Recently a Korean clerical colleague and I took a trip through Kangwon Do circling Chunchon Diocese which criss-crosses the 38 parallel and the infamous demilitarized zone (DMZ). The DMZ is the rigid four kilometer wide border with North Korea which was established in 1953.
On arriving in Chunchon my friend remarked about the Sacred Heart Cathedral standing on the hillock, “What a beautiful sight.” I fully agreed and thought, “How beautiful on the mountainside are the feet of those who bring the Good News,” as the Psalmist wrote centuries ago.
This Church stands as a symbol of suffering and unity, rocked and razed as it was eight times during the 1950s in the Korean war, long before its completion. It bears lasting tribute to the many martyrs who lie at rest under its shade in the priests’ burial plot at its rear. The plot is the final resting place for many Columbans—Bishop Thomas Quinlan, Fr. Tony Collier, Fr. Timothy Leahy, Fr. Patrick Reilly, Fr. James Maginn, Fr. John Lynch and more recently Bishop Thomas Stewart.
One Columban missionary, Fr. Phil Crosbie, whose footsteps we were about to trace, is laid to rest in his native Melbourne, Australia, although he worked tirelessly and suffered much during his time in Korea. For it was Bishop Quinlan, Fr. Phil Crosbie, Fr. Tony Collier and Fr. Frank Canavan who witnessed this magnificent church reduced to ruins in June 1950 before being dragged on the “Death March” up along the Yalu River, bordering Manchuria. By the grace of God, two of them survived the torture and inhumane treatment on the march to tell the story and to help build the Kingdom of God among God’s people.
Next our journey took us to Hongchon County where Fr. Phil Crosbie worked and ministered for more than 60 years, mostly around and along the 38’ in the parish and the many parish outstations. In Hongchon town we heard of the miraculous work Fr. Phil had done and the many, many families he helped in so many ways during the difficult years of the Japanese occupation followed by the even more difficult and destitute years immediately following the Korean war.
Among the countless people Fr. Phil saved from starvation in his war torn parish was the Pai family which had seven family members. The father had just returned from army service with little or no hope of supplying sustenance for the family. The mother was sick and weak. One son, now Fr. Cyriacus Pai of the Chunchon diocese, said about Fr. Phil, “When we were very poor and there was nobody around to help us, Fr. Phil always came to help; when my father was sick and not strong enough to go to the mountain to make wood fuel for the ondol fire, Fr. Phil came with his Russian truck and dropped off enough fuel for a month. When we were hungry he supplied flour, corn and beans to our village to tide us over the lean spring season when rice ran scarce; in essence he supplied us with food for life and clothed us as well for the very severe cold winter winds, all the while giving us the Bread of Life.”
“As a child with my friends we literally lived and played around the parish church which was Fr. Phil’s pride and joy, a beautiful cutstone building built and designed by himself. At dawn we would see this tall figure dressed in soutane and Roman collar walking briskly towards the Church. The bells would ring out across the town to call the people to morning Mass and prayer. My friend and I were soon to become altar servers. It was a great privilege to serve Mass and while not knowing then this same priest was to give me my First Communion and lead me to the altar to serve also in the same priesthood with him, even succeeding him here in the Garden Gethsemane.”
Of his own sufferings during the war and especially the death march, Fr. Phil never spoke very much about it. However, in his book, Pencilling Prisoner, he wrote, “I have returned to begin life again. All this I prize, but I have gained a still greater and more precious freedom. It is the freedom to believe in God and openly profess my faith; and the freedom to tell others who travel with me in life’s marches of the City of God that lies ahead and of Him whose love awaits us, to give our hearts their rest. I hope that those who did not live to share this freedom have already found that rest. And I hope and pray that all of us shall one day be with Him; we who survived and they who did not; captives and captors; their guards, their mystery man, their Tiger. May there be none of us who will not find Him at the end.”(cf. “March till they die” p. 221) And Fr. Phil certainly lived this to the full, embracing all the people he encountered in the counties of Hongchon and Inje and further afield.
Fr. Phil had the dream and vision to found and establish the Prayer House and Retreat Center at “Gethsemane.” No sooner had the Korean Army 3rd Division and the United States Military Advisory Group, known as KMAG numbering some 20,000 soldiers moved east and nearer to the DMZ than Fr. Phil acquired the hilltop property overlooking the Sogang Lake and the 38’. For the ten acre plus site he had the master plan for a place of prayer; first the “Via Dolorosa” of the fourteen stations trailing through the woodland and ending on “Calvary” at the huge cross on the highest spot.
Fr. Phil’s devotion to Mary found expression in the rosary walk trailing through the trees and finally reaching the tall statue of Our Lady looking towards the cross. The Presbytery Convent Chapel and Conference Hall and huge kitchen with parking at the lower level are all wrapped around the entrance. “What a beautiful sight,” as Fr. Cyriacus Pai, now resident priest, first remarked. And so it is, with the Bells of the Angelus ringing out across the 38’, calling the people to prayer. “Everything here is thanks to Fr. Philip Crosbie and his prayers,” Fr. Cyriacus says in his own humble way, living by organic farming on the plot set apart and worked by the Basic Christian Community working here. “I am only trying to implement what Fr. Phil began,” says Fr. Cyriacus who continues the work in his own wonderful way.
The people come in droves, and on the bigger feast days, especially the feast day of Korean Martyrs, the numbers has exceeded 1,000. They can sit around on the grass, wander through the woods, pray the Rosary or Stations of the Cross while listening to the beautiful singing that the Korean people do so well. They may even take a small boat on the lake and relive the experience of the Apostles on the Lake of Kinaseret. It usually all culminates with the Celebration of the Eucharist in thanksgiving for it all. Truly, the Kingdom of God is alive among His People and Fr. Phil’s prayers from his home in Heaven are with them still.
This article appeared in the December 2012 edition of Columban Mission magazine.