Winner of Los Angeles Press Club Award, 2014
Judge’s comment: Theresa Marie Moreau’s compelling story of Catherine Wang, who endured many hardships for clinging to her religion under 1950’s Communist China, is a sobering reminder of the intolerance of authoritarian regimes.
By Theresa Marie MoreauFirst published in The Remnant, November and December 2013
Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it done to me according to thy word.
– Saint Luke 1:38
nside a darkened cattle car, Catherine and Juliana Wang clung to one another, as they looked for a spot to sit on the manure- and urine-stained floorboards. In the elbow-to-elbow crowd of women prisoners, the sisters sat and leaned back against a wall of rough-hewn boards.
Eventually, the locomotive’s engine roared. Metal clanged upon metal, as the joints between railcars tightened. Then the train, filled with convicts, sluggishly rolled out of Shanghai’s West Railway Station.
It was October 1958, a dangerous time to be faithful Roman Catholics in the revolutionary, Communist-controlled People’s Republic of China.
Prisoners of conscience, the Wang sisters – declared enemies of the State for their unwavering Catholicism – were being transported, like beasts, from Shanghai to a prison in Chinghai province, the province of prisoners, the province of banishment, the province of unconquered vast open spaces to be conquered with bare hands and bent backs of men and woman on the wrong side of the Revolution.
Only 13 years earlier, on August 15, 1945, when Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of Japan, signaling the end of World War II, life in the Republic of China had looked promising, especially in Shanghai, the highly cultured, international port city, praised as the Paris of the Orient. On that day of true liberation, planes flew over the city dropping leaflets, the war is over! People ran into the streets, with their arms raised, hollering with joy. Celebratory firecrackers exploded, with bits of singed red paper flying everywhere, covering everything.
It was the end of the Japanese occupation. No more air raid sirens. No more Imperial Japanese Army soldiers. No more ID check points. No more shakedowns. No more on-the-spot strip searches. No more prisoner-of-war internment camps.
And the Wangs shared in that optimism, even though the family had to squeeze into a humble, third-story walk-up apartment on Boulevard de Montigny (former name of Xizang Road South). It was wonderful to live in the city’s French Settlement, a district known for its streets shaded by London plane trees with showy marbled bark, pseudo-maple leaves and dangling seed balls.
With the future looking hopeful, the Wang family embraced life, even its daily struggles. During the Plum Rain Season, when abundant rainfall coaxed the beauty of the pink plum blossoms along the Yangtze River, rivulets of rain poured through the holes in the ceiling. Ten-year-old Catherine, warm and dry under a pile of quilts, watched with contentment as her mother, affectionately called Mm-Ma, rushed about, mopping the floor, happily emptying the overflowing wood tub, sauce pot, wash bowl and even the drinking mug.
At times, moments of enchantment filled the evenings.
When Catherine’s father, her Ah-Bà, returned home from his job as a secretary in a Belgian-owned real estate company, sometimes the musical instruments hanging on the wall were retrieved from their places of honor. Ah-Bà sat, and upon his thigh he placed an erhu, a two-stringed Chinese violin held in one hand and bowed with the other. Mm-Ma wrapped her arms around a yueqin, balanced on her lap, as her fingers plucked the traditional Chinese four-stringed lute nicknamed the moon guitar for its hollow body shaped like a full moon.
In the dim light of the apartment, Catherine listened, and a peace and calm fell upon her, as the tones of the erhu married the tones of the yueqin.
Once in a great while, Ah-Bà and Mm-Ma splurged and treated the two oldest children, John and Catherine, to a traditional Chinese opera. In the evening, after dinner, the family walked a few short blocks north, up the wide and busy Boulevard de Montigny, dodging pedestrians in Chinese gowns, limbless beggars, noodle vendors and barefoot rickshaw runners. At the corner of rue du Consulat (former name of Jinling Road East) stood the very famous Gold Theater.
Catherine’s favorite opera “Suo Lin Nang” (“The Jewelry Bag”) hinged on the chance meeting of two brides, one wealthy, the other poor. The plot unfolded, revealing universal themes of generosity, gratitude and reversal of fortune, while embracing the Confucian philosophical ideal of reciprocity.
From the back row, the least expensive seats, she watched as Yin-Qiu Chen, one of the “famous four” actors, played Xiang-Ling Xue, the bride from a very wealthy family. Catherine sat transfixed as Chen, dressed in a brightly colored bridal costume and exaggerated makeup, traveled in a luxurious sedan, across the stage, followed by a long procession of servants playing horns and gongs, carrying the bride’s trousseau. With his tones of sorrow, Chen’s singing stabbed at Catherine’s heart and wrenched emotions from her, forever leaving deep impressions. Chen was one of the “famous four” for a reason.
On the mundane side of day-to-day life, Catherine began her education at a local municipal primary school. Even though lacking knowledge of the very basics – because the war had made education a difficult pursuit – she quickly caught up.
Then in 1947, at the age of 12, she transferred to Aurora University’s College of Arts and Sciences, the Catholic university’s auxiliary all-girl preparatory secondary school.
Catherine’s Ah-Bà, as a child, had attended the famous Franco-Chinese School, located in the French Settlement and run by the priests of the Society of Jesus. Always a brilliant student, year after year he received the Number 1 test score, for which he was always rewarded with the Number 1 Seat in the classroom. And because of his academic excellence, the school also granted to him free tuition, which allowed him to continue his education, all the way to university.
Ah-Bà, who was orphaned at a young age, and Mm-Ma had both been raised as pagans. In traditional Chinese style, they followed Buddhism, especially on Chinese New Year’s Eve, when custom mandated that children kowtow three times before an image of Buddha.
One day, I will adore a real God, thought Catherine’s father as a boy, when forced to kneel down and touch his forehead to the ground in front of a stone-cold pot-bellied statue.
Slowly, over the years, as Ah-Bà continued his education in Catholic schools, he began to feel drawn to the Church. After his marriage and the birth, in 1929, of their first child, a son, all three Wangs were baptized at the same time, in 1932, with holy water cupped from the marble font in Saint Peter’s Church, the collegiate church of Aurora.
Ah-Bà was baptized Louis, after Saint Louis the King. Mm-Ma received the baptismal name Mary. And their son was baptized John, after Saint John the Apostle. And when their first daughter was born, in 1935, she was readily baptized Catherine, after Saint Catherine of Alexandria (282-305), the brilliant and beautiful Virgin Martyr who was scourged, imprisoned, then finally beheaded. Then Juliana arrived, and, eventually, the youngest, Cecilia.
Despite a religious home and an education in a prestigious Catholic school, Catherine, unlike Ah-Bà, didn’t particularly feel an attraction to the sacred life. She was the type of girl who preferred fun and pleasure. Rather then spend time reading passages from the Bible, she preferred to spread the pages of the Shanghai newspaper before her, to look at the pictures and read the short serialized stories, even though her educated father hinted that she should seek deeper understanding in life.
“One should also read editorials,” he counseled.
Editorials weren’t fun. And neither were the after-school weekly catechism classes on the fundamentals of the faith, taught by any one of the many Jesuit priests affiliated with the Aurora campus. But there was no escape, because as she and the other girls walked down the stairs to leave the school for the day, the nuns, the Mesdames of the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, were always waiting at the bottom step, to direct them, with a glance of an eye and a point of a finger, straight to the lecture hall.
Until one day, when Catherine, a girl as clever as she was pretty, figured out a way to escape the dreaded catechism class. Instead of going down the stairs, she walked up the stairs, to the roof, through the roof terrace, down the stairs of the convent next to the school, through a large garden tended by the sisters, continued straight out the back gate, smiling to herself all the way to the street where she was free!
But such a carefree life for Catherine, and others, didn’t last.
The 20th century had brought many changes to China.
The death of Empress Dowager Tzu-Hsi (old form of Cixi), in November 1908, had opened the door for change. After the Republican Revolution of 1911 finally ousted the traditional rulers, ending the centuries-long dynastic rule of Imperial China, the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuo Min Tang, old form of Guomindang) quickly rose to power and became the official government of the new Republic of China.
After the Communist Party opened its first Chinese chapter in Shanghai, in 1921, members secretly infiltrated the Nationalist Party, but were purged from the ranks, in 1927, sparking the Chinese Civil War between the two factions that lasted, off-and-on, for decades. In 1937, the fighting temporarily ceased when the Communists coerced the Nationalists into a temporary truce to join forces in a Second United Front to fight the invaders from the Empire of the Sun in the Second Chinese-Japanese War (1937-45). But the Reds had planned to use the lull as a ruse to gain more control and power, which they did.
With the end of the war between the Allies and the Axis powers, on August 15, 1945, the civil war picked up in the countryside where it had left off. The Nationalists – headed by Generalissimo Kai-Shek Chiang (old form of Jieshi Jiang) – and the Communists – headed by Tse-Tung Mao (old form of Zedong Mao) – fought hard, and as the fighting destroyed the nation, the Communists continued to gain more ground and more control in the rural areas.
Then the Communists aimed for the cities.
On February 1, 1949, the Communists “liberated” the ancient city of Peking (old form of Beijing), the northern capital. Then on April 23, they marched triumphantly into Nanching (old form of Nanjing), the southern capital, in Chiangsu (old form of Jiangsu) province.
Nanching was only 187 miles from Shanghai, also in Chiangsu province.
It would just be a matter of time. And it didn’t take long. The following month, on May 27, 1949, the Communists “liberated” Shanghai, the city in the East built by the West.
Although the nearby countryside had been scarred by military battles, the city proper escaped fairly unscathed. Catherine never heard a single gunshot, perhaps because she lived in the center of Shanghai, a city which sprawls over an area of more than 2,000 square miles. The only sign of “liberation” that she noticed was the following day, when she saw People’s Liberation Army soldiers lying around, reclining on the pavement in the streets, relaxing in their glorious victory.
Not much changed, at first.
Communism has been described as having three stages. The first phase of Communism is the kowtow (polite) 叩头/瞌头. The second phase is the yaotow (forbid) 搖头. The third phase is the satow (kill) 杀头.
In Shanghai, the Communists had just launched the first phase: the very polite kowtow.
When the school year began, the People’s Liberation Army Cultural Troupe entered the school campus freely every day after classes. Being a teenager looking for excitement and diversion, Catherine readily joined the music group. She enjoyed being with the Communists. They were fun.
The old songbooks filled with the beautiful lyrics of the ancient poets formerly sung in school were tossed away by the Communists. Instead, the army troupe performers, decked out in impressive and enviable gray uniforms, taught Catherine and the other students how to sing revolutionary songs, which mostly consisted of shouting slogans.
“Where the Party points, there we go!” Catherine and others chanted in unison.
“Tse-Tung Mao Thought is the beacon, lighting our advance!”
To go along with the slogans, students were also taught how to play the yaogu, a canister shaped, doubled-ended drum tied at the waist and beaten with sticks.
The students were ready to march by the time Chairman Mao stood atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Peking’s Tiananmen Square, on October 1, 1949, and announced, “The Central People’s Government Council of the People’s Republic of China took over office today in this capital.”
To celebrate the glory of the Communist Party on that very first National Day, the army troupe organized the students to form a primitive parade, which consisted of shouting slogans and playing their waist drums as they walked along the crowded city streets, which would be renamed because of the city’s “liberation” from the despised reactionary and counterrevolutionary factions. Those streets with Western, bourgeois names would be replaced with names that honored the Revolution.
“Heaven and earth are great, but greater is the kindness of the Party! Father and Mother are dear, but no dearer than Chairman Mao!” an exuberant Catherine shouted with the others.
All day and into the late night, Catherine paraded around, aimlessly and endlessly following the others along the streets of Shanghai. Exhausted, she wanted to go home, but had no idea where she was, until she realized that she was along the Huangpu River. And just around the corner was Saint Joseph Church, where she and her family attended Sunday Mass. So she sneaked away and hurried home. By the time she quietly opened the door to the apartment on Boulevard de Montigny and tiptoed to her bed trying not to wake anyone, it was almost midnight.
“If you bring that drum home next time, I’ll throw it out!” her brother, John, threatened.
Apparently not everyone had been asleep.
Back at school, Catherine continued with the troupe. But then, some of the students held a meeting to start up a branch of the Communist Youth League. They invited Catherine, and she happily attended. Held in a small classroom, only a handful of students showed up. Quickly, she noticed that the meeting, in its tone, was completely different from the music group. Fun-loving Catherine listened carefully to what was said, and what she heard in the hate-filled ideology, she didn’t like.
The leader, who addressed the group of students, mocked religion and slandered the priests and nuns.
Didn’t the Communists promise freedom of religion? Why are their actions not keeping with their promise? Catherine wondered.
After that meeting, Catherine refused to take part in any of their activities.
Instead, sometime in the spring of 1950, when classmate Ma-Li “Mary” Gu asked Catherine to join the Legion of Mary, a religious organization, she readily accepted the invitation. Since she had dropped out of the Communist-led groups, and the government had begun banning all forms of entertainment except that which pushed the revolutionary propaganda, she had not much else to do to occupy her free time.
With its name taken from the Litany of Our Lady, Catherine’s Legion branch was Mother Most Chaste. Meetings were held in the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Convent building, where Catherine sometimes saw a priest with a very kind face. It was Irish Father W. Aedan McGrath (1906-2000, Missionary Society of Saint Columban), who had spearheaded the work to set up the Legion in China, at the urging of Archbishop Antonio Riberi (1897-1967), apostolic nuncio, the liaison between the Vatican and the dioceses and religious institutes in China.
For Legionary work, and in adherence to the virtuous corporal works of mercy, Catherine and her fellow Legionaries went in pairs to visit the sick children in Guang Ci Hospital, which was a large Catholic hospital, originally named L’Hôpital Sainte-Marie. The little patients were very young, very thin and very frail, as a result of their illnesses, but when they saw the Legionaries, they immediately filled with joy.
The Legion brought a new beginning, a new meaning to Catherine’s life. The seed of spirituality that had been planted in her heart began to sprout. It seemed as if she had finally begun to heed her father’s advice of seeking a deeper understanding in the world, not only of the natural, but also of the supernatural.
Around the same time, the Wang family moved to Saint Anne Apartments, at the corner of Jinling Road East (formerly rue du Consulat) and Yongan Road (formerly rue Montauban). After the move, they regularly attended the daily 6 a.m. Mass at Saint Joseph Church, at 36 Sichuan Road South, headed by Jesuit missionaries from France.
Perhaps the family had been inspired by the cross gleaming atop the middle tower, which they could see from their apartment windows, just one parallel block over. Or perhaps it was the tolling of the bell three times a day, at 6 a.m., noon and 6 p.m., signaling the faithful to pray the Angelus. Or perhaps it was a simple need for something spiritual in a world becoming all too materialistic under the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, led by the totalitarian Communist regime.
After Mass, Catherine rushed home for a quick breakfast, grabbed her school books, then rushed down the street and jumped on the electric streetcar that ran along Jinling Road East and turned onto Huaihai Road (formerly Avenue Joffre), lined with parasol trees on both sides of the road. She rode all the way until her stop at Ruijin Road (formerly Route des Soeurs), where she hopped off and headed to school.
When the final bell rang at 3:30 p.m., she and her classmates walked down Changle Road (formerly rue Bourgeat) half a block and crossed the street to Christ the King Catholic Church, staffed with American and Chinese Jesuits. The priests were all friendly and kept their young flock busy with plenty of religious activities. For Catherine, first there was homework, followed by choir practice until the service that began each afternoon at 5:30 p.m. It consisted of the rosary, doctrinal instruction and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Also included was regular catechism class for the elder students. By that time, Catherine loved catechism class.
y the autumn of 1950, the Communist wind shifted, from the first phase of polite kowtow, to the second phase of forbidding yaotow.
In an attempt to break with the “imperialistic” Holy See, the People’s Government created the Three-Self Reform Movement, so-called for its aim to be self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating. It was the establishment of the new-and-improved revolutionary Chinese catholic church, independent from the Pope, despised as the “running dog of the American imperialists,” and the Vatican, described as the headquarters of the “imperialistic cultural invasions.”
The Religious Affairs Bureau, the long arm of the People’s Government, would regulate and control all religious activities, all religious persons and all religious houses – all required to be registered with and approved by the Bureau. Roman Catholics were ordered to align themselves with the State’s official church, backed and promoted by the Party. Those who did not, were warned that they would suffer the consequences.
In 1951, the Purge began.
Propaganda publications frequently began posting the lists of accused counterrevolutionaries, enemies of the People’s Revolution, rounded up and imprisoned. Some were hauled away in bright red trucks, with sirens screaming, racing through the streets day and night, headed for the execution grounds. Many of the doomed were forced to wear paper dunce caps on their heads and signs roped around their necks. Both accessories of persecution were blotched, with blood-red Chinese characters, declared their “crimes.”
The Communists aimed their sites at the Catholic community, targeting the Catholic Central Bureau, at 197 Yo Yang Road. Police swarmed the building and went through every inch of personal property before officially closing it down, on June 6, 1951. They sealed off two offices, with big sheets of white paper emblazoned with Communist names. Inside one office were 3,000 copies of Saint Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort’s (1673-1716) “True Devotion to Mary,” which had just been translated into Chinese.
Authorities declared that the Bureau had served as the base of operations for those Roman Catholics who worked to thwart the Communist attempts to set up its independent State church, the Three-Self Reform Movement.
In July, Catherine and the other 1,500-or-so members of the Legion of Mary, in Shanghai, were ordered to register with the Bureau of Public Security, to join the State church and to take part in the Expel Riberi Campaign.
Archbishop Riberi had been placed under house arrest and confined, with round-the-clock surveillance, to his residence in Nanching, since June 26.
In the early morning hours of September 7, 1951, the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Legion of Mary, in Dublin, Ireland, Father McGrath was arrested, at the Columban Fathers’ rectory on Wuyuan Road (formerly rue Maresca). He was locked up in the infamous Shanghai City Prison, commonly known as Tilanqiao.
The following day, September 8, 1951, on the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, armed guards escorted Archbishop Riberi to south China, where the mainland meets Hong Kong. Decreed banished from China forever, he was ordered to leave behind his flock and to walk across Lo Wu Bridge, over the Sham Chun River. That forced crossing completely suffocated any breath of life in any diplomatic relations between the Vatican and China, choking out the final gasps of air.
On October 8, 1951, the official attack against the Legion of Mary began. Hit pieces in the regime’s newspapers declared that the religious organization was nothing but a counterrevolutionary clique, and that its members were running dogs of the Imperialists. Mao publicly condemned the Legion, labeling it Public Enemy Number 1.
Legionaries were ordered to resign immediately and were given a deadline, December 15, 1951. They were to report to special centers overseen by the Military Control Committee, which had been assigned to organize the attacks. Outside the centers, 6-foot-tall signs posted: secret subversive organization, legion of mary, member registration center.
Inside, Legionaries were to sign the following:
“I, the undersigned, joined the reactionary Legion of Mary on (date) and conducted secret counterrevolutionary and evil activities against the government, the people, and Soviet Russia. I hereby resign from the Legion of Mary and promise never to participate in such activities in the future.”
Clemency was promised to those who resigned; otherwise, punishment, prison, and possible death were the end results for those who refused to comply.
Intended to instill fear into the hearts and souls of the Legionaries, each threat, each condemnation, each arrest failed at its purpose and only served to strengthen even the weakest. Fortified with determination to take a stand against the evil regime, Catherine and almost every single one of the other Legionaries refused to register on the grounds that they had committed no crimes.
Authorities contacted Catherine’s school administrators, who ordered her to go to the police station. Obedient, she appeared before officers. They sat her down. They threatened her, repeatedly. They hollered, repeatedly. They banged their fists on the desk, repeatedly. They cursed every filthy word imaginable, repeatedly. They demanded that she sign a document claiming that the Legion of Mary was counterrevolutionary, repeatedly.
Catherine remained silent. She refused to sign anything.
Finally, the officers permitted her to leave, and she returned home. But it was only a temporary reprieve. Since she did not resign, she would pay the consequences. Not if, but when.
Days later, Catherine was at Christ the King Church when Father Hung-Sheng “Vincent” Chu (1916-93, Society of Jesus) made an announcement to those gathered in the church for Benediction.
Father Cheng-Ming “Beda” Chang had died in prison.
It was too unbelievable to believe. But it was true.
The third stage of Communism, the satow, the killing stage, had begun.
On Sunday, November 11, 1951, while in custody at Tilanqiao, his 46-year-old body finally gave out after being tortured for three months. Father McGrath, who was in a cell opposite, heard him vomit every day for two months. Then, all of a sudden, the vomiting stopped.
Those who went to claim the body were unable to recognize the emaciated corpse that lay on the musty prison floor, where he had been found dead. Completely nude, his skin was a purplish black. The only way Father Shi-Fang (also Zhongxian) “Francis Xavier” Cai (Society of Jesus) was able to identify the body, was by two distinct false teeth.
One of the prison guards complained, “He was fearfully stubborn and resisted until death overtook him.”
Joyful news. It meant that Father Chang had not surrendered. It meant that he had remained faithful to the Pope, the papal primacy, the divine institution, the Petrine powers – passed from pope to pope – that was, is and always will be the mystical head of Christendom, preserving the unity of the Church, the mystical body of Christ.
An educated man, Father Chang (Society of Jesus, 1905-51) had received a doctorate in literature from the University of Paris, commonly referred to as Sorbonne. He had been the much-revered principal of Saint Ignatius Secondary School, in Zikawei (old Shanghainese form of Xujiahui), until the People’s Government took control and forced him out.
His expulsion came after the authorities had arranged a meeting, in March 1951, for the principals of all Shanghai religious schools that were financially supported by foreigners. It was the government’s attempt to force the religious schools to implement and promote the Three-Self Reform Movement.
Before the conclusion of the meeting, when attendees were asked for any objections, Father Chang stood.
“We cannot break away from our Pope in Rome,” he said.
With that, he sealed his fate.
On August 9, 1951, authorities arrested him while he was playing a quiet game of chess in the rectory.
On Monday, November 12, the day after Father Chang’s death, from one end of Shanghai to the other, thousands and thousands of the faithful flocked to churches to attend Masses offered for the repose of his soul.
Christ the King Church filled with parishioners, who wanted to be, needed to be present for the Mass, celebrated absentis corporis. Father Chu suggested that the vestments worn by the priests offering the Mass, the unbloody sacrifice of Calvary, should be red, to symbolize that Father Chang had, indeed, died the death of a martyr. He had been killed for the faith.
Catherine climbed the stairs to the choir loft, where she and the other girls in the Catholic Hour Choir, pinned white flowers in their hair, a Chinese traditional symbol of mourning. The boys tied strips of black material around their upper arms. They took their places and waited.
The priests entered the sanctuary for the Mass, and the vestments, indeed, were blood red. When the choir sang the Gloria, Catherine tried to sing her clearest, most angelic soprano notes for Father Chang, but her eyes filled with tears and her throat choked back sobs. She noticed that others in the choir also had tears running down their cheeks.
Although a solemn funeral procession for Father Chang had been forbidden by authorities, his skeleton-like corpse was placed in a plain, pine coffin, then carried to his grave in the dead of night, on November 13, accompanied only by his immediate family and two priests, to Xi Yi (Rest in Peace) Cemetery, at 1115 Hami Road, in the western outskirts of Shanghai, about 6 miles westerly of Zikawei.
When the marker was placed upon the grave, it was left blank, for the authorities ordered that it be engraved, criminal reactionary chang. Nonetheless, shortly after the burial, one of the faithful visited the site and wrote in chalk upon the unmarked stone: viva christo rei. Despite the armed guard who patrolled the gravesite, a steady stream of mourners, including Catherine, paid their respects to the martyred priest.
Authorities had counted on Father Chang’s death to be a warning and a deterrent to the Catholics of Shanghai, especially to the priests who had refused to join the regime’s official church. But it had just the opposite effect. From that day on, it united the Shanghai faithful, the Mystical Body of Christ, as a united front against the Communists.
But there just seemed to be no end of the impractical demands of the Communists upon the masses.
At the Wang home late one night, long after everyone had gone to bed and fallen asleep, someone pounded at their door. Police had arrived to take into custody Catherine’s older brother, John.
After the Communist takeover of China, Mao had ordered the directive: Harness the Huai River! And whatever Madman Mao ordered, was done. In late 1951, college seniors were forced to stop their studies and go to Honan (old form of Henan) province, to participate in the campaign. John had been studying architectural engineering and, at that time, had just entered his senior year at Aurora University, his father’s alma mater.
Helpless to keep him from being banished to the countryside like millions of other students, the “sent-down youth,” the Wang family could do nothing for John but quickly gather supplies: a quilt, some extra clothing, bits of food. When they arrived at the police station with the bundle, they were told that he had already been sent to Honan. But authorities accepted the bundle, with assurances that John would receive the items. He never did.
When he returned home the following year, on December 27, 1952, his feast day, his family learned that he had never received any of the supplies they had sent to him. While being forced to labor like a peasant, including the butchering of pigs, he wore shoes that were so worn out, they barely covered his feet. He never resumed his studies; instead, he preferred to visit with the Jesuits at Zikawei.
In the spring of 1953, the year Catherine was to graduate from secondary school, all the students in her school were ordered to be present at a meeting in the big hall. The girls lined up at the door in single file, and as Catherine entered, something above the raised stage caught her eye. A huge character poster with big square characters: accusation meeting of the imperialists’ dog – ren-sheng wang.
Catherine knew Father Ren-Sheng “Louis” Wang (1909-60, Society of Jesus) very well. He was a man of strong character, adored by the students. When his mother died, Catherine and many others rushed to the apartment where the woman’s body lay. Around her death bed, all stood, openly weeping, all except Father Wang. Catherine watched his face turn redder and redder, as he fought to hold back the tears.
Father Wang had been appointed principal of the Aurora University’s College of Arts and Sciences following the expulsion, in 1952, of English-born Mother Margaret Thornton (1898-1977, Society of the Sacred Heart). But prior to the accusation meeting, Father Wang had already been replaced by Wen-Yao Wu, a Communist.
Replacements, as such, were a common part of the Communist progression in China, which included the cleansing of foreigners and foreign sympathizers from all religious institutions, which were subsequently confiscated by the People’s Government. At that time, every leader of every unit, especially in the spheres of learning and science, had to be a Communist, who could be and would be controlled by other Party members.
At the accusation meeting in the big hall, Catherine and others in the graduate classes were seated in a place of prominence. In the middle, Catherine waited. She waited to hear what position her Catholic classmates would declare about Father Wang, who was not present at the meeting. School authorities wanted the students to make accusations against him, in his absence.
In the big hall, the atmosphere was already tense. When the leader of the accusation meeting prepared to speak, silence spread throughout the hall.
“Accusation of Wang, Ren-Sheng!” the leader shouted.
Catherine promptly stood up, turned around and walked out of the hall. One by one, other students stood up and followed her out.
A week later, the day before she and the other students were to take the physics examination required for graduation, Catherine was called to Principal Wu’s office. Extremely upset, she sat attentively, but heard nothing, as the principal gave her a long lecture.
“Be a good citizen after you leave school,” was the only thing she heard him say as she left his office.
She feared expulsion.
The next day, she took the physics exam, but the results were not good. She received a failing grade of only 50 percent. Catherine couldn’t believe it. Neither could her physics teacher. And Catherine wasn’t the only one who failed. All those students who had walked out of the big hall during Father Wang’s accusation meeting received failing grades, as well.
Days later, the failing grades were followed up with written disciplinary warnings, delivered by special messengers dispatched from the school to the homes of the students and needed to be signed by parents. Catherine wasn’t expelled, but a serious mistake had been noted on her record, in her file.
Not long after, when Catherine and the other Catholic students took the national university entrance examination needed in order to enroll in universities, the results were much the same. When the enrollment lists were subsequently published, not a single name of a Catholic graduate was on the roll. And all received the same notice from the enrollment head office, including a senior who had signed up to take the exam but decided not to and opted to join a religious community, instead.
The notice: “Your mark on the entrance exam does not meet the standard for enrollment.”
Unable to pursue their studies, their futures looked bleak. Catherine and the others were devastated.
But despite the desolations, there were consolations.
Besides being able to indulge in piano and calligraphy lessons, Catherine attended the Saint Ignatian Retreat for graduates, at Christ the King Church, during which Father Wang was the retreat director. But as a surprise, at the conclusion, Father Chu visited the retreatants and presented all with gifts: a Bible and a copy of “My Imitation of Christ,” by Thomas à Kempis. But there was something very special about the books. When the graduates opened the covers, each one found their name personally handwritten on the first page, by then-Bishop Pin-Mei “Ignatius” Kung (1901-2000), and on the following page, he had signed his own name.
The students were overjoyed. They loved Bishop Kung, who was looked upon as an honorable bishop. Whenever Catherine had attended the ceremonies he presided over, she felt the presence of God and that the true Roman Catholic Church was in that church.
And after the retreat, Father Chu led the graduates on a pilgrimage to the National Shrine and Minor Basilica of Our Lady of She Shan. A favorite with students, Father Chu was a vivacious priest, who had impeccable comic timing and kept his catechism students entertained with his witticisms. And always neatly dress, he exemplified order, a living, breathing personification of the natural order of the world.
For the journey, the pilgrims began their trip early in the morning, boarding a train headed for the Song Jiang district, in western Shanghai. Upon their arrival, they ate a simple meal in a small restaurant then headed to a nearby river, where they boarded several small boats. Catherine marveled when she looked over the side of the boat, into the clean water, through which she could see clearly to the bottom.
Singing all the way to Yue Hu (Moon Lake), the pilgrims arrived at the foot of the Basilica of Mary, Help of Christians, a colossal reddish-brick structure perched on the summit of She Shan Hill. Atop the 125-foot-high campanile, a spire aimed heavenward, famously adorned with a bronze statue of Our Lady of She Shan crushing a Chinese dragon under her feet and holding high over her head the Christ child with his arms extended in the cross position.
From the lake, the pilgrims began their journey at the base of the mountain, where steep steps led to a trail shaded with willows, cypress, evergreens and camphor trees. Eventually, the trail turned into a zigzag path, a Via Dolorosa, with one of the 14 Stations of the Cross at each of the turns. The group prayed at each of the stations, until arriving at the top. Toward the end of the day, they offered their common prayer then gathered mid-hill, at the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, to sing “Salve Regina” and “My Queen, My Mother.” As the sun set, voices lifted in song, filling the air that evening, when the mountain was especially quiet. Sensing a coming danger, the Catholic youths dedicated themselves to Mary.
Not long after, the Communists began their attacks, one after another after another after another, never letting up.
On the night of June 15, 1953, authorities fanned out across the city of Shanghai, arresting and imprisoning many foreign and native priests, including the priests from Christ the King Church.
All, except one.
Father Chu was the only priest remaining at the church, where he was placed under house arrest. The next morning, June 16, the Catholic youths of Shanghai filled Christ the King Church, reciting the rosary, making the Stations of the Cross. They wanted to be absolutely certain that nothing would happen to Father Chu.
Then during the night of July 6, the Communist authorities made another roundup of priests. That time, the arrests included Father Wang, Catherine’s former principle.
Perhaps, hoping that Bishop Kung had been cowed into submission by the reign of terror on the Church in Shanghai, the Communists sent an emissary, on July 18, to Saint Joseph Church, where the bishop lived.
They had a simple question for him.
Would he head the State church?
Bishop Kung refused.
The bishop and the priests in Shanghai gave the faithful very good examples. Strong faith. They lived as they lectured.
Each threat, each arrest, intended to instill fear into the hearts of the faithful and push them away from the Church, actually, created the opposite effect. For Catherine, she grew closer to the Church. She prayed more. She taught catechism to boys in primary school. She read holy books, while they were still available.
And then she read a book that forever changed her life.
he autobiography, “The Story of a Soul,” by Carmelite nun Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face captivated Catherine.
After reading the written reflections of the saint, who was born Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin of Lisieux (1873-97) and canonized in 1925, Catherine felt that she, too, may have a vocation for the religious life. She prayed to Little Flower, trying to discern, whether or not she should enter the convent. If she were to enter, she promised that she would take her name – Thérèse.
Catherine shared her religious aspirations with her spiritual director, Father Yuen-Tang “Joseph” Chen (Society of Jesus). A philosopher and a man of few words, he said nothing about the matter until the following month when they met again.
“Visit the Mother Superior of the Carmelite convent,” Father Chen suggested.
Catherine took his advice and traveled to the western part of the French Settlement, to Zikawei (translation: Zi family together), commonly referred to by the Shanghainese as Sun Yi Yuan, the Holy Clothes Court. She was to visit the Mother Superior of the Holy Cross Convent.
The grounds of Zikawei could be spotted from far away, especially the twin gothic spires of the red-brick Saint Ignatius Cathedral that towered above all. Spread out over an area taking up several blocks, there were many buildings, including the minor and major seminaries, the dome-topped observatory and Tu San Wei, a gift shop where the faithful could purchase rosary beads, prayer books and religious pictures.
Catherine walked toward the convent, in the southeast section. Behind a high wall, in observance of the papal enclosure norms of the time, a barrier separated the cloistered nuns from the outside world. But they didn’t need the outside world, for their grounds included almost everything they could need: a large wheat field, a garden filled with vegetables, fruit trees, a flower nursery, grape trellises, a chicken coop and even a graveyard.
With permission to enter the reception room, which was divided into two, Catherine took a seat in front of a curtain that covered the grille between her and Mere Cecile de Jesus (Marie Cecile Legrand), the Mother Superior, who had been born, in 1888, in Bourges, France. She had joined the Carmelites when she was 25. At her side, Soeur Thérèse d’Eli, who acted as an interpreter.
After the first visit, Catherine returned again and again. Each time the curtain remained down, in front of the grille. She could only hear soft accents of French, between sharp tones of Chinese interpretations. During her final visit to the convent, Mother Superior requested that Catherine sing, “I Want to Be Close to God.”
As Catherine’s soprano voice filled the reception room, she heard the clanking of metal. The grille opened, then a hand pulled back the curtain.
For the first time, Catherine saw Mere Cecile’s face, surrounded by the purity of the white wimple. Catherine had never seen such a beautiful face. The eyes, an unforgettable pure beauty. With the veil cascading down past Mother Superior’s shoulders, Catherine didn’t notice that she had a big humpback. Only later, Soeur Thérèse d’Eli informed her that the deformity had been caused by making too many sacrifices.
Mother Superior gave to Catherine an address and requested that she visit Doctor Pan, a female doctor, for a health checkup, X-rays and blood tests. Once completed, there was nothing else required of her.
On February 2, 1955, the Feast of the Presentation, Mm-Ma stayed at home with the youngest, Cecilia, while Catherine, her sister Juliana, and Ah-Bà left, boarded the tram and rode all the way to the terminal station. From there, they walked a short distance to Holy Cross Convent, where, in the courtyard, well-wishers, including her spiritual director, Father Chen, had already arrived, waiting to say their goodbyes.
As the Chinese had no custom at that time of hugging, Catherine greeted everyone with hellos, while she removed her wool overcoat and bequeathed it to her sister. Someone held out a bouquet of five calla lilies wrapped in white paper, to Catherine, and she clasped the flowers, a symbol of purity. To commemorate the special occasion, she posed at the foot of the convent steps for a few photographs with her father, Juliana, and Peng-Sheng Wang, the brother of Father Ren-Sheng Wang, who was still in prison.
At the appointed hour, a small door next to the two, big black doors opened.
It was time.
With final farewells, Catherine crossed over the threshold to become mystically betrothed to Christ. The doors closed, and she left behind the secular world for the sacred.
To her surprise, she entered a room that was so bright, and a happiness entered her heart that she had never felt before. Mother Superior, Mere Cecile de Jesus, accompanied by translator Soeur Thérèse d’Eli, welcomed Catherine into the convent.
Upstairs they went, to the novitiate, where Catherine was greeted by Mere Marie Liesse de l’Annonciation (Teodora Charlotte Legrand), the spiritual director of novices, vice-superior of the convent and Mother Superior’s elder sister. She had been born in 1885, in Bourges, France.
Immediately, she warmly embraced Catherine, and lightheartedly compared the height of the two.
“Quel est votre âge?” she asked Catherine.
Soeur Thérèse d’Eli translated.
“I am 20,” Catherine answered, in Chinese, immediately translated to French by Soeur Thérèse d’Eli.
“J’ai vingt ans,” Mere Marie Liesse de l’Annonciation said, articulating each syllable, encouraging Catherine.
“J’ai vingt ans,” Catherine repeated, her very first French lesson.
Then Soeur Thérèse d’Eli showed Catherine to her bedroom, with a bed that was not much of a bed for most, but perfect for a Carmelite.
As a postulant, one who petitions for admission into a religious order, Catherine had much to learn. Her “Angel,” Soeur Thérèse d’Eli, took the responsibility of explaining to her the rules and helping her with her personal daily needs, such as cutting her hair. Long before she had entered the convent, Catherine had already chopped off her pigtails, in favor of chin-length hair, held back with a pin at her temple. But when summer neared, and Shanghai summers are always so unbearably hot and humid, Soeur Thérèse d’Eli cut Catherine’s hair very short.
“Anyhow, luckily, you are wearing a cap,” Soeur Thérèse d’Eli said to console her.
In the days and weeks that followed, Catherine learned from Soeur Catherine Chu how to cut the priests’ large Hostias with scissors and how to mend clothes. During rest periods after meals, Catherine and the other six postulants chatted happily while sewing. Usually, they were accompanied by their spiritual director, Mere Marie Liesse de l’Annonciation, Mother Superior’s elder sister. She had been a teacher, in France, before she entered the convent at the age of 49, after which, she and her sister moved to China. In the convent, she assumed the role of teacher and taught the young women Latin and French and page-turning of the “Liturgia Horarum,” the “Liturgy of the Hours,” from which prayers were sung several times during the day.
Catherine looked forward to the day when she would begin her novitiate, the first formal stage in her formation of a Carmelite nun. It was scheduled for July 2, 1955, the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Upon that day, there would be a simple ceremony, during which Catherine would not only receive a basic brown religious habit and white veil, but, in addition, she would also receive her religious name, Thérèse, just as she had promised Little Flower. She would also be able to say the night prayers alongside the nuns, as well as take her turn at the bell, which took practice to master the artistry of ringing, to hit just right to transform the tone from a sour clang into a soaring chime.
But before her big day, Catherine fell ill, and Mother Superior, Mere Cecile, delayed Catherine’s entrance ceremony until September 14, the Feast of the Glorified Cross.
On September 8, several days before her ceremony, Catherine and the others said their prayers in their quarters and went to bed very late that night, the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lady. Barely had Catherine put her head on her pillow, when she was startled awake by Soeur Madeleine, a few minutes before midnight.
“Catherine! Catherine! Wake up! The Communists are coming!” Soeur Madeleine warned.
More than 20 Communist soldiers, men and women, had used extension ladders to climb over the high enclosure wall. They jumped into the garden, used their nightsticks to smash the windows then ambushed the nuns in the convent.
Throwing back the covers, Catherine rose from her bed, dressed, pulled on her coat and stepped into the hallway, where she stood by her door. One of the soldiers ordered her to the big hall, where they gathered all the women, and called them by name, one by one.
Suddenly, Catherine heard a soldier call out her name.
“You are arrested!” he said.
“What is the cause?” she asked.
He showed her the warrant for her arrest.
The charges were that she had belonged to the Legion of Mary, that she had refused to resign from the organization, that she had encouraged her classmates not to resign, that she had told them all accusations against the Legion were false, that she had taught reactionary catechism to children, that she had worn a white flower in her hair in mourning for Father Chang and that she had visited his gravesite.
“Wait a minute!” Catherine said, and immediately kneeled down before Mere Cecile, who gave her blessing.
“We’ll see each other in heaven,” Catherine said.
s one of the soldiers wound rope around Catherine’s wrists, to bind her hands behind her back, she heard a soldier call out the Chinese name of Soeur Marie Thérèse of the Child Jesus, who was also shown the warrant for her arrest. She and two other nuns had traveled to Shanghai from a Carmelite convent in Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan province, after the Communists had dispersed their religious community there.
From the convent, the two women were escorted to the local Zikawei Police Station, where officers confiscated Catherine’s eyeglasses and forced her to squat and face the wall.
After that night, the Carmelites of the Holy Cross Convent were disbanded.
Mere Marie Liesse de l’Annonciation, the Mother Superior’s sister, the director of the novices, ordered it so, as she was being interrogated.
“According to the established rule of the Carmelites by Saint Teresa of Avila, only the head of state, the Pope and the cardinals are allowed to bring other men to visit the convent. If this is not adhered to, the convent should be immediately closed,” she said. “Even if Bishop Kung of the Shanghai diocese came in uninvited, the same rule must apply since he does not have the same authority as a cardinal. You people came in to arrest our sisters and in doing so broke our rules. If you are serious about protecting religious freedom, why don’t you respect us by observing our rules?”
Mother Superior and her sister were soon banished from China, and eventually established a convent in Lucena, Philippines, where they both died: Mere Cecile de Jesus, on December 5, 1984, and Mere Marie Liesse de l’Annonciation, on April 30, 1975.
Those Carmelites remaining in the convent were closely supervised. Even when they used the toilet, they were ordered to leave the door open, so guards could watch them. The Communists forced the Chinese nuns who had no homes to work at the umbrella factory in Zikawei, where all the displaced, homeless priests were also compelled to work. Eventually, the convent was completely taken over by the government and converted into the Shanghai Film Studio, which churned out revolutionary propaganda.
That night of September 8, 1955, the Chinese Communists had conducted a large-scale arrest all throughout Shanghai. Those arrested included Bishop Pin-Mei “Ignatius” Kung and members of his so-called “counterrevolutionary group,” which included 23 priests, a number of seminarians and hundreds of the faithful, including Catherine’s father and brother.
Their crimes? They were all devout Roman Catholics.
The late night of September 8 turned into the pre-dawn hours of September 9.
Just before daybreak, Catherine and Soeur Marie were herded into a police car and transferred to Tilanqiao Prison. There, the two women were separated.
Catherine was processed and admitted as Prisoner Number 1847, then she was escorted by guards to the cellblock for women inmates. With four separate wings connected in the middle, from a bird’s-eye view, the six-story building resembled a giant cross.
Entering the cell, Catherine tried to step lightly, to tiptoe over and between the women, nearly a dozen, squeezed together on the floor, trying not to wake any of them.
“What! Juvenile delinquents are also in here?” said one of the inmates, who woke up and saw Catherine, with her very short haircut that gave her a youthful appearance.
“Why did they send a teenager to our cell?” asked another.
Catherine was actually 20.
As she settled down into a narrow space next to the bucket used for human waste, she heard the doors behind her slam shut. First, the inner door made of iron bars, followed by the outer one made of wood, which had a peephole for guards to keep an eye on inmates. With three turns of the large skeleton master key, she was locked in, like a common criminal.
Life in Tilanqiao was more than difficult. For the first few days, when Catherine received her food in the grimy rectangular meal tin slid in through the bars, she couldn’t eat. Instead, she huddled herself on her stack of square toilet paper sheets.
Feeling sorry for the young woman, the team leader of the cell selected a slice of pickled green cucumber from her own small bottle, which her family had given to her. She generously held the pickle up, offering it to Catherine, who accepted the gift. But when she bit into it, she couldn’t swallow any of it. Everything tasted so bitter. She spit it out and requested a prison doctor.
When the doctor arrived at the cell, she took Catherine’s temperature, then had her transferred to the prison hospital. By then it was night.
”Why so late?!” the hospital staff complained.
Placed in a bed and given an intravenous drip, Catherine quietly closed her eyes, and as she relaxed, she heard male voices talking at her bedside.
“This one may also be a Catholic,” one of them said.
Catherine opened her eyes slightly, peeking through her eyelashes, and saw two doctors standing by her bed.
Maybe one of these two men is a Catholic, too, she thought, then drifted off to sleep.
A large ward, the infirmary consisted of more than 10 beds. At one end, there was a wash area with several folding screens for privacy. There, Catherine was surprised to once again meet Xue-Er Shen, known to Shanghai Catholics as Mother Martha, a nun from the Society of the Helpers of the Holy Souls. She had been the dean of L’Etoile du Matin, Morning Star Secondary School for girls, from where Catherine’s sister Juliana, who had excelled in mathematics, had graduated.
Because guards in Tilanqiao attempted to keep Catholics apart, the two women were especially happy to see each other again. Mother Martha told Catherine how authorities with the Communist government continuously pushed her and other nuns to be married.
“Always depend on Our Lady,” Mother Martha softly said, encouraging Catherine before they parted.
Opposite Catherine’s bed was a patient who wore her short hair in a severe style, with a part on the side and combed flat, close to her skull. Catherine later learned the woman was Bi-Jun Chen, a very famous war criminal, who was charged, tried and found guilty, in 1946, along with her husband, Ching-Wei Wang, and others, as being a hanjian, a race traitor to the Han Chinese. Her husband had established with Gong-Bo Chen the Reorganized Nationalist Government (1940-45) in Nanching, in collaboration with the Japanese.
Though old, she was obviously not sick. During the day, she refused to stay in bed. Instead, she strolled around as she wished or sat for hours and hours on her special chair reading her many newspapers. A few times she walked over to Catherine’s bed, offered her papers to read and even the use of a pair of her many eyeglasses.
Catherine politely refused. She had no interest in the regime-controlled propaganda sheets filled with misinformation, fabrications, misconstruction of facts and out-and-out lies. For Communists, lies are considered morally correct.
Vowed atheists, Communists mock the Christian ethics of morally right and wrong. Proud of their progressive advance from what they degrade and belittle as simple-headed, old-fashioned bourgeois ideas, Communists hold up moral relativism as their guide to goodness. For them, the only morally correct principals are those that promote the political agendas of the Communist Party. Thus, if lying, stealing, and even murder preserve the State and its ideological Party platform, those crimes would not only be considered morally correct, but they would also be esteemed as glorious crimes.
Karl Marx, the father of Communism, expressed it best in his 23-page rant, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” published in 1848: “Communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion, and all morality.”
While in the infirmary, Catherine’s health gradually returned, and guards hastily returned her back to her common cell, where she and her cellmates soon had to make room for a gentle, middle-aged woman. The entire first day, the woman didn’t utter a single word. And at meal time, she held the food jar in front of her, but she didn’t eat a bite.
“Please, eat it,” Catherine softly said to her.
The feeble-minded woman looked at Catherine.
“I don’t know how to eat,” the woman said, sadly.
Another day, during exercise time, one of Catherine’s cellmates requested to remain in the cell. She looked to be over the age of 50. She wore her hair in a bun, and around her waist she tied an apron like a peasant woman from the countryside. She told the guard that she had a headache and didn’t want to go out in the yard with the others for round-walking, when inmates walked in a long line one behind another in a continuous circle around the exercise yard.
Catherine, as usual, stayed behind, as she was never allowed to go out with the others for exercise.
After the inmates lined up in the corridor, the guard closed and locked the iron-bar door then the wooden one. Only then, the woman reached for her small, clothing bundle and untied a handkerchief. Gently, she reached inside and retrieved a piece of paper, which looked like an official document issued by the government.
“Please, read it for me,” she said, handing the paper to Catherine. “What is the writing?”
Catherine took the paper, and, still without her eyeglasses, she held the document close to her eyes.
“You are a landlord. Sentenced to five years,” Catherine read aloud.
“Oh,” said the woman, seemingly relieved.
Landlords were labeled as reactionaries, enemies of the People’s Government. When the Communists implemented land reform in the countryside and began confiscating land and property of landlords, many had been killed execution style, with a single bullet to the back of the head. Sometimes, the Communists would force the grieving families to pay for the bullet.
The peasant woman was relieved to have received only five years.
But Catherine still awaited her sentence. Often, as a way to pass the time in her cell, she sat on her block of toilet paper and mentally recited prayers that she had memorized while in the convent.
For her morning prayer, she offered in Chinese the “Benedictus,” also called the “Canticle of Zechariah,” taken from Saint Luke 1:68-79: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel: Because he hath visited and wrought the redemption of his people. And hath raised up an horn of salvation to us…”
For her evening prayer, she offered the “Magnificat,” the “Canticle of Mary,” taken from Saint Luke 1:46-55: “My soul doth magnify the Lord. And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. Because he hath regarded the humility of his handmaid…”
And one of Catherine’s favorites was Psalm 129, the prayer that the Carmelites chanted while entering the dining room from the chapel: “Out of the depths I have cried to thee, O Lord: Lord, hear my voice. Let thy ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication…”
After Catherine had been in Tilanqiao for several months, the cell door opened.
Hearing her number, Catherine stood and walked out of her cell. Escorted by the guard to a small room, she was to be interrogated.
In the People’s Republic of China, when a person is arrested, they are assumed guilty. The logic lies in the creed that because the People’s Government is infallible, the People’s Government would not arrest anyone who is not guilty. Communists refer to interrogations as “trials,” and to the interrogators as “judges.” The trials were to extract as much information as possible about the case and about others, as well, until the person charged is sentenced, which could take many years.
Catherine sat on a short stool and faced her interrogators. Behind them, a poster of Chairman Mao, heralded as the Savior of China, the Messiah of Temporal Redemption, the bringer of heaven on earth in a classless society.
“If you confess, the government will be lenient; if you resist, the government will be harsh,” the accused is always warned.
“What do you think about the Legion of Mary?” the interrogator asked.
“The Legion of Mary was very nice,” Catherine answered honestly. “The Legion of Mary is not reactionary. The Legion of Mary helped me.”
She quickly learned that whatever she said, the interrogators would say the opposite, so she decided it would be better to remain silent, except to answer her name and her age.
One day an interrogator showed her two documents. Two young women Catherine had known in two different parishes had each written a page of accusations against her. One girl was from Christ the King. The other, whose surname was Yang, was from Saint Joseph’s parish. The Yang girl had once slapped one of the priests, Father Lao, on the face when he was the target of an accusation meeting ordered by the Communists.
Everything written in the accusations against Catherine was true: Yes, she had taught catechism to boys, who were in the third and fourth grades. And, yes, she had said to her classmates that the so-called crimes lodged against the Legion of Mary were all fabrications.
She denied nothing.
A final time, she was escorted to the interrogation room.
“Do you want a lawyer?” an interrogator asked her.
“No,” she answered.
“Will you invite your mother to come to the court?”
“No,” said Catherine, thinking, Ah, my father and brother are still in custody, so my mother’s life is difficult enough already without having to witness my sentencing.
“The government will offer you a free lawyer, if you would like.”
Catherine knew that something was about to change.
On February 22, 1956, she was ordered out of her cell, handcuffed and transported in a police van filled with other inmates. Most, including Catherine, were sentenced to seven years of laogai, short for laodong gaizao, which is reform through labor.
Catherine left the courtroom, handcuffed to Steven Hu, a teenage boy from the same parish. While passing through the crowd on the way back to the prisoner van, a package of cookies was suddenly thrust into her arms. She glanced up. It was Hu’s mother.
The court document revealed the charges and sentence:
“The accused Wang joined the reactionary organization Legion of Mary in 1950. She was the secretary of the branch of Mother of Virginity. In 1951, when the reactionary organization Legion of Mary was banned, she not only defied registration herself, but also stopped … to go to register. While she was going to school at Aurora Girl’s Middle School, she spread reactionary rumors. And she took part in the reactionary catechism class, holding the post of monitor, having reactionary movements. When the counterrevolutionary member Chang Bo-Da died, she wore a white flower and went to the burial ground to pay her respects to him.
“During the Patriotic movement of combating imperialism, in 1953, there was an accusation meeting to condemn an imperialist in Aurora Girl’s Middle School. The accused incited and sabotaged again, and stirred up among the masses. She said. ‘The crime show of imperialists is all forgery.’ And other counterrevolutionary activities. After arrested, she showed no sign of repentance…
“The above-listed criminal facts were investigated and confirmed by the police station of this district, and has instituted proceeding against her. The facts were again established after investigation. It is hereby, according to Article 7, Section 2 and Article 10, Section 3 of the Regulations Regarding the Punishment of Counterrevolutionary Sentence as follows: Sentence the accused to 7 years imprisonment.”
Back in the cell, one old prisoner told Catherine, “You are lucky. You are going to a labor farm soon.”
ometime after midnight, on Thursday, March 8, 1956, the sounds of cell doors opening and slamming in the cellblock broke through the silence, waking Catherine.
A skeleton key, the length of a child’s forearm, slid into the lock and clunked around inside, making three, 360-degree turns. The door slammed opened.
“1847! Out!” a guard ordered.
Quickly, Catherine used a large piece of cloth to wrap around her sleeping quilt and a few pieces of clothing. Into a string bag, she slid her enamel washbowl and mug for food and toiletries. Once out of her cell, she lined up in a single column with the other women. At the commands shouted by the armed guards, the column surged forward, down the stairs, through the door, outside to the main yard and walked straight through the gates of the prison, where she’d been incarcerated for six months.
The moon, in its waning crescent phase, was just a sliver in the sky, not shedding much light on the sleeping city of Shanghai. Heading south, down the empty streets, walking past closed shops, toward the Huangpu River. In a matter of minutes, convicts and guards arrived at the Gu Pin Road Wharf, less than a mile away from Tilanqiao. The parade of prisoners had moved swiftly.
Under escort, the women boarded a cargo ship. Below the main deck, Catherine found a place to sit, and she noticed a big wooden tub of congee, a rice porridge.
How lovely white the gruel is! Catherine thought, staring at the tub of food.
As soon as an order was given for them to help themselves to the food, the women removed their mugs from cloth wrappers and held them up to be filled with the warm breakfast congee. After several servings, feeling full for the first time in a long time and completely satisfied, Catherine leaned against the wall of the freighter and slept for most of the journey, as the boat traveled up the East China Sea to northern Chiangsu province, about 150 miles from Shanghai.
By the time the ship had docked the sun was already up. The women disembarked and walked in formation to Da Feng Penal Farm, a coastal reform-through-labor farm in Yuan Hua Dang. The entire penal farm consisted of many individual Team Headquarters, spaced about a mile apart. Each resembled a small village.
As an inmate in Team Number 6, Catherine quickly surveyed her new home: a thatched-roof dormitory. Female cadres enjoyed the luxury of a single-story brick house. In Shanghai, crosses that topped the churches were among the highest emblems dotting the skyline, signaling heavenly aspirations. However, in the penal farm, the highest object above the roofs was a tall flagpole with a red triangular flag that would be hoisted up, signaling a meal break or the end of the work day.
Inside the inmates’ barracks were kangs, two very long, wall-to-wall platforms used as beds, dining rooms, study halls, sewing parlors, anything and everything. Each morning after waking, the women folded their quilts into very neat, military-style nei-wu squares, stacked against the wall and often used as tables and desks. Underneath the kangs, the women stored their washbowls and shoes. Above each, the walls were dotted with square holes, without glass. Wooden window shutters were propped open with sticks, which made great entryways for swarms of mosquitoes.
When ordered out to the fields, at first glance, Catherine saw nothing but twisted, plucked-naked stalks sticking out of the mounds of earth. Along with the other inmates, her first job at the penal farm was to pull out the belly-high dried-out stems, which once held bolls that burst open with fluffy white cotton fibers. After bundling a bunch of stalks with rope, Catherine hoisted the load upon her back, rushed to the assigned dumping spot, then rushed back.
Going to and fro, Catherine’s shoes took a beating, but the bottom of her socks received the brunt of the abuse and quickly wore away. She wrote a letter to Soeur Thérèse d’Eli. Right away, the nun used cloth to sew cotton socks, two pairs of single-layer and two pairs of double-layer. To add strength and increase the life of the footwear, she sewed long stitches on the bottoms to make them solid.
As soon as Catherine held the package in her hands, she carefully opened the paper and saw the socks. They were beautiful. When she tried them on, they fit perfectly. She also received a hat made of brown Carmelite cloth to block out the wind while working in the fields. And yet another package arrived from her “Angel” that was filled with dried carrots, which had been steamed and tasted very sweet, like a sticky candy.
After the cotton stalks had been cleared from the fields, the women were assigned to a soggy marsh filled with reeds. Ordered to wade into the mosquito-infested bog water, the women were to cut down the wispy grass to open up and dry out the wetland. Catherine removed her shoes, her socks, rolled up the legs of her trousers. So as to not ruin her shoes and new socks, she slogged barefoot through the muddy bottom. The reeds reached so high over her head that she could see no one, even if only a few feet away. For the noon mealtime and quitting time signals, the women in the marsh relied on the beating of a gong.
As inmates, the women didn’t have much in the way of material possessions, but one item that each one had was a personal enamel wash basin, which had many uses. In the sowing season, the women used their bowls to hold the cotton seeds while planting. When it was time to fertilize, the basins became mixing bowls, used to blend the fertilizer – human excrement – with the soil.
Some women were fortunate enough to be able to buy a second enamel bowl to be used only for washing and for eating. During mealtimes, which usually consisted of vegetables mixed with rice, the women gathered in a semi-circle and put their eating bowls before the inmate whose turn it was to ladle out the servings.
One day, Catherine saw a wide-mouthed spittoon placed among the other bowls.
“It’s new. There’s no food bowl in the small shop. Only this kind. It’s new, never used,” its owner explained again and again to Catherine.
However, Catherine couldn’t help but feel nauseous every time she saw the woman holding the spittoon with both hands up to her mouth. With her sunburned face, covered with black moles, the whites of the poor woman’s eyes were made even whiter. A rumor circulated that she had been an underground taxi dancer in Shanghai.
Catherine’s group leader also had very sunburned skin, covered in rows of wrinkles. The woman was noodle thin and had lost many teeth, which caused her cheeks and lips to cave in.
She must be 60 or more, Catherine thought, when the topic of age arose.
“I am just a little over 40,” she told Catherine.
Each night, exhausted from the day’s hard labor, the women removed their straw pads and quilts from their nei-wu stacks and laid their worn-out bodies down. Sleeping beside one another, like tightly packed chopsticks, they alternated head, feet, head, feet. Between the two long beds was a narrow walkway, along which, each night two of the women prisoners walked to and fro, to keep watch, perhaps for fire prevention, or to deter an escape or even suicide.
So overworked, the women fell asleep quickly, slept deeply and snored loudly. With only cracks of moonlight shining through the trap windows, the light was dim, and cast shadows upon the contorted faces of the women, causing them to look hideous. When Catherine had her turn at night duty, in addition to the snoring, sometimes she could hear the rising wind, which made such a peculiar sound, as if it were actually howling. So filled with fear, she could only say the rosary, ending with a prayer of, “Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of mercy…to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears…”
But more frightening to Catherine was when she had to use the outhouse, a simple shed with boards over a 6-foot-deep manure pit, covered with a wriggling layer of maggots. Especially bad were overcast days, when the maggots crawled onto the boards. Afraid to touch the squirming legless larva, Catherine watched every step she took.
When the rainy season hit, because the penal farm was geographically located in the plains, the fields flooded after a continuous deluge. During the downpours, guards ordered each group to send one person out to drain the flooded fields.
Not balking when she was volunteered by the others, Catherine tugged a piece of sack onto her head, rolled up the legs of her trousers and splashed her way barefoot through the puddles, out to the fields. With her, she had an 18-inch-long spade. Because it was so sharp, she was ordered to drag it on the ground, to prevent slipping and falling on it, or hurting someone else behind her when she walked with the others.
While the thick rain poured on the already saturated earth, Catherine shoveled out an irrigation ditch in a strip of field between two canals. By herself, she felt so free that, even though she would be soaked to the skin, she felt nothing but happiness as she sang loudly, “I Want to Be Close to God,” the song Mere Cecile, the Carmelite Mother Superior, had asked her to sing only a few years earlier. She also sang the Legion of Mary anthem, “I am all yours, my Queen, my Mother, and all that I have is yours.”
After the cotton seeds were planted in the sowing season, next came the seedling checking. Not all the seeds survived the spring, so the prisoners were sent out separately to check the progress, writing down the rate of emergence per unit, per section. While all alone in a field hidden behind the backs of the irrigation canals, Catherine sang choir songs, such as “Te Deum” and “Salve Regina” to the green sprouts poking through the brown clods of earth.
That year, 1956, Catherine watched as the cotton plants bloomed and the bolls bloated. But before the plants ripened and cotton locks burst open the bolls, clinging to their burrs, ready for harvest, a guard ordered all Catholics to pack up their possessions and gather at the farm headquarters, at once. Catherine had been at the penal farm about six months.
“You will be released,” one of the senior prisoners explained to Catherine.
Leaving behind the fields, the marshes, the rain, the mosquitoes, the cotton bolls and Team Number 6, Catherine headed back to Shanghai, with the other Catholics, stopping first in a detention center at Si Cha He for the night. In that temporary holding cell, it was almost like a holiday. Prisoners were served rice with braised pork in brown sauce for dinner, a feast usually served on Chinese New Year’s Day. Coincidentally, it was Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, August 15.
On August 17, she and the other women went straight back to Tilanqiao. Although her original sentence had been rescinded because of its “improper judgment,” Catherine was still not able to meet with her family, because she was awaiting her new-and-proper judgment. Her only communication permitted would be a written letter, a formal request of material assistance.
By then, Catherine’s father had been released from custody, and so, too, had her brother, who eventually left the politically tense atmosphere in Shanghai for the neighboring Anhui province, where he worked as a teacher in a part-time school.
From her family, she received delicious gifts. Always one who enjoyed food, Catherine gazed at the feast before her: fermented bean curd, cucumber pickles and salted pork in a glass jar. Such a beautiful sight. And so generous of her family. At that time, each Shanghai citizen was allowed only 250 grams of pork per month, which is a little more than half a pound. So, obviously, her family had gone without to give to her.
In the care package, she also found a tin of crackers. Anxious to bite into the crisp biscuits, she pried off the lid. To her surprise, on the bottom, instead of crackers, she found three books: “Rosary Collection” by Father Yuen-Liang Yan (Society of Jesus), as well as the pocket-size Bible and copy of “My Imitation of Christ” by Thomas à Kempis signed years earlier by Bishop Kung.
Catherine was overjoyed.
When transferred a couple weeks later, on September 4, 1956, Catherine packed away her secret treasures to take along with her to Shanghai’s Number 2 Lockup, on Si Nan Road (formerly rue Massenet), where she awaited her judgment. The windowless cells were just large enough for two people to lie down. At the daily, one-hour noontime nap, Catherine was able to secretly read her books, because while lying on the floor, she rested her head against the iron door, which, somehow, clearly transmitted the sound of footsteps. Whenever she heard the guard approaching, she quietly hid her books and closed her eyes as if she were sleeping. But as soon as the footsteps had passed, she opened her eyes, pulled out her precious books and continued reading.
After receiving a written judgment – a three-year sentence – Catherine was, again, sent to Tilanqiao, on October 19.
On Christmas Day, Catherine heard the three turns of the guard’s large passé partout. The cell door opened.
Moved to a factory on the second floor, Catherine was put to work in the prison’s Labor Hosiery Factory, a knitting mill that manufactured socks and plain gloves, part of the Lao Dong (Labor) brand.
The mill was divided into two sections.
The first section was on the second floor, where women prisoners operated reeling frames, which wound fresh cotton around reels, and sock-end sewing machines. Both ran day and night in three shifts. The center of the second floor was a busy hub of the female workshop and depository room, receiving and dispatching the semi-finished products from and to the sixth floor.
The second section was on the sixth floor, where the cotton yarn was sent up to be woven into gloves and socks. The weavers were all men prisoners, who operated heavy machinery, with engines that roared monotonously, day and night, all year round, except Chinese New Year’s Day. From the sixth floor, the product was sent back down to the second floor.
For the finishing touches, the items were then distributed to the women prisoners on the third, fourth and fifth floors, who willingly worked to pass the time. The women sewed on by hand the wrist part of the gloves. They also crocheted the flat-finger part to a half-round shape. After that, the gloves were sent somewhere else, along with the socks, to be dyed and ironed, then arranged and packed into boxes.
For a little more than a year, Catherine labored in the prison mill. Then, on March 1, 1958, she was transferred back to the common cell.
Still, she had her three books with her. But as the weeks passed, the voices behind the daily political speeches from the loudspeaker increased in tone and severity. She feared that life in Tilanqiao would become very difficult, so she hid her treasures back in the cracker tin and prayed to Saint Joseph with all her strength.
One day, unexpectedly, Catherine was ordered to go out with others for exercise. Normally, she had not been allowed to step out of the cell to have a walk around the prison yard. When she returned, she saw that everything in the cell, including all of her possessions, had been scattered about in a mess. The guards had picked through each piece of personal property.
But in her heart, Catherine was singing, “Alleluia!”
During a previous visiting day a couple weeks earlier, she had given her family the cracker tin, which was taken out of Tilanqiao without being searched. And inside the tin, the books were hidden and safely returned home.
Saint Joseph always seemed to answer Catherine’s prayers.
September 7, 1958 arrived. Catherine’s sentence of three years, dating back to the original day of her arrest, had passed. It was to be her final day of her incarceration.
fter a long, miserable day at work under unbearable conditions, Catherine’s father, her Ah-Bà, trudged back home from the office, located far away from the family apartment.
Following his release from custody, he was forced to work in a small office that managed real estate belonging to the government, for all real estate belonged to the People’s Government. Some days he was ordered to the suburban outskirts of Shanghai, where he was forced to labor in the fields.
Walking down the street, Ah-Bà kept looking from far away for any light shining from the second-floor apartment windows, a sign that his daughter had returned. But the light was as dim as usual. His heart sank. He realized then, before he even arrived home, that Catherine had not been released.
It was not to be.
Authorities had other plans for Catherine.
On September 12, still in Tilanqiao, she was once again questioned.
“What do you think of the organization, the Legion of Mary?” she was asked.
“It’s an inspiring organization, and brings me closer to God,” she answered.
“You’ll be held responsible for all the consequences arising therefrom,” she was told.
A few weeks later, on October 5, 1958, after the familiar three turns of the key, a guard unlocked the cell door.
Guards led Catherine out of prison and into a police jeep, which transported her to a warehouse where workers manufactured coffins. Inside, stacks of human-sized wooden boxes lined the walls amidst the lively crowd of women: young and old, some smiling, some silent and gazing into their future.
Oh. What is the place? I’ve never heard of it before. Catherine wondered.
It was a reeducation-through-labor post.
As Catherine sat down on the floor, she saw a young student enter, holding a pile of letters, calling the names of recipients and delivering the mail.
Isn’t that my young sister?!
“Juliana!” Catherine called.
Reunited after three years, Juliana told Catherine that she had been studying in the Textile Industry College of East China, as a second-year student, when suddenly she was called out of the classroom and ordered to Centralized Learning, where the Catholic students were all being put together. There had been another movement against Catholics.
In Communist China, people need not commit a crime to be punished. Each person is monitored and actions scrutinized. Every countryside village has a peasant association, every urban neighborhood has a neighborhood association, and each school and factory has its own association, in which informants, tools of the authorities, keep an eye on everyone in their respective units and file reports with the Public Security Bureau. If they hear something or see something against the Revolution, they say something to authorities. And if a person does not obey the Communist leader of that unit, the disobedient person could be disciplined with reeducation-through-labor, which is administrative, not criminal, and administrative crimes are not dealt with in the courts.
Juliana had been declared a Catholic youth. Catherine was labeled a counterrevolutionary. Both were sentenced to laojiao, short for laodong jiaoyang: re-education through labor.
As soon as Juliana arrived at the facility, she had written home with a “give material assistance letter.” All she asked for was a rattan box, something sturdy enough for her clothing and a few toiletries, for when she left Shanghai. And she expected to leave at any time.
“I have already had a special visit with Ah-Bà and Mm-Ma, and I will leave Shanghai soon. I might be sent to the northwest of China, somewhere,” Juliana said.
Hearing that, Catherine made a request at once with one of the guards.
“I want to go with my sister. Let me go with her. I have no need to be granted a visitation with my parents. Just ask them to buy and send to me a rattan box to carry my clothes in, instead of a cloth wrapper,” Catherine said.
Catherine’s parents brought the boxes, but were not able to visit their two daughters.
Within days, Catherine and Juliana stood before a line of cattle cars. Each sister was given a pack of rod bread, French-style baguettes.
Oh, one week, thought Catherine, as she counted the seven loaves.
The metal door in the middle of the railcar in front of them was slid to the side and slammed open. In the prod-and-push of women prisoners, Catherine and Juliana approached the opening. Without a ramp, they grabbed the bottom lip of the doorframe and climbed aboard.
Inside a darkened cattle car, Catherine and Juliana Wang clung to one another, as they looked for a spot to sit on the manure- and urine-stained floorboards. In the elbow-to-elbow crowd of women prisoners, the sisters sat and leaned back against a wall of rough-hewn boards.
Eventually, the locomotive’s engine roared. Metal clanged upon metal, as the joints between railcars tightened. Then the train, filled with convicts, sluggishly rolled out of Shanghai’s West Railway Station.
It was October 1958, a dangerous time to be faithful Roman Catholics in the revolutionary, Communist-controlled People’s Republic of China.
Prisoners of conscience, the Wang sisters – declared enemies of the State for their unwavering Catholicism – were being transported, like beasts, from Shanghai to a prison in Chinghai province, the province of prisoners, the province of banishment, the province of unconquered vast open spaces to be conquered with bare hands and bent backs of men and woman on the wrong side of the Revolution.
† Catherine Wang (b. 1935) remained a prisoner, then post-prisoner in Chinghai province, forced to work on penal farms, in factories and even construction sites, until 1989, when she finally left for Guangdong province. In 1992, at last, she returned to Shanghai, even though the government refused to grant her legal residence. Her sister Juliana left Chinghai in the 1980s.
† The Most Rev. Pin-Mei “Ignatius” Kung (1901-2000) was arrested on September 8, 1955, and sentenced on March 17, 1960, with Father Ren-Sheng “Louis” Wang, Father Hung-Sheng “Vincent” Chu and 10 other priests. While still in solitary confinement in Tilanqiao, he was secretly, in pectore, elevated to cardinal in 1979, by Pope John Paul II. In 1985, Kung was released from Tilanqiao, but held under strict conditions of house arrest, until his nephew Joseph Kung was able to arrange for his uncle’s release, to receive medical care in America, in 1988. On March 12, 2000, the cardinal died, at the age of 98, a free man, forever faithful to Christ and Pope.
† Father Ren-Sheng “Louis” Wang (1909-60, Society of Jesus) was arrested on July 6, 1953, and sentenced with Bishop Kung, Father Chu and 10 other priests, on March 17, 1960. He was sent to Ma Dang Prison Farm, in Pai Hu, Anhui province. He died on December 22, 1960, days before the Feast of the Nativity of Jesus Christ, singing his last words, “Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.”
† Father Hung-Sheng “Vincent” Chu (1916-93, Society of Jesus) was first arrested on October 3, 1953 and released a year later. On September 8, 1955, he was arrested again, and subsequently sentenced, on March 17, 1960, with Bishop Kung, Father Wang and 10 other priests. Sentenced to 15 years, he was released in November 1978, but was rearrested on November 19, 1981 and sentenced to another 15 years. When authorities saw that he was nearing death, in February 1993, his sentence was annulled, and he died on the following July 6.