This is the remarkable story of Fr. Philip Crosbie, a Columban missionary priest who spent over 50 years as a missionary in Korea. He died on the evening of Holy Thursday 2005 in Melbourne, Australia. His story is told by his friend, Fr. Cornelius Murphy, who is another long-term Columban missionary priest in Korea. The story is an attempt to express the gratitude and appreciation that he and others feel for Fr. Philip Crosbie.
Fr. Philip Crosbie was born in Ballarat, Victoria, Australia, in 1915. He was the eldest of five children. His father died was 38 years old when he died. His mother continued to care for her children but died at the age of 40 when Phil was only 15 years. Phil worked on the farm by day and went to night school to finish his studies. The circumstances of his early life taught him to be tough and resilient. After finishing his secondary studies in Ballarat, Phil joined the Columbans. He was ordained in 1939 and posted to Korea in 1940 and began working in Hong Chon parish. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was put under house arrest by the Japanese for six months before being repatriated to Australia in 1942. He returned to the same parish in Korea in 1947.
Fr. Phil’s parish ministry was interrupted by the Korean War in 1950. The day the war started, June 25, 1950, Fr. Phil walked for four hours to Chuncheon to see Bishop Quinlan, a fellow Columban and diocesan bishop. He then walked back the same day. He was arrested by the North Koreans the following day and taken to Chuncheon and then to Seoul.
Soon after, Fr. Phil and Bishop Quinlan along with 750 other prisoners were taken north on an eight day forced death march as the North Korean army was retreating. Only 250 prisoners survived the death march.
In 1953 Fr. Phil and Bishop Quinlan were released through Moscow. Until then they had been presumed dead. Upon his return to Australia, Fr. Phil wrote of his extraordinary experiences as a prisoner and the death march in his book, “Pencilling Prisoner.”
In 1954, Fr. Phil again returned to Hong Chon where he remained until 1968. He gave himself totally to building up the parish center and the outstations. He financed the projects with donations from benefactors. Every night he would type a few letters to those who wrote to him. He was tireless and totally focused.
The war had ravaged the country, torn apart families and killed millions. Most families in the countryside lived in dire poverty. Tuberculosis was rampant. A poor diet, freezing weather, lack of adequate housing and heating as well as the displacement of thousands made life extremely tough for most of Fr. Phil’s parishioners.
While Fr. Phil was hard on himself, he could never do enough for others. He had experienced great cold, hunger and deprivation in prison in North Korea. This helped him be sensitive to the needs of the poor whom he saw enduring something similar.
Fr. Phil, like all the early missionaries in Korea, never had the chance to do formal Korean language study. It is a difficult language, and he struggled with it. This, however, never stopped him communicating with the Korean people. His love for people came through and as he was in Hong Chon for over 20 years, Fr. Phil and his parishioners learned to communicate.
I eventually took over Hong Chon parish in 1968 when Fr. Phil moved to another parish. I came to have much respect for the man, the priest and the missionary. Fr. Phil had no phony airs about him. He was serious-minded, worked hard and was fully committed to whatever he took on. He was a man of prayer.
During his time in Korea, Fr. Phil worked in a number of parishes and in retirement he set up a house of prayer and penance. The extreme cold and sickness endured during the three years in a North Korean prison made Fr. Phil leave Korea in 1998. He said as he prepared to depart,
“I leave half my soul in Korea.” He died in Melbourne in 2005, aged 89.