A hundred and seventy years ago, a French bishop took care of the Church in Hong Kong for two years. Theodore-Augustin Forcade, was born on 2 March 1816 in Versailles, France. He was ordained a priest on March 1839 and joined the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP) on 2 October 1842. He left for Macau on 20 January 1843 and arrived in ther on August 23.
Father Libois, the MEP general procurator, appointed him assistant procurator. However, after a few months, both understood that Father Forcade was not the man for the job. So he was appointed to the Japan mission, which was not yet open to foreigners.
Father Forcade headed for the Ryukyu Islands on a French Navy ship on 3 April 1844, becoming the first missionary to reach Japan in the 19th century. He and his Chinese catechist settled down in Nafa.
On 1 May 1846, After two years of solitude and hardship, a second missionary, Father Pierre Leturdu, arrived with a letter informing Forcade that the Propaganda Fide (now the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples) had decided to erect Japan as a new vicariate and that Pope Gregory XVI had appointed Father Forcade as the new apostolic vicar with the title of bishop of Samos.
Father Forcade left Japan for the Philippines to be ordained by the archbishop of Manila, but like him, the new Spanish bishop was not yet ordained. Finally, he arrived in Hong Kong where, on 21 February 1847, he was ordained by Franciscan Bishop Joseph Rizzolati, the first Apostolic Vicar of Hou-Kouang (Hubei and Hunan). Prior to his ordination, Father Forcade commended himself to the second patron saint of his baptism, St. Augustine, whom he viewed as a model a bishop. From then on, he gave up the name, Theodore, and always signed Augustin.
It is remarkable that the first bishop who led the Church in Hong Kong had such an unusual destiny...
Shortly after, the now-Bishop Forcade boarded another French Navy ship, La Gloire, captained by Major de Lapierre, to go back to Japan. The ship had to sail via Vietnam in a show of French naval power to the Vietnamese emperor. On 13 April 1847, without orders from the French government, the ship opened fire on some Vietnamese ships in Touranne (Da Nang) harbour and destroyed them.
Lapierre asked Bishop Forcade to go France to explain the situation and plead on behalf of the navy.
In Paris, after getting the support of the Admiralty for the battle, the bishop met King Louis-Philippe twice to petition the government to support of his new vicariate, but he received only encouragement. Then leaving for Rome, he met the new Pope Pius IX for the first time.
In his discussions with Propaganda Fide, Hong Kong was seen as the best place to stay while waiting for a possibility to return to Japan. (“Hong Kong had entered on a path of growing prosperity. It was now the central point for most of the relations between Europe and the Far East. Hong Kong was a flourishing colony, with thousands of British people, joined by Portuguese from Macau and Spanish from the Philippines, many of them good Catholics, not to mention the Irish garrison and the new converts already emerging from the 30,000 Chinese population.”)
Therefore, on October 5, Bishop Forcade was appointed pro-prefect of the Hong Kong mission. The Holy See encouraged him to get the support of the British government. He went to London where the British Cabinet received him. Although the British Constitution did not allow official recognition of a Catholic bishop, he was assured that he would be treated with all the respect due to his person and dignity.
Aware of the needs of the mission in China, the bishop wanted to open a
Refuge of Holy Childhood (Asile de la Sainte Enfance,), an orphanage to care for abandoned babies. While in Paris, he asked the Congregation of St. Paul de Chartres to send some sisters to take care of the facility.
The bishop's own sister, Sister Alphonsine Calixte Forcade, who was serving abroad at that time, was appointed to lead the a group of four sisters who arrived in the territory with the bishop on September 9.
The governor assured Bishop Forcade that, according to the law, he would have all the rights guaranteed by the British colony, concerning his person, his mission and properties.
He started the settlement of the orphanage in very simple conditions. On 11 November 1848, he celebrated the first Mass in its chapel. The beginnings were hard, even if the orphanage soon gained the sympathy of the Protestant community and the generosity of the British.
Very soon, it became known that the bishop was buying abandoned babies (10 to 15 cents each) and, during the few years of his stay in Hong Kong, Bishop Forcade “bought” around 2,000 babies.
Two sisters took care of the small hospital for the sick and the orphans, and two others started a small school for European girls.
For political reasons the Hong Kong mission was entrusted not to the MEP, but to Bishop Forcade personally. Yet at least seven MEP missionaries joined the work in the city. Father Napol?on Libois, the MEP procurator, was appointed vice-prefect and Father Jacques Thomine-Desmazures, who soon left for Szechuan, was vicar general.
Among the three missionaries assigned to Japan with Bishop Forcade, Father Pierre Leturdu was procurator of the mission and chaplain of the Irish garrison; Father Prudence Girard took care of the Portuguese Catholics and Father F?lix Mahon was assigned to assist the sisters and the orphanage. Father Jean Fenouil worked with the Chinese community in Aberdeen, where, at the end of 1849, he built a small chapel. From Aberdeen, they extended their missionary work to Tsuen Wan, probably under the supervision of Father Jean-Louis Bonnard, who was later martyred in Vietnam and proclaimed a saint on 19 June 1988.
The bishop himself visited and preached around the mission. Sometimes he helped to solve problems with local mandarins who were oppressing the Chinese population. Once, he even came with a big suite pretending to be a mandarin himself. On 15 December 1848, he published a mandate regarding the liturgical rules, influenced by the French liturgy, including “Sung Mass, communal evening prayers and night prayers, with solemn decorum.”
Despairing of ever returning to his vicariate in Japan and tired from his hard work in Hong Kong, Bishop Forcade became very ill. On 20 September 1849, he wrote to Rome, asking to be relieved of his office as apostolic prefect of Hong Kong. He wished to devote himself to learning proper Japanese as in the Ryukyu Islands he only learned the local dialect. His illness along with conflicts with Father Antonio Feliciani, the Propaganda Fide procurator in Hong Kong, must have also influenced his decision.
His health deteriorated, and on January 29, he went to rest in Singapore, making Father Libois the of acting prefect. On September 25, he returned to Hong Kong“full of life and joy”and people gathered to sing a Te Deum, thankful to see their bishop back in good health.
Bishop Forcade went back to work only to face a new trial: the sudden illness and death of his sister, the mother superior of the French Sisters. Rome accepted his resignation on 24 August 1850, but it was not known in Hong Kong until December 18.
Taken ill again, he went to Manila. From there, he usually sailed on the La Capricieuse, hoping that his health would improve at sea.
One of his trips brought him to Shanghai at the end of 1851 where he was able to join the Synod of the Apostolic Vicars of China, for which he had lobbied since 1847.
The assembly, which included at least six bishops, was hosted by the Jesuits in Xujiahui in Shanghai. Bishop Forcade was delegated to bring the acts of the assembly to Rome and the other bishops thought that it would be a good opportunity for Bishop Forcade to return to Europe and make a full recovery.
Returning to Hong Kong on December 31, the bishop left the territory for good on 27 January 1852 and arrived in Rome on April 6.
There he was not able to get approval either for the Acts of the Shanghai assembly, or for his plan to transfer his vicariate to the Jesuits, who seemed to have some opportunities to get into Japan.
Finally, Bishop Forcade felt obliged to resign as apostolic vicar of Japan. At the same time, he left the MEP.
At the age of 36, in poor health and without a diocese, Bishop Forcade could have been finished. But after a few months in France, he was appointed Bishop of Guadeloupe, the French Territory in Central America (1853-61), and then Bishop of Nevers (1861-73), where he welcomed the future St. Bernadette of Lourdes into the local congregation.
Finally, in 1873, he was appointed Archbishop of Aix-en-Provence, where he died on 12 September 1885 from cholera contracted while serving the sick of his diocese.
Due of his illness, Bishop Augustin Forcade spent only a year-and-a-half working in Hong Kong (September 1848 to October 1849 and September 1850 to January 1851).
During that time he facilitated the charity work of the Sisters of St. Paul de Chartres, which would have a deep influence on the future on Hong Kong health and education. With the blessings of Rome and London, he established good relations with the colonial government.
It is remarkable that the first bishop who led the Church in Hong Kong had such an unusual destiny: in nearly 40 years of episcopate, this
globe trotting bishop served the Church in three continents—Asia, America and Europe, led five different local Churches and died as a Martyr of Charity (died while serving the others).
Until the very end, he never forgot his vicariate in Japan, nor his dear sisters of St. Paul de Chartres: he kept in touch with them all his life.
(Bruno Lepeu MEP)