Columban History in China

February 15, 2010

Fr. Edward Galvin of Ireland (left) founded the Missionary Society of St. Columban in 1918. Fr. John Blowick (seated) was also instrumental in the founding of the Society. Columban Father Owen MacPolin is also pictured.

“You are not here to convert the Chinese; you are here to make yourself available to God.”

This was the advice Father Edward Galvin gave to the first Columban priests and Sisters in China in the early 1920s. His words go to the very heart of who we are as Columban missionaries. As missionaries, we simply make ourselves available to the Holy Spirit.

Since the mission of the Catholic Church is the work of God or, as St. Luke puts it, the work of the Spirit, it is the Holy Spirit who is the source of our missionary vocation as individuals and as a missionary society of priests.

Nothing but the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit can explain our individual missionary calling or how we as a foreign mission society began, the countries where we have chosen to work or what we have been able to accomplish.

As the Bishops of the Second Vatican Council stated in the Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity:

“The Holy Spirit … implants in the hearts of individuals a missionary vocation and at the same time raises up institutes in the Church who take on the duty of evangelization, which pertains to the whole Church, and make it as it were their own special task.”

In his encyclical on missionary activity, Pope John Paul II, describing the first evangelizers, wrote:

“The coming of the Holy Spirit makes them witnesses and prophets. It fills them with serene courage which impels them to pass on to others their experience of Jesus and the hope which motivates them. The Spirit gives them the ability to bear witness to Jesus with ‘boldness.’

“When the first evangelizers go down from Jerusalem, the Spirit becomes even more of a ‘guide,’ helping them to choose both those to whom they go and the places to which their missionary journey is to take them. The working of the Spirit is manifested particularly in the impetus given to the mission that, in accordance with Christ’s words, spreads out from Jerusalem to all of Judea and Samaria and to the farthest ends of the Earth.”

As it was in the beginning, it is the Holy Spirit who directs the Catholic Church’s mission in every succeeding generation. Through a mysterious but providential set of circumstances, the Columban Fathers began with Father Edward Galvin of Ireland.

Frs. Edward Galvin and John Blowick are pictured in 1920 with some of the Chinese Catholics who befriended them upon their arrival in China.

Before going to the seminary in Ireland, Fr. Galvin seriously considered becoming a missionary but, in deference to his parents’ misgivings about missionary life, he entered the seminary in Maynooth, Ireland, where young men were trained for their home dioceses.

In 1909, the day he was ordained, Fr. Galvin’s bishop, having no opening for him in the diocese, advised him to go to the United States and return home in three years. Fr. Galvin went to New York City and became an assistant in the Holy Rosary Parish in Brooklyn, New York.

It was there he met Fr. John M. Fraser, a Canadian missionary, who was then returning to China.

Fr. Galvin told Fr. Fraser that he had long been haunted by a desire to be a missionary and that he had read every book in the Brooklyn public library that had anything to do with China. Although Fr. Fraser discouraged Fr. Galvin’s enthusiasm for China, he finally said, “If you want to go with me, you’ll have to hurry. You’ll need permission from your bishop.”

Fr. Galvin wrote immediately to his bishop and, within a few weeks, received the permission he sought. On February 25, 1912, he was on his way to China.

In those days, the Catholics of the English-speaking world played a minor part in the foreign mission work of the Catholic Church. Of the 17,000 priests in the United States, less than 50 were in the field as missionaries.

In China, Fr. Galvin was shocked at the poverty and wretchedness he found. He was even more appalled by the spiritual poverty. Here were millions of friendly and industrious people who, because of the lack of missionaries, knew nothing of Jesus Christ.

But what could one priest do on his own? Bringing in more missionaries was the answer, he thought, but who would recruit them?

Columban priests in Hangyang, China, in 1921.

Fr. Galvin bombarded his friends with letters seeking help, and, in 1916, two priests joined him: Frs. Patrick O’Reilly and Joseph O’Leary.

They soon realized that if they were to have any lasting effect, they needed to set up some kind of an organization. The two new arrivals urged Fr. Galvin to return to Ireland and organize a new mission society. He hesitated. A novena of Masses was suggested.

“When the novena was completed,” Fr. Galvin later wrote, “we knelt down in my room facing each other. I cut the leaves of our Bible and on the top of the right-hand page read the following verse:

‘I command you: be firm and steadfast! Do not fear nor be dismayed, for the Lord, your God, is with you wherever you go'” (Joshua 1:9).

Fr. Galvin broke the tense silence by saying, “I have my orders. I’ll go.”

In June 1916, Fr. Galvin returned to the United States and visited priest friends and bishops from San Francisco to Brooklyn. He shared his plans with them, and they encouraged him.

In August, Fr. Galvin sailed to Ireland, to Maynooth, where he got his first recruits. An able young professor, Fr. John Blowick, joined Fr. Galvin to help establish a mission to China. By October, the new society numbered eight priests.

With the blessing of Pope Benedict XV, Frs. Galvin and Blowick spent 1917 planning and laying the foundation. On June 29, 1918, the Society of St. Columban was formally approved. The first Columban seminary was opened in Ireland.

A few months later, the American headquarters was established south of Omaha, Nebraska, in a rural area that now an unincorporated area within the city limits of Bellevue, Nebraska. In a few years, a seminary was opened there, too, and the campus became known as St. Columbans, Nebraska.

By 1920, the Society already had 40 priests and 60 seminarians. That was when Fr. Galvin led the first pioneer band of missionaries to China, and Fr. Blowick devoted his energies to forming the new Society. The Columban Fathers were on their way.

Columban Father Daniel Lucey with parishioners on Christmas Day 1928.

The Holy Spirit continued to blow in unexpected quarters. Six Sisters of Loretto from Kentucky arrived in China two years later to staff a school, started by Columbans, and open an embroidery school for young women.

An interest in China led a group of young Irish women to establish the Columban Sisters. In 1926, six Columban Sisters arrived in China to work with Fr. Galvin.

But dreams rarely follow the dreamer’s blueprint.

The priests and Sisters encountered unexpected problems and extremely difficult situations in China. Even though they were well-received, they had more than their share of hardships. It was usual for annual floods, droughts and plagues of insects to bring starvation to the provinces.

Relief boats, sent by charitable organizations, were looted by bandits who themselves were starving. Poverty and ignorance intensified the daily distresses of hunger, leprosy and tuberculosis. Such tribulations were part of the experience of each missionary. But the worst was yet to come.

From 1921 to 1950, China was in constant chaos. In the 1920s, the Nationalist Chinese Army fought the Communists. Warlords, many of them vicious brigands, fought anyone who got in their way.

Adding to this, freelance bandits fought for no cause except their own, often seeking trouble for its own sake. They held individuals ransom and would loot a city unless it paid to be left alone. In the midst of all this chaos, Fr. Galvin was consecrated bishop of Hanyang in 1927.

When bandits attacked Columban priests in remote mission stations, they made such serious threats and demands that, sooner or later, something tragic was bound to happen.

On July 15, 1929, Communist Army bandits captured Columban Father Timothy Leonard. After a few days as a prisoner, they murdered him. Other Columban priests were taken captive and released. But one, Columban Father Cornelius Tierney, died after three months in harsh captivity.

In the fall of 1932, Chiang Kai-shek’s troops began attacking the Communists with a vigor never seen before. The Communists fell back on all fronts, and, once more, people could move about with relative safety.

“The reign of terror,” wrote one Columban, “far from weakening the appeal of the Catholic Church in this area, seems to have strengthened it.” It was an extraordinary time as thousands expressed a sincere desire to enter the Church.

Columban Father Edward O’Doherty (far back) with schoolchildren in Hangyang, China, in 1922.

In 1933, the Holy See designated a new territory for the Columbans and Columban Father Patrick Cleary was appointed in charge of the Vicariate of Nancheng, south of Hanyang.

In the following year, the relative peace that began the year before was shattered by the disastrous flood of the Yangtze River that left thousands homeless. Columban priests and Sisters exhausted themselves in caring for sick and dying refugees.

On the night of July 7, 1937, China began its war with Japan, which would in time become a part of the Second World War. Columban priests and Sisters were called on to care for thousands of wounded Chinese soldiers as well as countless refugees afflicted with cholera.

Of frequently recurring disasters, Bishop Galvin said, “Calamities are forerunners of waves of grace.” He recalled that when the Columbans arrived in 1920, there had been 17,000 Catholics in Hanyang Vicariate and, in 1932, there were 55,000.

World War II followed in 1940 and a new era of turmoil and destruction began. Cities and towns were bombed and reduced to rubble. American and Australian Columbans, regarded as enemy aliens, were repatriated to their home countries in exchange for Japanese civilians. Those who remained had their movements restricted.

The war had just ended when it became clear that Communist forces under Mao Tse-tung would soon defeat the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek. In 1946, the Holy See entrusted a new mission, known as Huchow, to the Columban Fathers.

Three years later, the Communists took over this area, and, before long, they were in control of all of China. Several Columbans were thrown into jail and eventually all the Columban priests and Sisters were expelled. Bishop Galvin and Bishop Cleary were expelled in 1952.

By 1954, every one of the 146 Columbans serving in China was “expelled forever.” On September 19, 1952, a weary, haggard man stumbled across the Communist China border into Hong Kong. Forty years of heroic missionary service had ended-Bishop Galvin was even branded a “criminal.” Three-and-a-half years later, death came quietly for this great Catholic missionary.

In spite of the nightmares of banditry, war, bombings, destruction, death, disease, flood, famine and suffering, the China venture begun by Bishop Galvin was one of the most heroic and successful mission apostolates in modern times.

When the Columban Fathers celebrated their golden jubilee in 1968, someone asked Bishop Cleary, “If Fathers Galvin and Blowick had foreseen the catastrophe in China, would they have stopped in their tracks?”

The bishop, then age 81, considered this for a few moments before answering, “Probably not. The harvest that was garnered was immense. The good seed remains in the ground for a second spring.”

That good seed not only remained in the ground in China, it put down deep roots and bore splendid fruit during the years of cruel persecution of every Chinese Catholic-bishops, priests, Sisters and laity without exception. An account of Chinese Catholics’ fidelity and heroism reads like that of the Christians who suffered and died during the persecutions of the early centuries of the Church.

Columban missionaries and other Christian groups have been able to re-establish a limited presence in China in recent years. Columban Father Dan Troy is pictured here with Chinese students.

Today, the Church in China is experiencing a second spring in spite of restrictive and controlling efforts of the Communist government. Plus, relations between the Vatican and the government in Beijing have made progress.

Columbans today have a limited presence in China, working primarily as English teachers and in formation, unable to openly evangelize, but able to talk privately to students about Jesus and the Gospels.

The Holy Spirit had more than China in mind when He stirred up a missionary vocation in the heart of Fr. Galvin and in those who followed his dream for China.

“The wind blows wherever it pleases; you hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. That is how it is with all who are born of the Spirit” (John 3:3-8).

When you make yourself available to God, you can be taken in new and unexpected directions and find yourself making unforeseen decisions. As St. Columban said, “A life unlike your own can be your teacher.”