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Martyr to a House Divided

Monument to Columban Fr. Jim Maginn in Samcheok, South Korea

By Fr. John Boles

The Korean War might have ended seventy years ago, but memories of the victims are still fresh. Amongst those who died was Columban priest, hero and martyr Jim Maginn (1911-1950). 

Panmunjeom must rank as one of the world’s most bizarre tourist attractions. Every morning, convoys of brightly colored sightseeing buses wend their way up to carefully positioned lookout points. From these, visitors can feast their eyes on the gun emplacements, barbed wire fences and minefields of perhaps the most heavily fortified border on earth – the Demilitarized Zone (or, “DMZ”) – which divides North and South Korea.

Columban Fr. Jim Maginn
Columban Fr. Jim Maginn

Tourists can also see the hut where on July 27, 1953, an armistice was signed which ended the Korean War. This conflict had left some three million dead and had finished almost where it had started some three years earlier, at the infamous 38th parallel. The victims included several Columban priests, among them one Father Jim Maginn. His is a truly remarkable story.

Jim was born in the U.S. but grew up in Northern Ireland. He joined the Columbans in 1929 and in 1936 was sent to Korea, a country which had been under Japanese occupation since 1910. The timing of his appointment turned out to be unfortunate, for just five years later, on December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor and entered the Second World War. Fr. Jim was promptly arrested as an enemy alien and spent the next four years in confinement, only regaining his freedom at the war’s end.

After recovering from his ordeal, Fr. Jim returned to his pastoral duties in Korea, and in 1949 became pastor of a new parish in the coastal town of Samcheok, not far from the newly established border between North and South Korea. This frontier had been agreed upon by the victorious allies in 1945, with the government in the North being supported by Stalin and, later, Mao Zedong, and that of the South by U.S. President Truman. Once again, the timing of Fr. Jim’s appointment was less than fortuitous.

Scarcely a year later, on June 25, 1950, the North Korean leader Kim Il-sung launched a surprise invasion of his southern neighbor. South Korean forces were quickly overwhelmed, and soon the North Korean army was bearing down on Samcheok. Much of the local population prepared to flee. Fr. Jim was urged to join the exodus, but he steadfastly refused, declaring it to be his duty to stay and accompany those of his flock who were unable to escape.

Columba Superior General Fr. Timothy Mulroy at Fr. Maginn's makeshift grave.
Columba Superior General Fr. Timothy Mulroy at Fr. Maginn's makeshift grave.

After the war was over, the parish of Samcheok commissioned an official testimony of what happened next, based on eyewitness accounts. It affirms that Fr. Jim, “divided the parish money among the believers, telling them to use it when necessary. On July 1 the communist army took over Samcheok and on July 2 Fr. James was arrested, having celebrated Sunday Mass. The communists came unexpectedly, and he asked them to wait while he went into the church to pray in front of the altar. As the soldiers pushed him out of the church with their rifle butts he told them, “I’m not going to flee, if I’d wanted to flee, I would have done so before this, so take me as I am.” Saying that he walked out of the church with dignity. He was detained at the local police station. Some hours later, John Kim Su-song, a teacher at Samcheok High School, was also arrested and detained.

Jim and John Kim spent two nights together, often the targets of verbal and physical abuse on the part of the authorities. The remainder of the account comes from John Kim’s testimony. “On the night of July 4, Fr. Jim was taken away by the communists. Anticipating his death, he blessed John Kim who was in the next cell, saying to him, “Let us meet in heaven, John; never deny the Faith,” and walked out. That night Fr. Jim was shot, martyred at the side of a little stream.” The villagers secretly marked his resting place.

By October the tides of war had changed. Douglas MacArthur’s audacious amphibious landing at Incheon sent the North Korean army scrambling back across the 38th parallel. Samcheok was liberated and, in October 1951, Jim’s body was exhumed and buried in a place of honor beside Chuncheon City Cathedral. However, the parishioners of Samcheok held dear the memory of their murdered parish priest, and down the years continued to celebrate his life and sacrifice.

In March 2023, seven decades after the end of the Korean War, the parish invited Columban representatives from all over the world, led by our Superior General Fr. Tim Mulroy, to attend one of its regular memorial services for Jim and to visit the site of his original makeshift grave. It was a moving occasion for all concerned, bringing home, once again, confirmation of how evil people can kill the body, but the spirit of the martyr – be it Jesus or Fr. Jim Maginn – lives on forever.

Columban Fr. John Boles at the Korean War Memorial in Seoul, South Korea.
Columban Fr. John Boles at the Korean War Memorial in Seoul, South Korea.
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