On June 24, 2012, "Enemies of the State" won top Los Angeles Press Club Journalism Award in the News Feature Category
Judges' comments: "Writer knows her audience and provides well-researched details to paint a riveting tale. Magazine-quality story on an interesting topic."
"Blood of the Martyrs:
Trappist Monks in Communist China,"
Enemies of the State:
Catholic Priests in Communist China
First published in The Remnant Newspaper, April, May, June 2011
Eritis mihi testes. (You shall be my witnesses)
– Acts of the Apostles 1:8
Distant gunfire in the dead of night startled the Trappist monks from their slumber. Inside the darkened monastery, they listened as Chinese Communist soldiers viciously attacked a city only a few miles to the north.
Suddenly, the far-off explosions drew nearer. Red soldiers running from the city of Chengtingfu headed south, straight for Our Lady of Joy, the Trappist monastery situated on a 300-acre alluvial island that parted the waters of Hutuo River.
The moon, nearly full that April 4, 1947, highlighted the soldiers in an eerie chiaroscuro of gray, as they bolted toward the North Bridge, the railroad trestle that crossed the north strand of the river. Continuing southward along the railroad tracks that paralleled the monastery’s enclosure wall, the Red guerilla warriors raised their weapons and aimed toward the cloister. Explosions from the barrels sent bullets flying. Dirt puffed up gray dust clouds. Craters dimpled mud brick walls. A single shot entered the shoulder of Father Benedictus-Josephus Labre Chao, but exited through the other, without even nicking a bone. The Communist combatants continued along the tracks, crossed the South Bridge and headed toward the city of Shihchiachuang, several miles to the south. And just as suddenly as they had appeared, they disappeared.
Madness passed. Calmness returned. In the quiet of the early morning, at 3:30 a.m., the assigned monk rang the bell to signal the hour for Matins. Alerted by the clanging, the guerilla soldiers – dressed in civilian clothing – returned to the island, clambered over the enclosure wall and swarmed the monastery. They thought the bell had been a signal to their enemy in the Chinese Civil War.
“Where are the Nationalists?” demanded the soldiers, as they grabbed a few of the closest monks, roughing them up.
“I don’t know,” the monks answered. It was the truth. It was also the safest answer.
Again, the irregular troops left just as suddenly.
Following the attack on their Community, the monks held a meeting to discuss its future. Stay or evacuate were the two options that Father Prior Paulinus Li offered each one. He forced no one to stay. He forced no one to leave. For some of the 60-or-so monks, it seemed impossible to stay. For others, it seemed impossible to leave. But, leave? To where? Prior Paulinus thought of Bishop Jacques-Victor-Marius Rouchouse (Society of Foreign Missions of Paris).
Decades earlier, in 1921, when Our Lady of Joy was just a mustard seed of an idea sprouting in the meditations of Father Abbot Louis Brun – the spiritual and temporal head of Our Lady of Consolation – Bishop Rouchouse had made the grueling trip, all 1,094 miles from Szechwan province to the Trappist abbey in the mountains of Chahar province. The bishop planned to convince the monks to build their monastery in his diocese of Chengtu. He had already prepared the house and the land. In return, all he asked for was 12 choir religious and 12 lay brothers.
But it was not meant to be. Abbot Louis decided that Szechwan was just too far away to keep tabs on an infant daughterhouse. Somewhere closer, he preferred. So, in 1926, when Dutch Bishop Franciscus Hubertus Schraven (Congregation of the Mission) offered an alluvial island in the province of Hopei, for the new Trappist foundation, it was readily accepted.
More than two decades later, not knowing if Bishop Rouchouse were even still alive, Prior Paulinus sat down with his brush and ink, and with grand strokes, drew up a letter.
Bishop Rouchouse quickly wrote back with his response: “I welcome you to my diocese. The house, prepared 26 years ago, is still there kept for you, as well as the land, about 200 acres. Everything is ready for your accommodation.”
An advance team of two monks – Father Jean-Marie Struyven and Father Victor Chu – left Our Lady of Joy, on June 24, 1947, to prepare the refugee monastery for the others. First stop: Shanghai, where they lingered for an extended stay that lasted into July. While there, a story in a newspaper caught Father Victor’s eye: “Our Lady of Consolation has been destroyed, and the monks are prisoners.”
Shocked to read about the devastation of their motherhouse and the imprisonment of its Community of monks, Father Victor immediately wrote to Prior Paulinus, with a warning: Evacuate all as soon as possible.
But soon as possible was not soon enough.
Again, distant gunfire in the dead of night startled the Trappist monks from their slumber. Inside the darkened monastery on the alluvial island, they listened as Chinese Communist soldiers again viciously attacked Chengtingfu, only a few miles to the north. The soldiers stormed the city during the night of August 24, 1947, and by morning they had complete control.
After Chengtingfu – the Catholic heart of northern China – the soldiers headed toward the monastery. But even before the troops had stormed onto the wooden railroad ties of the North Bridge, around 40 monks had already fled Our Lady of Joy, on foot, heading for the nearby city of Shihchiachuang. Of the 20 left behind, most sought refuge at the Chengtingfu Diocesan Center, while the eldest preferred to remain at home – to live or die – cloistered under the protection of the mantle Our Lady of Joy. They included Brother Andreas Chang, Father Augustinus Meng (appointed superior of the splinter group), Father Edmond Pallager, Brother Hilarius Shen, blood brothers Brother Stephanus Tian and Father Timotheus Tian, Brother Andreas Wong, Brother Silvester Wong and Father Mattheus Yin.
With only the habits on their backs, the 40 refugees had grabbed their straw mats, quilts, some white-feathered leghorn chickens, and wrangled eight of their finest Holsteins out of their stalls and onto the dirt road, heading south. The black-and-white bovines were descendants of the original 15 received as a dowry from their motherhouse when Our Lady of Joy had opened on April 29, 1928, the feast day of St. Robert of Molesme, the monk who had splintered off from the Benedictines of the French Molesme Abbey, in 1098, and founded Our Lady of Cîteaux, the grande dame abbey of the Trappist Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance.
But still, for the refugees, Shihchiachuang was only a stopping point. They, along with their furred and feathered traveling companions, needed to evacuate the area and head to Peking, thought to be well protected at that time by the military of the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang). Travel by train, impossible. Even though Shihchiachuang had long been the railroad hub of northern China – where east met west, and south met north – rail lines kept up by the Nationalists had been either dynamited or stolen by the Communists. The only way out was by plane. On September 15, 1947, with assistance from retired Lt. Gen. Claire Lee Chennault – the former creator and commander of the 1st American Volunteer Group (Flying Tigers) of the Republic of China Air Force. Chennault’s civilian company, the Civil Air Transport, flew the refugees out of Shihchiachuang for the one-hour flight to the ancient city.
Once in Peking, Father Prior Sylvester Healy (Order of St. Benedict) welcomed the Trappist refugees into the order’s provincial house, at 13 Yu Huang Ko. He even welcomed the animals, permitting them to graze and peck freely in the spacious backyard during the day. At night, with the leghorns in their nests and the cows safely stalled in a few tents erected for their comfort, the monks headed for the workmen’s quarters, where they unrolled their straw mats upon the brick floors, shook the dust from their quilts and stretched out for a few hours sleep. At 3:15 a.m., they wakened to sing Matins, the night Canonical Office.
But it was a short stay in Peking. Along with Father Vincentius Shi – their compassionate sub-prior – most of the Community headed for their new monastery in Szechwan province. Without passage for their Holsteins, the beasts remained behind, along with a couple monks, Father Simon Chang and Brother Stanislaus Jen, as their cowherds.
Once aboard train, they left Peking, on September 25, 1947, and headed straight for Tientsin, where they stayed in the Marist Brothers secondary school house for two days, waiting for their ship to accept passengers. School principal, Brother Marcus Chang, who had also been a teacher at Our Lady of Consolation’s Peikou, welcomed them. From Tientsin, the monks climbed onto a stake-bed truck for the 30 mile ride to the port city of Tang-Koo.
With their few worldly possessions, the monks boarded, on September 27, 1947, the Li-Kong, a cargo ship loaded with oversized baskets stuffed with the white-stalked, green-leafed Chinese cabbage. For four days, the Trappists remained on deck alongside the baskets, which they used as giant pillows, to either lean against or sleep atop. The weather, beautiful, with a warm breeze and blue sky in the day. At night, the constellations of Little Bear and Great Bear sauntered overhead, watching as the ship’s hull splashed through the Bohai Gulf, into the Yellow Sea, with its bowsprit pointed straight to Shanghai, sin city of the Orient.
Once ashore, on October 1, 1947, in that international port city, with its French and English settlements, the monks met up with two of their confreres who had fled Our Lady of Joy when the Communists had first swarmed the monastery the previous April. Father Yves You had been staying with his family and decided to rejoin his Community to continue on with them to Szechwan. However, Father Laurentius Gérardin, who had been staying in the Jesuit house with his brother Father André Gérardin (Society of Jesus), chose to return to his homeland of France.
In a matter of days, the refugees boarded the Ming-Lien, which pushed off October 7, 1947, for Szechwan province, the Rich Kingdom of Heaven. Ying-Keng Lu, a wealthy Shanghainese Catholic who was a high-ranking executive in a shipping company, had purchased the tickets for all the monks. For two weeks, the ship floated down the Yangtze River, the Long River that girdles China. The monks passed by the fast-paced port cities and marveled at the sky-high gorges they slipped through before docking in Chungking, on October 18, 1947. For two days they stayed in the city of Double Celebration, then climbed aboard two rented transport trucks that chugged and gasped up the mountains all the way to Szechwan’s capital city of Chengtu, where Bishop Rouchouse welcomed them to his diocese, finally.
After a few days with the bishop, the Community continued its final, 12-mile leg of the journey, and arrived, on October 25, 1947, at their Mandarin-style home, with its two side gates and two small bridges, that stretched forward as two open arms. Their monastery was called Nipato, because it was built on the bank of the Nipa River. In the fertile valley of their district of Singtu, the monks were surrounded by hillsides of green that sprouted from every nook, cranny and crack of red earth, even in winter. In spring, the air filled with the aroma of the yellow, flower blossoms perched on top of the gangly colza plants. And in summer, skies filled with gray clouds, lumpy and thick, like a steaming pot of breakfast congee.
But as the refugee monks of Our Lady of Joy had traveled from Peking to their new home in Szechwan, unbeknownst to them, five monks of Our Lady of Consolation, who had been imprisoned by the Communists, had been released on October 13, 1947, from their prison cells in the village of Mu Chia Chwang, and were making their way out of the Mongolian mountains, heading toward Peking.
Father Raphael Lee, Brother Barnabas Liu, Brother Joachim Liu, Brother Cyprianus Yang and Brother Isidorus Ying had been taken captive in their own abbey, along with 69 other monks, in July 1947. In August, when the Communist leader Tui-Shih Li learned that Nationalist General Tso-Yi Fu was marching toward the abbey to save the religious Community, the handcuffed and shackled monks were forced – by whip and club – on a Death March along rough mountain trails.
Upon their release, immediately, the five headed for Peking. Through the mountains, the foothills, the waste of coal fields near Wang Ping they stumbled along, until a barrage of gunfire sprayed the ground around them, sending the men running behind a pile of coal for cover. Someone ordered them out. With arms overhead, the monks clambered over the chunks of coal, toward a Nationalist soldier. Suspicious, he looked over their paperwork given to them by the Communists, briefly interrogated them, then gave the order to proceed. At base camp, they underwent more questioning, until a Catholic officer overheard, intervened on their behalf and saw to it that they were put aboard a coal railcar bound for the city.
Around midnight, the eve of Mission Sunday, on October 18, 1947, the five Trappists, nearly dead, finally made it to Hsi Chih Men (West Straight Gate), which led to the Summer Palace. Not far away, stood the Marist Brothers Provincial House of Chala, home of their former teachers. They knocked at the gate.
Covered in their own filth, the emaciated men were crawling with lice. Unrecognizable as monks, their ankle-length habits had been slashed off at the hips by the Communists, who criticized them for wasting the People’s material, which could be used to make two shirts, for the People. But it wasn’t long before the Marists realized who their unannounced guests were, and dispatched an urgent message to the Benedictine house: Survivors from Our Lady of Consolation have arrived at Chala.
When the majority of the refugee monks had headed to Szechwan, Prior Paulinus, Father Simon Chang and Brother Stanislaus Jen had stayed behind to tie up all loose ends. Having just sold off the small herd of Holsteins to Prior Sylvester, it finally freed them up, and they were just about to go to the airport, to rejoin their Community in Our Lady of Joy’s refugee monastery, when they received the message from the Marists. Immediately, they canceled their travel plans and hurried to Chala to see the first survivors of the Death March, their confreres from Our Lady of Consolation.
Gaunt, with hollow eyes, the survivors collapsed as they reunited with their Trappist brethren. They described the horrors they had endured and witnessed: the tortures, interrogations, beatings, whips, clubs, handcuffs, chains, wounds so deep the white of bones shone through. Yes, there had been deaths. But there were survivors, and more were expected to arrive in Peking, any day.
Arrangements needed to be made for the new arrivals. Prior Paulinus decided that he and the other two must delay their departure, then he wrote to Szechwan and ordered Father Jean-Marie Struyven to search for and prepare a home for the survivors of the Death March. Immediately, Father Jean-Marie set to his task and began looking. However, around the end of November, after returning from scouting a location, he received a telegram from Archbishop Antonio Riberi, apostolic nuncio to China.
“Return to Peking. Urgent.”
As soon as he received the telegram, Father Jean-Marie dropped everything. He caught a flight, traveled nearly 1,000 miles in eight hours, arrived in Peking on November 27, and met with Archbishop Riberi. The nuncio’s demands were simple. He wanted to gather together the survivors of Our Lady of Consolation and rebuild their Community. And to make sure it happened, he would provide financial assistance, “No matter what the cost.”
Even though, at that time, the future looked uncertain in Peking, with the Communists just a gunshot away in Manchuria, Father Jean-Marie found the perfect place, and signed the papers on November 30, 1947, only three days after he had arrived in Peking. With $20,000 borrowed from the apostolic delegate, the Trappists purchased the Tong Hing Dairy Farm from the Russian family of General Dmitri Horvath, a wealthy, distant cousin of Tsar Nicolas II. In 1920, the Horvath family had fled Russia for Peking, to escape the Communists in their homeland. But with the encroaching Communists inching their way to Peking, the Horvaths wanted out.
The Dairy, located within the walls of Peking proper, was the biggest dairy in the city and had a great reputation. The purchase price included 50 milking cows and two properties, both with run-down buildings and about 3 acres of land between the two. The South Dairy, with its approximate 1 acre, was located at 16 Tong Chih Men (East Straight Gate) Street. A two-story, brick building, which faced the street, held the Dairy’s offices on the first floor. Behind, stood sheds for the cows, a pasteurizing plant and a cheese-making room. The North Dairy, located about a half mile north, had approximately 2 acres, with dilapidated buildings, including large sheds that housed straw.
Finally, with Father Jean-Marie put in charge of the Dairy and the surviving monks of Our Lady of Consolation, Prior Paulinus and Father Simon headed for Szechwan province to rejoin their Community of refugee monks of Our Lady of Joy, leaving behind Brother Stanislaus for a few months longer to help manage the Dairy during the transition stage.
On December 1, 1947, the monks who had survived the Death March moved into their new home, the Dairy. By then, six weeks after the first survivors had arrived, 17 more were reunited with the Community. Then, just in time for Christmas, two more arrived, Father Baldwin Uen and Father Nivardus Wang. But they weren’t the last ones.
Late one night, in January 1948, Father Jean-Marie received a phone call from the Marist Brothers. Hanging up the receiver, he grabbed some clothes, yelled orders to prepare a bath, ran outside, hopped onto his bike and pedaled off down the street, cutting through the blasting frigid air. Another survivor had arrived, barely, after a staggering journey on foot from Mu Chia Chwang, in the Mongolian mountains, had taken him a month. Father Jean-Marie wanted to be the first to embrace the survivor. It would be one of his greatest honors in life. Nearing the Marist Brothers Provincial House of Chala, his destination, he saw a thin figure in the dark.
“Da-Si!” Father Sebastianus Pian called out to Father Jean-Marie by his Chinese name.
But when Father Jean-Marie saw his former novice of 10 years earlier, shock seared through him. Almost unrecognizable. Up close, the face of Father Sebastianus, so gaunt, his skull poked through the yellowed, paper-thin skin. He was filthy, wearing rags, caked with his own excrement. Lice crept across his flesh. Yet, he was bathed in a spiritual beauty for all that he had endured for the Faith. With tears in his eyes, running down his face, Father Jean-Marie embraced his former novice. In his arms, he felt the bones of a living skeleton, and he held him to his chest for some time before shouting to the driver of a nearby jinrikisha. He helped the survivor up onto the seat for the 30-minute ride back to the Dairy, and when they arrived, the whole Community was standing at the door, waiting.
After a bath of renewal, a shave, even a hair cut for Father Sebastianus, his confreres surrounded him, nursed him with fresh cow’s milk and a bit of cake. Between sips, between bites, he recounted the Death March, the tortures, the bloody sacrifices of the monks. But in the midst of the gloomy memories, one of the monks expressed a beautiful thought.
“Tomorrow, you will celebrate your first Mass in six months,” the monk said.
“I don’t remember how to say Mass,” Father Sebastianus said, stunned by his own admission.
But the next morning, he did remember, as he offered the unbloody sacrifice of Calvary.
By the end of January 1948, 13 more survivors arrived. After the psyche-shattering experiences at the hands of the Communists, the traumatized monks withdrew into themselves. In their spare time, they created little reliquaries to hold the mementos they had carried out of the mountains: a piece of cloth stained with blood, a strand of hair – precious relics from the martyrs left behind in shallow graves.
Just beginning to emotionally stand on its own and take a few tentative steps, the Community was surprised by a rather unexpected visit. On Quasimodo Sunday, April 4, 1948, Father Abbot Benoît Morvan, of Our Lady of the Lighthouse Abbey, in Hokkaido, Japan, and Father Abbot Marie-Joseph Marquis, of the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Grâce, in Bricquebec, France, showed up at the Dairy. They had been ordered by the General Chapter to visit the monks of Our Lady of Consolation, the survivors of the Death March. The visitors were there to assess the situation.
Disappointed, the delegates found in the entire Dairy only two prayer books to be shared by all 13 choir monks, those priests and choir brothers required by “The Rule of St. Benedict” to chant in plainsong the seven daily hours of the Canonical Office. Lay brothers, those who labored, were not required to pray the Office. With the lack of books, there had been no set prayer schedule, other than morning Mass. Besides, the Dairy demanded labor from everyone, as if each were a lay brother. Only in their spare time did they spread mats on the chapel floor and kneel in prayer.
Seeing how dire the situation, the visiting abbots met privately with Father Jean-Marie and strongly suggested to him that the survivors of from Our Lady of Consolation merge with the refugees of Our Lady of Joy, who had relocated in Szechwan. They questioned his judgment and leadership.
“Why do you still want to ordain priests?” they asked him.
“Because the monastery is in need,” he answered. “Isn’t it the needs of the Church that has always based the call for orders?”
Father Jean-Marie also reiterated to them the instructions of Archbishop Riberi, that the monastery had to be resurrected, “No matter what the cost.”
After the guests left, Father Jean-Marie broached the topic during a meeting in the Chapter Room and explained about the pressure exerted by the visitors to abolish or merge. Unanimously, the monks voted to resist any abolition of their monastery or any merger with the refugees of Our Lady of Joy. They had survived the Death March; they were determined to survive The Visit.
And they did.
As a gesture of fraternal kindness from the Abdij der Trappisten, in Westmalle, Belgium, a crate arrived at the Dairy the following June. It was filled with prayer books. After nearly a year since they had been taken captive and forced on the Death March, they resumed the Canonical hours, and once again, they donned their religious garb – the choir monks in white robes with black scapulars, and the lay brothers in brown robes. Finally, the Community was beginning to feel like a religious Community again. They even had their first ordination. On May 30, 1948, Father Benedictus Wang was ordained in Peking’s Northern Cathedral of Pei-Tang, soon followed with the ordinations of Father Antonius Ngan and Father Nicesius Chang.
However, even as the Community grew in numbers and in joy, a darkness seeped into their happiness. In August 1948, the Communists had gained the upper hand in the Chinese Civil War, and they headed toward Peking, mowing down the Nationalists in their way.
The Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) – formed by a number of Republican cliques – became the single legitimate government of the Republic of China after the Republican Revolution of 1911 ousted the traditional rulers and ended the centuries-long dynastic rule of Imperial China. The death of Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi (old form of Cixi), in November 1908, had opened the door for change.
After a cell of the Communist Party formed in Shanghai in 1921, comrades slowly and secretly seeped into the ranks of the Nationalists. As head of the Kuomintang, Kai-Shek Chiang aborted its Communist contingent, because of its incitement and sadistic fondness of mob violence – especially at the encouragement of its ringleader Tse-Tung Mao. However, that attempt, in April 1927, to exterminate the Reds from the Nationalist ranks spawned the Chinese Civil War between the two factions that would last for decades.
At times, there were lulls in the fighting, especially after the Empire of Japan invaded Manchuria, in 1931, and spread through other regions of China. The Communists used that opportunity to operate a pseudo pro-Chinese-patriot, anti-Japanese-invader campaign to organize millions of peasants in the countryside under their Red banner. After Japan’s defeat in World War II, and surrender on August 15, 1945 (Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary), the civil war between the Nationalists and Communists heated up. After all, the number of Red soldiers had risen, and the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics had handed over to their Chinese comrades a bulging war chest overflowing with Japan’s surrendered weapons.
The United States attempted an intervention. On December 23, 1945, retired United States Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall arrived in China. His mediation mission plan: work out a deal so that both the Nationalists and Communists could govern together peacefully. For starters, there would be a committee of three, a temporary tripartite joining of three heads – American, Nationalist, Communist – to one Chinese body, albeit hobbled.
At that point, the Nationalists held key positions in China and had the upper hand militaristically. It looked like it would be only a matter of time before they would reign supreme in the Republic of China. But that was when the strategically weak Communists went to Marshall and demanded a truce. It was a ploy. But the naïve Americans, not understanding the true, deceitful nature of the Communists, lobbied Chiang for a time-out. Reluctantly, the Generalissimo agreed.
The ceasefire Truce Agreement announced on January 10, 1946, lasted just long enough to reverse the military situation, tilting the militaristic advantage toward the Communists’ field. And Marshall’s mission ended – a complete failure – in January 1947.
As the Communist threat neared closer to Peking, by August 1948, some of the Trappists in the Dairy, who had survived the Death March in the Mongolian mountains, were filled with absolute terror.
With fresh memories of torture at the brutal, blood-soaked hands of the Reds, some of the monks wanted to leave. Immediately. Their superior, Father Jean-Marie, tried to calm them, even gave everyone permission to flee, but he told them that he was staying and encouraged everyone to stay with him.
“Know that if you flee, it would be because of fear. Your duty, however hard it may be, is to stay in the middle of the Church in China, of which you are members,” he told them.
Most agreed to stay and tough it out with their superior. Still, others demanded to go to Szechwan to join the refugees of Our Lady of Joy, but conditions there, telegrams revealed, weren’t very reassuring. The monks of Our Lady of Consolation had survived the Death March, they had survived the visit of the Trappist delegates, they would try to survive the next onslaught.
By October 1948, the political situation deteriorated rapidly. Along with the Nationalist’s military defeats throughout China, came their financial collapse. Inflation hit. Father Jean-Marie, the business head of the Dairy, noted in his books that a single liter of milk sold for 1.5 million yuan, Chinese dollars. The most common bill used at that time was a 12,000 yuan.
Then, in the first week of November 1948, Mukden, the capital of Manchuria, fell to the Communists. As the Reds marched toward their new urban trophy, fleeing refugees bartered family heirlooms for bits of food. Nationalist soldiers packed atop locomotive coal tenders, headed for hopeless battles elsewhere. Civilians holding their few earthly possessions boarded Civil Air Transport planes owned by the legendary Claire Lee Chennault, lovingly referred to by his pilots as Old Leatherface of the Flying Tigers.
On November 20, 1948, after conquering Manchuria, Communist General Piao Lin’s troops marched toward the ancient city of Peking. A siege was expected and imminent. Food became scarce. Powers of the foreign consuls urged their nationals to leave immediately.
Panic set in.
But for a brief moment in that November, light overcame darkness, with the arrival at the Dairy of the three last survivors: Brother Rochus Fan, Father Benedictus-Josephus Labre Hou and Brother Adrianus Wang. However, fresh with the horrors of what they had endured and witnessed at the hands of the Communists, they brought more bad news.
Our Lady of Consolation had lost 33 monks to martyrdom.
Of the 74 monks taken captive in July 1947, only 41 had survived the Death March. Reunited at the Dairy, Father Jean-Marie had done all he could to keep the Community together and work for its growth. With good results. On January 9, 1949, Father Theophanes An, Father Gratianus Cheung and Father Macarius Fu were ordained in a ceremony held in the nearby Salesian chapel that was located between the North Dairy and the South Dairy.
Considering the circumstances, the monastery was flourishing, but so was the power of the Communists.
Unstoppable, the fatal Red tide flowed toward Peking, surrounding the ancient city, splashing upon its walls. It wasn’t long before it would soon drown the Nationalists.
On January 23, 1949, Nationalist General Tso-Yi Fu surrendered the Northern Capital, handing the city over to the Reds. He was the same general who had marched his troops – twice – in 1947 to the abbey of Our Lady of Consolation. Both, failed attempts to set the monks free from the clutches of the Communists. What he didn’t know at the time was that his trusted secret code officer of 20 years, General Pao-Shan Ten, was a longtime Communist mole who had informed his comrades of the impending rescue plans, giving them enough time to herd their prisoners, the monks, out of the abbey and into the mountains.
After the surrender of Peking, came “liberation” day, February 1, 1949, the day the Communists “liberated” Peking from the Nationalists.
A cold wind from Siberia blew through the city that day. But from Manchuria, another wind, a killer wind, blew through the city’s gates.
Pekingese men in long Chinese gowns and Western fedoras lined the streets and smiled as stilt walkers from the Peking Bathhouse Guild used their spindly appendages to lead the victory parade for the Communist conquerors. A marching brass band announced the approach of the soldiers in the Red army infantry from Manchuria. Three abreast, they filed through the city streets, followed by Party propagandists handing out leaflets of Marxist ideology. Youths celebrated by dancing in the streets to “Yang Ko,” the rice-planting song that became the Communist victory song.
The hero of the parade: Tse-Tung Mao, the conqueror. On posters carried by Party workers, Mao’s smile gleamed above his siu mai-sized chin mole. At the main gate of the Imperial City, his image was hoisted high above the crowd.
As for the survivors at the Dairy, knee-knocking, bone-chilling hit. With plans of escape, the monks sold some of the milk cows then booked a plane to Yunnan, in southern China. But it was too late. The plane never arrived.
Two members of the Community fled from Peking to Kalgan, in the Mongolian mountains, where they found sanctuary with the Scheut fathers and encountered the provincial superior of Siwantze, Bishop Leon Jean Marie de Smedt, (Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary). The bishop, a Belgian missionary who later died in 1951 in a Communist prison, persuaded the two monks to return to their Community, which they did. The two were welcomed home with a festive party, just like prodigal sons.
All the while, no matter how bleak the situation seemed, Father Jean-Marie kept at it. Relentless in his mission to re-build the Community of Our Lady of Consolation survivors, in February 1949, he even purchased a house adjacent to the Dairy. After the monks blocked all exits to outsiders, it served as a scriptorium and as a chapel for private Masses.
However, just as Father Jean-Marie kept at it, so, too, did the Communists, who didn’t stop at Peking.
On April 23, 1949, the Reds marched triumphantly into Nanking, the Southern Capital. Only a few days earlier, the Nationalists abandoned the city for Canton. Then on October 15, they evacuated Canton for Chungking. Then on November 25, they evac’d Chungking for Chengtu, just 12 miles from Our Lady of Joy’s refugee monastery. For the monks who had sought safety in Szechwan, away from the Communists, the situation did not look good. If the Trappists remained in China, persecution was not a question. It was certainty.
Again, the desperate refugee monks looked for an escape. And again, it was up to Father Prior Paulinus Li to look for a way out for his monks, any way out of Szechwan, and, suddenly, from out of nowhere, he received a card from Father Abbot James Fox. It was a formal invitation to attend the 100th anniversary of the Abbey of Gethsemani, in Trappist, Kentucky, on June 1, 1949. After a brief conference with the Community, it was decided. Prior Paulinus had nothing else. That was something. Perhaps he could get his refugee monks to America. He would go.
Prior Paulinus arrived in Gethsemani on May 26, but because he was only fluently conversant in Mandarin Chinese, he spoke with no one until June 1, when he met Archbishop Pin “Paul” Yu, the archbishop of Nanking, who had been exiled by the Communists to the island of Formosa. The two priests had something in common. Because each had close ties to the Nationalist government, they were both wanted men by the Communists, who considered anyone with current affiliations with the Kuomintang – described as reactionaries by the Communists – to be active counterrevolutionaries – enemies of the Reds. However, because the archbishop did have a connection with the KMT, it was a possibility that he could provide the Trappists with 200 acres on the island of Formosa. To discuss the matter further, the archbishop suggested that, on his return flight to the Orient from the Occident, representatives of the Trappist monks should meet him during his stopover in Canton.
Prior Paulinus quickly dashed off a letter to Szechwan, prompting Father Victor Chu and Father Simon Chang to meet with Archbishop Yu in Canton, which they did. During the meeting, the archbishop promised land, but he also warned that the future of the island, 91 miles from China’s shoreline, looked uncertain and could face the same fate as the mainland: Communist domination. With that warning, the Trappists no longer considered Formosa a possibility. However, after meeting with the archbishop, Father Victor and Father Simon remained in Canton, until they were able to slip into the British crown colony of Hong Kong and into freedom, on August 18, 1949.
North America still looked promising, though, so Prior Paulinus remained in Gethsemani for a month, waiting for an opportunity to speak with Abbot James, to ask him to accept the Trappists from China. However, when the opportunity arose, Abbot James, unaware of the reality in China, thought the idea was ridiculous.
With hopes deflated, Prior Paulinus left North America at the end of July for France, to seek advice from his European superiors. First, he visited Father Abbot Marie-Joseph Marquis, at Abbaye Notre-Dame de Grâce, in Bricquebec. Nothing. Next, he attended the religious order’s yearly meeting, the General Chapter, held in September, in France. Again, nothing. Absolutely nothing at all was discussed about the situation in China. Crushed emotionally, Prior Paulinus spoke with the abbot general, Father Dominique Nogues, asking him for advice. In an effort to help, the abbot general wrote a letter for Prior Paulinus to present to the American abbots.
With the letter tucked away, Prior Paulinus returned to America. First, to the Deep South and the suffocating summer humidity, at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, in Conyers, Georgia. Then north, to Our Lady of the Valley (old form of St. Joseph’s Abbey), in Spencer, Massachusetts, where he met with Father Abbot Edmond Futterer, and presented the letter from the abbot general. Not only did the abbot tell him he would welcome some of the monks, but he also obtained free passage for them on the SS General WH Gordon, then hinted that Father Abbot Lucien Saint-Pierre, of Our Lady of the Prairies Abbey, in Manitoba, Canada, might accept some of the refugees.
Now, with an escape plan ready, Prior Paulinus wrote a letter to his monks. He had arranged their new living accommodations and their transportation; all they had to do was show up at the dock in Hong Kong.
Not so fast, and not so easy. Life in China was getting as sticky as a bowl of rice.
In Peking, on October 1, 1949, Mao – the materialist messiah of the “new” China – stood at the Gate of Heavenly Peace overlooking Tiananmen Square and announced the birth of the Marxist monster, the People’s Republic of China – with himself the head of the beast. With a ribbon on his chest, he stood before an arrangement of microphones and announced in his tinny Hunan dialect few understood, “The Central People's Government Council of the People’s Republic of China took over office today in this capital.”
Within days, Canton fell to the Communists, and the unstoppable Red tidal wave drowned the city, the doorway to Hong Kong, making escape from the mainland more difficult, and more dangerous. But there were 40 monks in Szechwan who still had to get out. They had to get to Hong Kong to get on that boat to America.
The exodus began.
On October 24, 1949, Father Stanislaus Jen, Father Nicolaus Tien and a few others fled the monastery in Szechwan, took the ferry from Chengtu to Chungking, then, from there, flew to Hong Kong. Father Alphonse Poisson, the Chengtu vicar general, was furious at them for leaving; nonetheless, others followed their confreres and also fled Szechwan.
Father Benedictus Chao and Father Denis Van Leeuw made their way to the Chengtu airport, which was packed with other displaced persons waiting, hoping for evacuation planes. After days of no hope, most everyone left the airport discouraged, except the two monks. They had no money. They had no place to go. So they continued to wait, praying for a way out.
Late in the day of December 8, 1949, the buzz of a twin-propeller airplane overhead could be heard as it circled the airport. The two monks ran out and looked up. Through the fog and the mist they saw an olive-drab C-47. When it approached, they could see the flaming cross logo of the Lutheran World Federation Mission. It was the St. Paul, the Protestant plane that flew escaping missionaries out of China. After the pilot, Captain William “Bill” Dudding, landed the plane, the two monks ran over. Even though the only thing in their pockets was lint, they were welcomed aboard the cargo plane.
Finally, around 3 a.m., on December 9, the crew got the go-ahead for take-off, and the St. Paul rolled down the runway and lifted up its nose, pointing toward Hong Kong. It would be the St. Paul’s final evacuation flight out of mainland China.
Not far behind them, another C-47, took off. It was the May-Ling, Kai-Shek Chiang’s plane christened in honor of his wife, May-Ling Chiang (née Soong). The Generalissimo had waited. The May-Ling headed for Formosa, which would become the seat of the Republic of China. He had wanted to be the last evacuee to leave Chungking. The next day, December 10, the Communists would make Chengtu their final conquest.
At 9 a.m., after six hours in the air, the St. Paul approached the British crown colony’s Kai Tak Airport but was refused permission to land because of high-force winds. With only a few drops of fuel remaining in the tank, the captain had no choice but make an emergency landing.
Once on solid ground, Father Benedictus and Father Denis left the airport and made their way to the white-washed Béthanie Sanatorium, the gothic-inspired sanctuary built halfway up a hilltop in Pokfulam by the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris, in 1875. The monks reunited with some of their confreres.
Unfortunately, of the 40 monks of Our Lady of Joy, only 10 would make it to Hong Kong: Father Simon Chang, Father Benedictus Chao, Father Benedictus-Josephus Labre Chao, Father Bernardus Chao, Father Victor Chu, Father Malachi Gao, Father Stanislaus Jen, Father Nicolaus Tien, Father Denis Van Leeuw and Father Bede Wong.
And of those, only eight were medically ready to leave for North America after their required physical examinations. Father Simon Chang had a blood problem, and Father Benedictus Chao had an eye problem, which prevented them from boarding. A third, Father Bernardus Chao, remained behind to act as mediator between the refugees in the monastery in Szechwan and the rest of the world.
Nonetheless, seven seaworthy monks sailed for America. At midnight, the very first minutes of Christmas day, when light overcomes darkness, the refugee monks sailed east, headed for the West. In a true state of spiritual poverty – complete detachment from worldly things – all they had were their prayers and a bedroll as they boarded the SS General WH Gordon. With Hong Kong to its stern, the ship headed for the Formosa Strait, facing a strong wind from the north and rough seas. All monks hit their bunks, where they remained through Christmas Day. So seasick, they were unable to celebrate the Feast of the Nativity. However, after sailing through the Strait, most were able to crawl out of bed, except for Father Victor, who never did get his sea legs and remained below deck during the entire voyage, until they docked in San Francisco on January 9, 1950. Later that month, Brother Marcus Chang, a Marist Brother, arrived, with plans to join the Trappist order while in Canada. In February, the two who had remained behind for medical reasons finally made it to the same dock.
However, as the refugee monks had sailed away on Christmas morning toward their new lives of freedom in North America, at the very same time, those who had remained behind in Szechwan watched as the Red army marched into the city of Chengtu, the capital of Szechwan, and only 12 miles away from Our Lady of Joy’s refugee monastery.
Wakened to a new reality, Father Vincentius Shi, the superior at the monastery in the absence of Prior Paulinus, sent the two youngest monks, blood brothers Brother Maurus Pei and Brother Placides Pei, as a gesture of good will to greet the Communist officials. In turn, the Reds interrogated the young monks, questioning them about the weapons in the monastery. Dissatisfied with the answers, the soldiers beat the young monks, then tied their hands behind their backs and hanged them from village trees by their wrists until they fainted. Only after the Communists pillaged the monastery, forcing the monks to hand over their seven guns, did they, finally, cut down the brothers from the trees.
After that, the winter in Szechwan was dark, very, very dark for the Trappists. The Communists continued their demands, eventually depleting the monastery’s storerooms of rice, wheat and oil. Also they imposed heavy taxes. It had been a tactic used by the Communists throughout China in their occupied zones to put landowners under financially, so the Reds would gain control of land and property. It worked. The Community soon became destitute. The monks met and discussed what to do. Because China was still in a transition period, there was still freedom – although limited – to move about the country.
Even though Father Vincentius had decided to stay, he gave everyone permission to do as they saw best. The monks could return to the north and find some way to make a living. Or go to Hong Kong and look for Prior Paulinus. Or remain in Szechwan.
“Every man for himself,” he announced, in an act of generosity.
In spring, many migrated to freedom.
The first group left on May 18, 1950, consisting of four: Brother Jacobus Chang, Brother Ignatius Feng, Brother Clementius Lu and Brother Felix Ren.
A few days later, on May 21, a second group of four left: Brother Fabianus Chang, Brother Petrus Chang, Brother Maurus Pei and Brother Placidus Pei.
The third group – consisting of one monk: Brother John Baptist Pei – left on June 1.
Everyone headed to Poki, in Shensi province, considered the gateway between eastern and western China. In hired trucks, they spent much of the 400-mile journey either at the side of the road when the trucks broke down or with their shoulders at the tailgates, pushing the metal monsters when they had too little horsepower to roll up the mountain roads on their own and needed assistance. But it was a wonderful opportunity for the monks to be tourists in their beautiful homeland.
First to arrive in Poki, Brother John Baptist had passed everyone on the road. But he was soon joined by the others, and all boarded a train for Chengchow in Honan province, another 400 miles, due east. And it was in Chengchow, where they said their good byes and went their separate ways.
One group of four monks headed north for another 250 miles, to Shihchiachuang, where they split up again. Brother Clementius Lu and Brother Felix Ren continued to Peking, but Brother Jacobus Chang and Brother Ignatius Feng exited the train at the Liu Sing Chong station, to see their old home, the original Our Lady of Joy monastery, on the alluvial island.
It had been three years since the refugee monks fled, and much had changed. But Father Augustinus Meng and Father Edmond Palleger, two of the founders of the monastery in 1928, were still there and very happy to see them. A few other monks, including Brother Hilarius Shen, had remained also, but were scattered throughout the local countryside, forced to become workers, after the Communists had taken possession of the 300-acre property and converted it to an atheist-run agrarian state-owned business. Its new name: Progressive Farm. The watermelon field, peach trees, hen house, cow shed, apiary and pig pens – all gone. Only the vineyard remained. The Communists wanted the few remaining monks to make wine for the Red table. The scriptorium, which had become a hospital, had its books strewn carelessly along the corridor floor. The sacristy had become a dormitory.
After a short stay, they continued on to Peking.
The others, who had headed south from Chengchow, decided to continue on to Canton. Brother Fabianus Chang, Brother Petrus Chang, Brother John Baptist Pei, Brother Maurus Pei and Brother Placidus Pei arrived at the Sacred Heart Cathedral – called the Notre Dame of the Far East – on June 13, 1950. They decided to wait for Prior Paulinus to rescue them and take them to Hong Kong. During that down time, others from the monastery joined them, until the group grew to 15. One of them, Brother Raphael Xie, did not want to wait. Instead, he decided to go to Hong Kong, himself, and look for Prior Paulinus, who was living in a rented house in the Shatin district of Hong Kong, with Father Bernardus Chao and Father Joseph Lu, a refugee priest and vicar general of the diocese of Ankwo.
When Brother Raphael showed up on their doorstep and explained to Prior Paulinus that 14 others waited for him in Canton, it was a complete surprise to him. And not long after that, two more surprises shocked Prior Paulinus when he received two letters: one from Father Abbot François Régis Jammes, his superior in France, and the other from Archbishop Riberi, the apostolic nuncio in China, who was the liaison between the Vatican and the dioceses and religious institutes in China.
Each letter contained the same message: “Return to China, and look after your monks.”
Back at the Dairy in Peking, Father Jean-Marie – with all good intentions – had written numerous reports, informing Abbot François Régis that it would be better for the monks to remain on the mainland, rather than to wander about the world. After all, he reasoned, the Dairy business was going well, the Community was growing and life in Peking looked promising, still with some freedoms. His reports had made an impact. Abbot François Régis communicated with Archbishop Riberi. The result, the two letters.
Prior Paulinus realized that if he obeyed the order, it basically meant suicide. He prayed on the matter, and on July 11, 1950, knowingly risking his life, he shed his religious habit for street clothes and re-entered the mainland in Canton. He found his monks, who had been waiting for him, waiting for the passes that he would have in his pocket that would take them to freedom. They were all very excited to finally be going to Hong Kong.
Not Hong Kong, he told them, Peking.
What? They thought it was a joke.
No. It was not a joke. It was an order.
Shocked. Stunned. They didn’t want to, but they obeyed. On July 15, 1950, Prior Paulinus and the 14 monks split into two groups and headed the 1,400 miles north to Peking. When they arrived at the Dairy, on July 23, 1950, Father Jean-Marie was very happy to see everyone, especially Prior Paulinus.
But more bad news soon followed.
The 14 monks of Our Lady of Joy joined the 6 who had already arrived there. If the entire 20 were to stay at the Dairy, they would have to become Consolation monks. No. They were against it. In a move to alleviate the tension and tight accommodations at the Dairy, Father Augustinus, formerly a diocesan priest in Peking before he joined the Trappists and moved onto the alluvial island, arranged for the 20 refugee monks to move to a vineyard belonging to the diocese. There they could make their living.
As for Prior Paulinus, because of his affiliations with the Nationalists, he was listed as an enemy of the People and risked arrest – or worse – if he stayed in Peking. He even posed a threat to the safety of his hosts anywhere he stayed. He sought help from Father Li-Juan Wu, the designated vicar general for Cardinal Ken-Hsin “Thomas” Tien, who had fled Peking in 1948. Father Wu warned him that he could not stay at the residence house for priests; however, he had an idea.
“Go to the hospital, and disguise yourself as a patient, but leave Peking as soon as possible,” Father Wu told him.
Prior Paulinus headed to St. Vincent Hospital, but when he arrived, he found out that the registrar was a member of the Communist secret police, so he fled to the home of his mother, brother and sister.
“Leave immediately,” his own family told him. “The police will be here.”
He went to the family home of one of the monks.
After a few minutes, they told him, “Leave quickly. The police might be coming soon.”
Prior Paulinus immediately fled Peking and sought refuge 800 miles away in Hankow with the Marist Brothers, who told him the situation was the same there, but suggested that he return to Canton. So back to Canton he went, back to the Sacred Heart Cathedral, where he requested sanctuary. Granted. For a month he remained at the cathedral, with thoughts dwelling on opening a monastery along the seashore. He wrote letters to bishops. He prayed. And he prayed some more.
As Father Prior Paulinus bided his time in Canton praying for a miracle, a miracle was in the works 77 miles south, in the Pearl River Delta.
Hong Kong’s Bishop Enrico Pascal Valtorta (Society of Foreign Missions of Paris) learned about the plight of the Trappists, and he wanted to do something for the monks. He recruited help from Irish Father Thomas F. Ryan (Society of Jesus), who sought out Father Bernardus Chao and Brother Raphael Xie, suggesting they contact Prior Paulinus immediately and invite him to the Pearl of the Orient to discuss the possibility of a Trappist foundation.
When Prior Paulinus received the letter, he rushed to the border, but found that free access to Hong Kong from the People’s Republic had already ended on May 9, 1950. Because the Communists still permitted Chinese to leave the mainland, the British had closed off the border with checkpoints. Hong Kong officials could only accommodate so many true refugees, and they didn’t want to accommodate Communist spies slipping in, posing as refugees.
He thought about Macao, a gambler’s paradise. The Portuguese colony let practically anyone and everyone enter. So he made it onto Macao, where he was received by Franciscan Father Theobald Diederich (Order of Friars Minor), rector of St. Joseph Seminary. From there, Prior Paulinus obtained a pass for Hong Kong, and on September 8, 1950, the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lady, he moved back into the house in Shatin with Father Bernardus and Brother Raphael.
Almost immediately, Prior Paulinus met with Father Ryan. Then on September 11, 1950, he met with Bishop Valtorta, and a settlement was agreed upon. Again, it was time for writing letters. After the meeting, Prior Paulinus sent one to his superior in France, Father Abbot François Régis Jammes, requesting permission to settle his monks in Hong Kong. The other letter, he sent to his refugee monks in Peking, requesting they join him in Hong Kong.
Abbot François Régis responded quickly, yet coldly. Yes, he acquiesced, Prior Paulinus could do as he saw best. However, the reaction of the monks in Peking was, as expected, not joyous. They received the letter with scorn, especially those 14 he had just ordered to leave Canton and escorted to Peking. Most of them, disgusted, discouraged, disillusioned. Only eight obeyed.
While waiting for the arrival of the monks from the mainland, Prior Paulinus scouted around the British crown colony’s 263 islands for the site of their future monastery. In November 1950, he, Father Bernardus and Brother Raphael traveled to Lantao, the largest-yet-least-inhabited of all the islands in Hong Kong, the Fragrant Harbor.
After climbing atop a grassy hill, they overlooked the valley of Tai Shui Hang and envisioned their new home tucked between the slopes. Following a rendition of “Ave Maris Stella” and a recitation of a Hail Mary, Prior Paulinus requested the miraculous medal that hung around the neck of Father Bernardus. Blessing the Medal of the Immaculate Conception, Prior Paulinus then buried the object of devotion, asking Our Lady to intercede and reserve the spot for her refugee monastery, Our Lady of Joy.
Within four months – with help from Bishop Valtorta, Father Ryan, Hong Kong Governor Alexander Grantham, district officer Paul Tsui (and the Virgin Mary) – the Trappists received permission from London to rent the 73-acre valley of Tai Shui Hang for HK$8 per acre, per year.
Meanwhile, the eight who had decided to leave Peking for Hong Kong had been wending their way south.
The first group left for Hong Kong on November 2, 1950. Dressed in blue “liberation suits,” Brother Fabianus Chang, Brother Bruno Hsieh and Brother Idesbald Gao headed to Macao, where they arrived on November 12 and sailed for Hong Kong; however, they were forbidden to enter because they had no passports, which was news to them. So they turned around, returned to Macao and wrote to Prior Paulinus requesting the necessary paperwork. Finally, on November 22, they left Macao, crossed the Tiger’s Mouth – the Chu Kiang River Delta – and arrived at the Kowloon Bus Station, where they reunited with their confreres. With the extra three monks, the small rented house in Shatin became too cramped, so Prior Paulinus rented a larger space. On November 27, 1950, they all moved into a single floor of a house on Clear Water Bay Road, across the street from the Home of the Aged, run by the French-based Little Sisters of the Poor.
The second group – Brother Jacobus Chang and Brother John Baptist Pei – left Peking on November 30, 1950, and upon their arrival at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Canton, on December 7, 1950, a priest warned them to get out of China as soon as possible, because it would probably be the last time for them to get off the mainland without special permission. That same night they sailed to Macao and arrived in Hong Kong on December 15, without a major glitch.
Brother Petrus Chang and Brother Michaelus Cui arrived in Hong Kong on December 20.
Last to leave Peking was Brother Linus Shang, who, without a travel pass, adopted the character of a madman, which he hoped would enable him to travel the five days via train without being questioned by authorities. For his costume, he donned a worn-out cotton Mao suit. For props, he armed himself with branches, broken from fruit trees and grape vines. Feigning sleep for most of the trip, he avoided trouble until he reached Canton, where officers confronted him about not having a pass.
“I am a vineyard worker, and I know how to plant the fruit trees,” Brother Linus said, holding up the branches he had brought along. “My brother is working in Macao and wants me to help him. He has asked me to bring along some branches of vine and of fruit trees.”
“Don’t you know that Macao is a foreign country?” the officers asked him.
“I didn’t know that!” he answered, with an expression across his face of complete stupidity. “My brother asked me to go there, so there should be no difficulty to go to Macao!”
The officers looked at one another.
“This idiot doesn’t even know where Macao is. Let him go,” one said to the other.
Brother Linus slipped through and arrived in Hong Kong right before Christmas.
By the end of 1950, 11 monks had made it to Hong Kong, to freedom: Brother Fabianus Chang, Brother Jacobus Chang, Brother Petrus Chang, Father Bernardus Chao, Brother Michaelus Cui, Brother Idesbald Gao, Brother Bruno Hsieh, Father Prior Paulinus Li, Brother John Baptist Pei, Brother Linus Shang and Brother Raphael Xie.
And they had just made it, barely. For the Communists closed off their side of the border with checkpoints in February 1951. After the new exit-entry regulations went into effect, it would take nothing less than a miracle to leave the mainland.
March 29, 1951 was a monumental day for the self-exiled monks. That was when the 11 men – and two yellow-haired puppies adopted from a Franciscan house in Hong Kong – arrived on Lantao to begin their work of building a new home for the refugee Community of Our Lady of Joy. A brand-new beginning, with nothing in the virgin valley except snakes, birds and the trickling of two small rivers. But it was home. And they were free.
However, the unintentional forced split of the refugee Community of Our Lady of Joy caused great suffering. As its contingent on Lantao island began to rebuild itself, its contingent on the mainland in Szechwan began to crumble.
In the bourgeoning People’s Republic of China, the regime plotted its nationwide purge targeting Roman Catholics, and officially introduced the Three-Self Reform Movement at a meeting held in Szechwan province, on November 30, 1950. That was soon followed with the publication of the “Manifesto on Independence and Reform,” which demanded the end of relations with all imperialist countries and declared the beginning of a new Chinese catholic church. Allegedly signed by Father Liang-Zuo Wang, a parish priest in Kwang Yuan, the “Manifesto” subsequently ran in all Communist newspapers, with a big to-do.
In part, the “Manifesto” claimed, “Since Catholicism came to China, imperialists have tried by all possible methods to use the Church as a forerunner of aggression…We are determined to build up a new church that practices self-government, self-support and self-propagation. We will not allow the Holy Church to be soiled by imperialist filth.”
The Three-Self Reform Movement was the Communist attempt to hammer a wedge between the Chinese Faithful and the Pope. By establishing the schismatic organization, which would later become the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the regime elevated itself to be the supreme authority, even in matters pertaining to dogma and theology.
However, the Roman Catholic Church has always taught that there is only one supreme authority in the Church: the Pope. The papal primacy is a divine institution, and the Petrine powers – passed from pope to pope – was, is and always will be the mystical head of Christendom, preserving the unity of the Church, the mystical body of Christ.
The “Catechism of the Council of Trent,” issued by order of Pope Pius V and published in 1566, declared, “The Church has but one ruler and one governor, the invisible one, Christ, whom the eternal Father hath made head over all the Church, which is his body; the visible one, the Pope, who as legitimate successor of Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, fills the Apostolic chair. It is the unanimous teaching of the Fathers that this visible head is necessary to establish and preserve unity in the Church.”
Nonetheless, the Red regime made it clear to the Faithful: Either join the Three-Self Reform Movement, or else.
The Trappist monks chose or else.
One gloomy morning, on February 28, 1951, the Communists sent their goons to the refugee monastery in Szechwan, with an arrest order for all remaining 11 monks – four priests and seven brothers, who refused to renounce the Pope by joining the Movement. The Communists – vowed atheists – were intent on brainwashing the monks to apostatize, to give up their Catholicism. As men of God, the priests and monks posed major obstacles to the atheist state.
Karl Marx, the father of Communism and the anti-Christ of the 19th century, called out the Pope in the very first paragraph of his 23-page pamphlet, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” published in 1848, describing the Pontiff as an exorcist bent on destroying Communism. But it was Marx who intended to destroy. He wrote, “Communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion, and all morality,” revealing his hatred for the Catholic Church, for its traditions, and for its moral teachings, which regard life as sacred and encourage man out of the muck and mire, and to elevate mind and body to holiness, to God.
The monks, hauled before the People’s Court, were interrogated, tortured, then locked up for a night in a cell in San Ho village. The next day, March 1, most were released, with the exception of the three priests, Father Vincentius Shi, Father Albertus Wei and Father Yves You, who were trucked off to Tien Hui Regional Office and incarcerated.
“Let us pray for one another,” Father Vincentius whispered, before they were separated.
No one dared reply.
After one week, the priests were transferred to a large prison in the Public Security Bureau of Chengtu Hsien. Once in custody, they were repeatedly dragged out of their cells for interrogations, euphemistically referred to as preliminary trials. Interrogators held the titles of judges. The monks were tortured. They were ordered to apostatize.
“You need no longer sing the praise of God, for it is now proclaimed that there is no God,” one interrogator taunted.
Months crawled by, then in the beginning of June 1951, the “struggle” against the imprisoned Trappists escalated.
“From now on, stop praying,” a guard told Father Yves You.
“I must pray,” he replied.
“If you want to pray, kneel on the urinal barrel and pray.”
Father Yves continued to pray, for which he was beaten. One day, he was dragged to the cell of Father Albertus.
“Do you still pray?” the guard asked Father Albertus.
“I gave it up a long time ago,” Father Albertus shrugged it off.
“Look,” the guard said to Father Yves. “You came with him to learn. He has changed his mind. Why haven’t you changed?”
Until then, Father Albertus’ cellmates had no idea that he was a priest. He had been friendly, chatted with his cellmates, and when he had prayed, he prayed privately, so no would notice. But once they found out, they targeted him incessantly in everything, and he became the victim of their daily criticisms and was frequently snitched on during the day for minor infractions.
Then, on June 13, again, a guard stood in Father Yves’ cell.
“Does man come from monkeys or from God?” the guard asked the group of inmates.
“From monkeys,” they answered simultaneously.
Father Yves remained silent and tried to disappear into the corner.
The guard scanned the cell with his eyes until he found Father Yves.
“What do you say? Does man come from monkeys or from God?” he asked Father Yves, indicating for him to stand. Again, he asked, “Does man come from monkeys or from God?”
“God made man,” Father Yves said, standing.
“God made man? Now tell it to the rest,” the guard ordered.
“God made man,” he repeated.
“Did Yves You say the right thing?” the guard asked the others.
“No! Wrong!” they yelled in unison.
Walking over to Father Yves, the guard balled up his fist and pounded the priest in the chest seven or eight times before he fell to the floor.
“Hold him up!” the guard ordered two prisoners.
They grabbed Father Yves and picked him up, steadying the human target as he received more blows to his chest.
Finished with Father Yves, the guard then walked over to the cell of Father Albertus, who had heard everything that had just happened before with Father Yves.
“Did man come from monkeys, or was he created by God?” the guard asked Father Albertus.
“This question is too deep. I have been studying it for more than 20 years, and I have not solved it. The Church does not forbid us to say man has evolved from monkeys. This is how the question stands,” Father Albertus answered, shrugging it off.
Next, the guard went to the cell of Father Vincentius. Earlier in the day he had broken a bowl while eating, for which he was severely punished.
The guard then asked him the same question: “Does man come from monkeys, or was he created by God?”
“God created man,” Father Vincentius answered.
“Did he say the right thing?” the guard asked the others.
“No! Wrong!” they answered simultaneously.
Enraged at the humble priest’s defiance, the guard attacked Father Vincentius, punched him seven or eight times, literally trying to pound the ideology of atheistic evolution into him.
That was the end of the study session that day.
Communists – materialists and vowed atheists – have consistently promoted the ideology that God does not exist, that God was, and is, merely a superstitious belief; therefore, God could never have created man. Communists have propagated the ideology that man, from his labor, created himself.
One of the most popular slogans repeated by the Chinese Communists and hung everywhere in large character posters, labor created the world, was taken from Frederick Engels’ unfinished work, “Dialectics of Nature,” in which Engels attempted to apply Karl Marx’s theory of dialectical materialism to science. More specifically, Engels applied it to the theory of evolution, in Chapter 9: “The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man.”
“Labor is the source of all wealth, the economists assert. It is this next to nature, which supplies it with the material that it converts into wealth. But it is also infinitely more than this. It is the primary basic condition for all human existence, and this to such an extent that, in a sense, we have to say that labor created man himself.”
For Communists, the ape became man, because the ape labored, used the hand to make fire. The atheist world view: the degradation of man, to exploit man, just like a slave, like an animal. For in Communism, all things – including people – belong to the government. It is easier to subject a creature that evolved from animals.
Communists boasted that their thinking was progressive, that Communism destroyed the old world for a new world, destroyed the old man for a new man. They scoffed at Catholics, calling them the old-fashioned man stuck in the old-fashioned world.
Days later, the three priests were told to stand on a platform in front of a group of inmates seated before them. Ordered to preach the Faith, they were informed that if they preached well, everyone would be believers. It was a trick, the three knew it, and they tried to get out of it. But, impossible.
Father Vincentius stepped up on the platform first. He had barely opened his mouth before someone interrupted him.
“Enough! Come down!” a guard shouted, then ordered the priest tied up with his wrists roped to his ankles. He could neither stand nor lie down, only sit. Then everyone broke for mealtime. Someone spooned rice into Father Vincentius’ bowl, placed it on the floor in front of him, and the priest was forced to crawl like a worm to his bowl, from which he slurped up his food like an animal.
After the meal, Father Yves was next ordered to stand on the platform.
“Just what Vincentius Shi said,” he said, knowing that he, too, would be hogtied, with wrists to ankles, just like Father Vincentius. And he was.
Finally, Father Albertus was ordered to the platform.
He kept silent.
“Was the world created by labor?” the guard asked.
“Yes,” Father Albertus said.
The guard continued, “Did man evolve from monkeys?”
“I don’t deny,” Father Albertus said.
“Your thinking has improved,” the guard said, praising the priest.
Father Albertus stepped down from the platform. His hands and feet remained free, as those of Father Vincentius and Father Yves remained tied. The two were carried back to their cells and received nothing to eat or drink for the rest of the day.
“Wait for God to bring you food,” the guards scoffed.
The priests waited, and God brought them food.
For two days, the two priests were given nothing to eat. On the third, they received a visit from one of the monks. Brother Xavier Suen brought three loaves of northern Chinese bread, one for each of the priests, who joyfully compared the bringing of the bread to the Old Testament’s miracle when God ordered Habacuc to take his bread and boiled pottage to Daniel, who was imprisoned in the lions’ den. The three priests, ensnared in a Red dragon’s den, found comfort in their own miracle.
For eight days, Father Yves remained tied. For twelve days, Father Vincentius was bound until finally freed by a guard who couldn’t resist a verbal jab.
“See, the Master of the Sky cannot untie you, but I have the power,” he said to the priest.
“See, the Master of the Sky cannot untie you, but I have the power,” he said to the priest.
“You would not have done so, if the Master of the Sky had not given you the right inspiration,” Father Vincentius answered.
Furious, the guard clenched his fists and pounded Father Vincentius, all over his head and his body. With the harsh treatment, Father Vincentius’ tuberculosis soon reactivated. To treat his illness, prison authorities forced him to sit in the sun, leaning against a wall, during the daily outdoor exercise, but it only exacerbated his condition. Then back inside his cell, he was exposed to the dank air, prompting his health to deteriorate rapidly. His feet and legs swelled until the skin cracked open. The raw flesh became inflamed and infected, oozing puss and blood. Boils popped up and erupted on his wrists.
But he never complained. And he never asked for medicine.
“It is not a serious matter. Never mind,” he said when others requested treatment for him.
In the beginning of August 1951, Father Vincentius could no longer walk out of the cell on his own. When he had to relieve himself in the cellblock’s latrine or attend a political study (brainwashing) session outside his cell, he had to be carried out. Then, in the evening of August 5, a Sunday, he could no longer stand. To eat, unthinkable. Control over his bowels, impossible. Everything emptied onto his cot. Guards transferred him to a smaller cell, and ordered Father Albertus to assist him.
The next morning, August 6, after much coaxing from Father Albertus, Father Vincentius sipped down a bowl of broth. In the afternoon, he nibbled at two spoons of boiled rice and refused anymore. He grew aggravated. Known as one of the most patient and loving monks of Our Lady of Joy, never before had he displayed any aggravation. He began to babble. At midnight, in a feverish delirium, he banged his two feet on the floor without stopping.
A guard stormed down the hallway from the prison block’s control center to the priests’ cell door.
“Why don’t you be quiet and go to sleep at such time! Stop fooling around!” he hollered.
“Vincentius Shi is going to die,” Father Albertus said.
The guard ran down the hall to notify his supervisor, Officer Pai. He rushed to Father Vincentius’ cell with a doctor, who gave the priest an injection, then left briefly, but soon returned carrying a bowl of water, with grass floating in it. He held it up to Father Vincentius’ lips, slowly poured the liquid into his mouth, and the priest soon calmed down.
When Father Albertus saw that Father Vincentius had drifted to sleep, he curled up in a corner away from the dying priest, in order to get some sleep himself.
Dawn, August 7. It was a Tuesday. Rain poured outside. Father Albertus awoke, rose and touched Father Vincentius. Dead cold. Father Albertus gave him absolution, then burst into tears, furious at himself for being selfish and falling asleep, furious at himself for missing Father Vincentius’ last words, his last breath. He wept as he washed the body of Father Vincentius, and clothed the dead man in his cleanest dirty rags.
“I would die for this monastery,” Father Vincentius had repeatedly told his fellow monks before his arrest.
“We will die with you,” they had always responded.
But, when he died, he died alone.
Father Albertus walked to the cell door and shouted for a guard, “Baogao!” (Report!)
Officer Pai immediately telegrammed the San Ho Siang village officer, who contacted the monks around 1 in the afternoon, and simply told them, “Vincentius Shi has died in prison. You may claim his body for burial.”
Immediately, they left to retrieve their superior’s body, or else Father Vincentius would be buried without thought, without rite, without delay. By 5 p.m., the five pall bearers, with a stretcher, arrived in Tien Huei Chun. With the prison still more than 12 miles away, they arrived as the sun was setting, just in time to complete the necessary paperwork. As they waited at the entrance of the Public Security Bureau, two trusties – worker prisoners – brought out the corpse, and the monks received the body of their superior and laid it on the stretcher.
A pagan, who had been a cellmate of Father Vincentius, whispered to the monks, “I never heard any murmur from his lips. When the Reds urged him to deny God, he only answered, ‘I cannot.’ How touching it was to see him on his knees in prayer. He is a saint.”
With his lifeless, battered body atop the stretcher carried ceremoniously by the mourners, Father Vincentius arrived home a final time at 2 in the morning.
In preparation for burial, the monks carefully removed the rags that covered the body of their beloved superior. They found open wounds from his head to his heels, evidence that he had been beaten repeatedly, barbarically. Several of the younger monks reverently snipped off locks of his hair, to be saved as relics of the holy man.
As the morning sun rose on a beautiful day, August 8, 1951, brave Catholics began arriving at the monastery to pay a final homage to Father Vincentius. Mourners chanted the Office of the Dead and offered prayers until 6 p.m., when the funeral – the funeral of a martyr – took place. Presiding over the Mass was Bishop Henri-Marie-Ernest-Désiré Pinault (Society of Foreign Missions of Paris), who had replaced Bishop Jacques-Victor-Marius Rouchouse upon his death on December 20, 1948.
“Father Vincentius Shi, a Trappist, was a true martyr of the Faith,” Bishop Pinault proclaimed. “We, his brethren, are truly happy to witness this noble gesture as an inspiration from the Holy Ghost. We feel that we enjoy more and more of the blessings from God, since we entrust to the intercession of our dear martyr. And we hope that the good Lord give to the Church the joy of recognizing a canonized saint in the person of our Father Vincentius, who would be the first saint of the Trappists in China.”
The proto-martyr of Our Lady of Joy, Father Vincentius was laid for his eternal rest in an embankment in the midst of the monastery’s vegetable garden. Born in 1904, in Shihchiachuang, he entered the Trappist abbey of Our Lady of Consolation on December 8, 1926, was ordained on May 23, 1937, subsequently transferred to the abbey’s daughter monastery Our Lady of Joy, then led the refugee monks to their refuge in Szechwan province. His monks considered him a holy man, affectionate, humble, patient, generous, with a devotion to Our Lady and the rosary.
Not long after the funeral of Father Vincentius, Father Yves You was released from prison; however, Father Albertus Wei remained in custody and continued to be tortured. One time, he was suspended for six consecutive days and nights by the wrists, which had been tied behind his back. He weakened, sickened. Then, On November 27, 1951, Father Albertus’ body, covered in open, oozing wounds, was given to the monks. Not wanting another martyr to die in their prison, the Communists contacted the monks and tossed out Father Albertus. Tall, several inches over 6 feet, his discolored body, skeletal, lay crumbled on a black board. His face: gray, pale, full of puss and blood. He was nearly dead, so nearly dead, but he clung on, until he breathed his last 20 days later.
As a monk, he had always been quiet. During prayers in the chapel, he accompanied the singing with his harmonium, and his beautiful voice always rose above the others. Tortured in his soul and in his mind that he did not accompany Father Vincentius during his last moments of life, before his own death, Father Albertus wrote a letter, soaked with tears, to his confreres.
“I am really sorry and regret to have fallen asleep and not watched Father Vincentius dying,” he confessed.
After his death, the remaining two priests and handful of brothers were evicted from the monastery, scattering the Community to the bitter winds. The Communists finally seized complete control over the property in Szechwan, following the burial of Our Lady of Joy’s two martyrs: Father Vincentius Shi and Father Albertus Wei.
Father Vincentius was not the only one in his family to die a martyr. Two years earlier, his nephew, Father Seraphinus Shi, a monk of Our Lady of Consolation, was executed, along with five other monks, on January 28, 1948, near the bloody end of the Death March. Their bodies, dumped in a sewage ditch, were later retrieved by the Faithful, who, for two years, hid the remains until they could be delivered to Father Macarius Fu, who carried the bones of the martyrs, in an inconspicuous piece of luggage, from the Mongolian mountains to the Dairy in Peking, in April 1950.
Father Jean-Marie Struyven dreamed of having the six martyrs laid to rest in the Catholic Cemetery of Chala, but he had no way to do it, so he elicited the help of Parisian Lazarist Father Robert Cartier (Congregation of the Mission), rector of the Grand Seminary of Chala.
Father Cartier obtained permission from Father Li-Juan Wu, the vicar general and head of the Peking diocese, then, again, visited the Dairy, where he strapped upon his bicycle rack that inconspicuous piece of luggage containing the remains, asked for a blessing from Father Jean-Marie, then pedaled off.
With a deliberate careless air and dressed in his Mao “costume,” he bicycled over the streets from the northeast corner of Peking, headed for the city’s Hsi Chih Men (West Straight Gate). At the crossroads just before the gate, a policeman stopped the flow of traffic. Father Cartier remained on his bicycle, nonchalantly placed his foot upon the curb and waited for the go-ahead, but noticed that the policeman focused his eyes on him, just as a Chinese man passed, staring and laughing.
“Ah! Russian comrade!” the Chinese man greeted.
Smiling back, Father Cartier nodded his head.
A smile also crossed the policeman’s face, and he permitted the flow of traffic.
With a wave of his hand, as a sign of gratitude to the traffic officer, Cartier pedaled toward Hsi Chih Men, where he hopped off and crossed through on foot, pushing his bike, with the box still strapped on the rack. He headed for Chala, an estate that housed the Provincial House of the Lazarist Mission, the College of the Marists Brothers and also the Cemetery of Chala. Its history stretched back to the death of the Italian Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci (1552-1610, Society of Jesus), when, in 1610, Emperor Wan Li sectioned off a portion of the Imperial Estates for the cemetery where Ricci would be entombed, with a marble tombstone presented by the emperor.
At Chala, Father Cartier placed the box in the hands of one of the Marist brothers, then offered a thanksgiving for mission completed.
It was a great occasion when the solemn Mass was celebrated in the church adjoining the cemetery, and was the first time in a Catholic ceremony in the Communist-run People’s Republic of China that the religious wore during a church service the uniform of blue cotton Communist workers. Attendees included Father Harold W. Rigney (Society of the Divine Word), rector of Fu Jen, the Catholic University, several high-ranking ecclesiastics and several representatives from the embassies of France, Belgium and the Netherlands, as many European missionaries had been fatally victimized by Communists.
During the funeral procession, as the survivor priests from Our Lady of Consolation carried the three small caskets through the crowd, the Faithful surged forward to touch their medals and rosaries to the coffins, in a silent acknowledgement that the men died as martyrs. When the bodies had been deposited in the single, vaulted sepulcher to be shared by all six, a song of triumph rose.
It had taken two years, but the journey finally ended in the spring of 1950, for the six martyrs: Father Chrysostomus Chang, Brother Eligius Hsu, Brother Damianus Hwang, Brother Joannes Maria Miao, Brother Alexius Liu and Father Seraphinus Shi.
On the tombstone, the inscription was simple, in Latin and Chinese: six religious shot january 28, 1948.
And as the persecution of the dead ended, the persecution of the living continued.
In 1949, when the Communists had taken control of China, they intended to control every aspect of life in China, including the Roman Catholic Church, especially the Roman Catholic Church. Viewed not only as an imperialist institution, but it was also viewed as an obstacle to the Communist atheistic society. It had to be destroyed. Not long after the declaration of the People’s Republic of China, Communist workers in Peking were already handing out leaflets, in 1949, promoting a separatist movement for the Catholic Church in China that would break away from the Vatican and the Pope.
In Peking, on January 17, 1951, dozens of Chinese priests, three prelates and several members of the laity were ordered to attend a conference. Even Red regime bigwig En-Lai Chou appeared – five hours late – and delivered a two-hour speech in which he spoke about the “good, bearded fathers,” the European priests who dedicated themselves to the Chinese. However, he also condemned the European “imperialists” who must be rejected. But the big announcement of the evening was the creation of the Religious Affairs Bureau, the tentacle of the People’s Government that would regulate, oversee and control all religious activities, all religious persons and all religious houses, all of which would be required to be registered with and approved by the bureau.
Within a few weeks, Father Jean-Marie received information regarding the law on registration of associations that had ties to foreign entities. With certainty, he determined that it would apply to the Dairy and that it was meant to be a war machine against the Church. He decided to resign immediately from his position of authority in the Community. But because the monks were in the midst of their yearly spiritual retreat, he waited to make his announcement during his closing sermon.
Upon his resignation – effective immediately – as the director of the Dairy and as the representative of Our Lady of Consolation, he appointed his successor, a monk whom he described as having the prudence of a snake and the simplicity of a dove. It was 31-year-old Father Benedictus Wang, the first among the Community of survivors to be ordained. He was from a family of rich farmers, who had been destroyed by the Communists.
Father Jean-Marie also decided it would be best for the Community if he were to extract himself physically from the Dairy and move into the local Jesuit house. As required by law to register one’s residence, he went to the local police station to file his change of address. He also went to the People’s Government office to register the Dairy’s transfer of title on behalf of the Chinese religious, who had accompanied him.
The official behind the counter was very happy.
“It is glorious for you and for China to be rid of the European,” he told the Chinese monks.
Around that time, the Religious Affairs Bureau started flexing its muscles, trying to strong-arm the native Chinese Roman Catholics to abandon the Pope and join the regime’s schismatic version of the one, holy, apostolic, Catholic Church.
But the Faithful would not comply.
It didn’t take long for the Religious Affairs Bureau to engage in open warfare with the Church. In the regime’s newspapers each day, propagandists published editorials and cartoons attacking the Church. Communists argued that the Movement was only to rid the Roman Catholic Church in China of foreign political imperialism, and those who refused to support the independence-from-imperialists Movement would be considered traitors, running dogs of the imperialists, allied with foreign enemies.
In each of the city’s parishes, the Communists imposed a reform committee, composed of the dregs of Christians. The main churches in the city were to display portraits of the great Communist leaders, such as Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Tse-Tung Mao, with bright red flags. Each Sunday, sermons were to end with a short verse in honor their Communist heroes.
China’s bishops sought guidance. To leave, or to remain? Archbishop Antonio Riberi recounted to the Faithful his meeting in 1949 with Pope Pius XII, a staunch anti-Communist who kept a steady eye on his understandably skittish flock in China.
“Holy Father, Should we leave, or stay and be interned under the Communist regime?” Archbishop Riberi asked.
“Bonus Pastor dat vitam pro ovibus; mercenarius autem fugit,” Pope Pius XII answered, referring to the Gospel of St. John, that the good shepherd gives his life for his sheep, but a hired servant flees.
“Holy Father, if during the internment necessitating a long period of inactivity, an opportunity arises to move elsewhere, might we then leave?”
“Eritis mihi testes,” the Pope counseled. You shall be my witnesses.
“But if we were interned not only outside our mission but outside the country, for instance in Siberia, what then?”
“Eritis mihi testes,” the Pope repeated. You shall be my witnesses.
It was clear. Archbishop Riberi dug in his heels and stayed. As a result, he was targeted and attacked. In the April 24, 1951 edition of the Peking People’s Daily, the editorial called for his expulsion. In the May 25, 1951 edition of the Peking People’s Daily, an editorial attacked him for sabotaging the Three-Self Reform Movement. On June 26, 1951, he was placed under house arrest and was confined – with round-the-clock surveillance – to his residence in Nanking.
Then on September 8, 1951, the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Archbishop Riberi was escorted to the border and forced to walk across Lo Wu Bridge to Hong Kong, after being banished from China. That was when the crack in diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the Communist regime officially broke wide open.
For the Trappists, the pressure never ended. Even though Father Jean-Marie had disassociated himself from the survivors, the commissioner of Peking’s No. 3 District paid a visit to the Dairy and demanded that the Chinese monks accuse him.
“You have to accuse the European,” the commissioner ordered.
“Oh, no. En-Lai Chou, himself, has acknowledged that there are European who are not imperialists,” Father Theophanes An said, referring to En-Lai Chou’s January 17 speech in which he spoke about the “good bearded fathers.”
“All Europeans are imperialists. We must accuse,” the commissioner said.
“Kill us, but we will never accuse a superior,” Father Theophanes said, standing up in defiance. “We will never accuse!”
Furious, the commissioner screamed threats, but soon controlled his temper.
“Your brain is not yet sufficiently washed. Here are your exercise books for re-education. I shall return,” he said.
With courtesy, Father Theophanes escorted the commissioner to the door.
Not long after, the monks met secretly with Father Jean-Marie. He advised Father Benedictus and Father Theophanes to accuse him of simple crimes, which could not hurt him, yet might help alleviate the pressure exerted from the commissioner. For example, they could accuse him of serving poor quality food, of making the monks work too hard with too little sleep.
No. They refused.
“We would lose face,” Father Benedictus said.
When the commissioner returned, the response was the same. There would be no accusations.
Father Jean-Marie felt the noose tighten around his own neck, as police restricted his activities until he could do nothing, go nowhere. The police busted into his room in the Jesuit house, while he was sleeping in bed, and they forced him to make spontaneous confessions. In one day, he had to make two.
Several times, police asked, “You have no job, no business here. Why do you stay in China, except to sabotage the work undertaken by the People’s Government?”
In Peking, on July 21, 1951, Father Jean-Marie signed his application for voluntary departure.
A few days later, on July 24, enjoying a very rare occasion of merriment, a group of seven or eight monks and Peking missionaries – all labeled by the Communists as serious criminals – took a trip to the Summer Palace, the former residence of the emperor. They had a great time, filled with lots of joy and laughter.
But the next day, July 25, an estimated 3,000 security police officers – armed with Thompson submachine guns – conducted citywide raids that lasted until the early morning hours of July 26. Specifically targeting Catholics, the Communists arrested 14 Catholic priests and 18 laymen in Peking, both Chinese and foreign, but mostly foreigners. One was Father Harold W. Rigney, who had attended the funeral of the six Consolation martyrs in Chala. The priests were incarcerated, interrogated, tortured, forced to undergo brainwashing. Of Peking’s 21 churches, 15 were sealed. The remainder of the 40-or-so foreign priests in Peking were placed under house arrest in their residences. Chinese priests were forced to attend daily brainwashing meetings that lasted at least three hours.
Father Jean-Marie was able to stay in Peking for almost two more years. But finally, in mid-February 1953, he was informed of his expulsion. Before his departure, he met a final time with Father Wu, the vicar general of Peking.
“Speak well of us to Rome, that we may have been far, perhaps too far, but we tried to save what could be saved, and that we remained faithful to the Holy Seat,” Father Wu said.
Then, on the day of his departure, Father Jean-Marie went to visit the Community one last time. Looking around, he saw evidence everywhere in the Dairy that he had accomplished what Archbishop Riberi had asked him to accomplish. There were 43 religious, 15 of them priests, Chinese priests. Father Benedictus escorted him, up to the maritime customs. They said their final farewells. With a heavy heart, he left his dear friends behind in China, where he had spent most of his adult life, where he had made many close friendships. One last good bye, and he headed for his homeland of Belgium.
The next year, on March 3, 1954, Ash Wednesday, in a public sermon, Father Benedictus called for loyalty to the Vatican, denouncing the Three-Self Reform Movement. His sermon was dangerous. It was brave. With his statements, he was publicly declaring himself a counterrevolutionary – an enemy of the Communists, an enemy of the People’s Government.
The following Sunday, March 7, 1954, the first Sunday of Lent, the Communists confiscated the Dairy. They arrested all 15 priests. After six months of suffering near-daily interrogations and torture, in September 1954, the incarcerated Trappist priests were condemned to laogai – reform by labor, most sentenced to 20 years.
When the priest-monks had been arrested, the brother-monks had been forced to remain at the Dairy and labor for the Communists, who had inserted their own workers onto the site to learn how to do the work, themselves, so they could take over the responsibilities. In October 1954, those remaining monks of the Community were forced to leave the Dairy. Some of the brothers were imprisoned. Others were sent to labor camps. All were subjected to brainwashing. Some were released and found work in the villages where their families lived. Most all were kept on a list to be watched and monitored.
The Community, completely dispersed.
Communication between the Chinese monks and their European confreres was nearly impossible. One of the last bits of information to make its way out was noted in the January 1958 entry in European abbey’s General House Register.
“Our abbeys have received the notice of death of our dear Brother Hilarius Shen. So attached to ‘The Rule,’ he would never leave Our Lady of Joy, near Chengtingfu. At the time of the arrival of the Reds, he was walking in the streets dressed in the brown habit of the lay brother, with a large crucifix on his chest. He even wore a hat with this inscription: valiant soldier of christ. They took him for a madman. The crazy madness of the cross.”
After that, the Bamboo Curtain descended upon the people of China.
Then, the Great Silence.
After 12 years, in January 1970, an issue of the Reader’s Digest published “Christmas Mass of Father Hsia,” the first written account by Jean Pasqualini (Ruo-Wang Bao) of the fate of the monks who remained in China.
The first two paragraphs:
“His name was Hsia, and if by chance he is still alive, he should be released about now from a Chinese prison camp south of Peking. That was where I last saw him, at the end of 1961. But in all the years since, whenever it is Christmas, he has loomed up in my memory, a frail, seamy-faced old Chinese with unconquered eyes. Once again I see him standing serenely in that freezing wind, holding wafer and wine, and declaring his oneness with God – all the while knowing that he could be shot for what he was doing,” Pasqualini wrote.
“Nobody was very happy about him. For one thing, he looked so old and feeble that it didn’t seem possible he could do his share of the work. But the real trouble was that he had been a Trappist monk, and was always talking about how God would help us if only we didn’t lose faith. Most of us had lost our faith a long time before. The Communists saw to that. Religion had been banished from the People’s Republic as an opiate and superstition, and severe punishment was decreed for anyone persisting in the belief that there could be a power higher than Mao Tse-Tung. Christians especially were persecuted, for they compounded their sin by worshiping the ‘imperialists’ God.”
The account was the first since the Great Silence fell upon China, but it wasn’t possible to identify the priest, who, for his protection, had been given a pseudonym in the short piece.
However, in 1973, Pasqualini’s book, “Prisoner of Mao,” was published. In it, he mentioned more details about the priest who was in the Ching Ho labor camp with him in 1961.
“Father Peter Hsia was a Trappist monk from Yangkiaping, a small, frail, sunburned man in his late 60s with prominent, bushy eyebrows and only a few wisps of white hair on his head,” Pasqualini wrote.
Then the monks knew. From that brief description – Yangkiaping, the bushy eyebrows – it was unmistakable. It was Father Benedictus-Josephus Labre Hou, one of the last survivors of the Death March, a witness of the brutality of the Communists, a witness of the glory of God.
Eritis mihi testes – You shall be my witnesses.
As Pope Pius XII had requested, Father Benedictus-Josephus Labre Hou had obeyed.
POSTSCRIPT I: This tale – perhaps, one of the most well-known, unknown stories of martyrdom in Communist China – is a tale told from the grave, a reconstruction from written accounts by witnesses, survivors and hearsay. At times, information from one source conflicted with information from one or more sources; at such times, a choice was made, based on logical determination. Facts were pulled from the following consulted works:
China Missionary Bulletin, published by the Committee of Catholic Missionaries
“Christmas Mass of Father Hsia,” by Jean Pasqualini
“The History of Our Lady of Consolation,” by Father Stanislaus Jen, Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (OSCO)
“The History of Our Lady of Joy,” by Father Stanislaus Jen, OCSO
“Les Martyrs de N. D. de Consolation et de N. D. de Liesse: Témoins Cisterciens de Notre Temps,” by Irénée Henriot and Joseph Dong
“Los Monjes Blancos,” by Father Eusebio Arnaiz Alvarez, Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (CSsR)
“Max Springweiler: Pioneer Aviator in China,” by Max Springweiler, translation by Larry D. Sall, PhD
“Monaci nella Tormenta: La Passio dei monaci trappisti di Yan-Kia-Ping e di Liesse testimony della fede nella Cina di Mao-Tze-Tung,” by Father Paolino Beltrame Quattrocchi, OCSO
“Prisoner of Mao,” by Ruo-Wang Bao (Jean Pasqualini) and Rudolph Chelminski.
“Regulations of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance,” published by the General Chapter of 1926
“Stars in the Sky,” by Father Patrick J. Scanlan, OCSO
“Trappists, the Reds and You,” by Father M. Raymond Flanagan, OCSO
“Vincent and Albert: Martyrs of Joy,” by Brother Theophane Young, OCSO
POSTSCRIPT II: I need to thank Father Bernard Johnson (Abbey of New Clairvaux, California) and Brother Theophane Young (Our Lady of Joy, Lantao) for – very patiently – assisting me and answering my many, many, many questions. I need to thank especially Brother Theophane, who interviewed for me several times three of the very few surviving refugee monks: Father Benedictus Chao, Father Bernardus Chao and Father Maurus Pei.
ENDNOTE: All Chinese names have been written in a manner to avoid confusion and to remain consistent with the English standard of writing proper names: given name first, family name last. In Chinese, names are traditionally written with family name first, given name last.
Theresa Marie Moreau can be reached at TMMoreau@yahoo.com.