely deaths of businessmen in Shanghai.
One morning, Matthew woke to learn that his Tia-Tia, only 52, had suffered a stroke in the middle of the night, after he had risen to use the toilet. Unable to move, he remained in bed, around which his family stood watch and chanted aloud in classical Chinese the long traditional prayers for the dying.
By chance, Matthew glanced over to a bedside table. On top lay a book that he had lent from his small mobile library just a few weeks earlier to his father, who had read almost to the end.
The book was “The Meaning of Death.”
After several days, on August 28, 1951, Matthew watched as his father suddenly gasped a raspy breath, as if he were snoring with phlegm catching in his throat.
And then he was gone.