China had been a Jesuit mission field since the 16th century. Dedicated Jesuits such as Father Ferdinand Verbiest (Nan Huairen 南懷仁 1623-1688)—no relation to the founder of Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (CICM) Father Theophile Verbist (Nan Huaiyi 南懷義 1823-1868)—made some headway in converting members of the Chinese and Manchu elite.
The similarity of the names of these two Belgian missionaries has often caused confusion among those not familiar with the history of Catholic missions in China. In 2002, the CICM General Government therefore decided to change Verbist's Chinese name from Nan Huairen to Nan Huaiyi.
As national director of the Association of the Holy Childhood in Belgium, Father Verbist had been much affected by the stories of deep poverty in the Chinese empire. After the Opium Wars and Unequal Treaties had opened the gateways to China for missionaries, he made up his mind: he would travel to China.
National Director of the Association of the Holy Childhood
Father Verbist grew up in a period of rapid social change. He was seven-years-old when the Belgian Revolution broke out and the southern provinces declared their independence from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands.
He initially studied with the Jesuits in Antwerp, but after independence he and his twin brother Edmond attended the minor seminary in Mechelen.
After he was ordained to the priesthood by Engelbert Cardinal Sterckx of Mechelen (1792-1867) in 1847, Father Verbist started work as a study monitor in the minor seminary.
In 1853 Father Verbist left the minor seminary for the Royal Military School in Brussels where he worked as chaplain until 1862. He combined his position as chaplain at the military school with that of spiritual director of the Sisters of Notre Dame of Namur.
One of the students at the military school put him in touch with the Belgian branch of the Holy Childhood Association, of which he became a member in 1859. Barely a year later hr was appointed the Holy Childhood's national director. It was in this capacity that his interest in China developed.
It was no secret that Father Verbist nurtured an ambition one day to become a missionary. At the age of 37, while still chaplain at the military school, he indicated that he had long desired to dedicate himself to missionary work.
His contacts with the Sisters of Notre Dame of Namur and his time as national director of Belgium's Association of the Holy Childhood had only strengthened this desire.
Founder of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary
Initially, Father Verbist together with some Belgian diocesan priests wanted to establish an orphanage to take in poor children abandoned by their parents and to educate them in the Christian religion, as well as a house for the Belgian missionaries who would leave with him to devote themselves to the preaching of the gospel.
Cardinal Sterckx would not allow them to leave until they were accepted within an existing religious congregation or incorporated into an apostolic vicariate in China.
On 10 August 1861, Alessandro Cardinal Barnabo (1801-1874), the prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (SCPF) in Rome, answered Father Verbist's petition for a Chinese mission. He approved the aim of his missionary project while laying out what was absolutely required to obtain the consent of the SCPF and the entrustment of a mission territory:
There must be a sufficient number of members to form a first group and to be able to send reinforcements later;
- Furthermore, there needed to be enough financial resources to pay for the journeys and other unavoidable expenses until the congregation could count on sufficient income of its own;
- But there was one restriction: the new congregation was not to ask for a part of the income of the Holy Childhood nor of the Propagation of the Faith in Belgium. The funds collected for these two associations could not be used for other projects.
Afterwards, Father Verbist was able to acquire a spacious house and a private chapel to start a novitiate at Scheutveld in Anderlecht (Brussels), to attract a few candidate missionaries and write the first statutes of the congregation, dedicated to the Word Incarnate under the patronage of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
On 28 November 1862, Cardinal Sterckx canonically established the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (CICM). He appointed Father Verbist as superior general and approved the statutes. At the plenary meeting of the SCPF, in August 1864, the apostolic vicariate of Mongolia was entrusted to CICM.
Provicar apostolic of the Mission of Mongolia
On 25 August 1865, Father Verbist with four companions left Brussels. They arrived in Xiwanzi 西灣子, southern Mongolia’s central mission station, on 6 December 1865, after more than 100 days of travel.
In spite of the official title,
Mission of Mongolia, it was at first mainly a Chinese mission, a mission among Chinese colonists. It is only later that some CICM missionaries would dedicate themselves to the evangelisation of the Mongols.
The CICM missionaries succeeded the Vincentians in Mongolia in 1866. Father Verbist as the provicar apostolic took charge of Central and Eastern Mongolia in January 1866 and in September, he assumed the responsibility of the whole apostolic vicariate.
He and his companions, who did not know the language and the customs of the country, must surely have had a hard time just trying to be good missionaries. The provicar apostolic had taken as a rule of conduct to always respect the decisions of his predecessors.
In February 1868, Father Verbist started his pastoral visit of the immense apostolic vicariate of Mongolia. Feeling seriously sick after nine days of travel, he sent a courier to Kulitu 苦立圖 in the Heishui 黑水 district (Eastern Mongolia) to request the two resident confr?res to come and help him.
One was preaching a mission in a remote village. His assistant left immediately for Laohugou 老虎溝, but he arrived too late. Father Verbist had already died on 23 February 1868. He was only 44-years-old. They buried him in a tomb before the altar in the chapel of the village at Laohugou. The CICM confr?re left at once for Xiwanzi to announce the death of the founder.
There was consternation. The entire future of the mission and of the congregation seemed to rest on Father Verbist, but he was no more.
The sudden death of its founder, almost six years after its establishment, inflicted a hard blow to the nascent congregation.
Nonetheless, in northern China and southern Mongolia 679 CICM missionaries from the Low Countries (Belgium and the Netherlands) continued Father Verbist's missionary work until 1955.
Today CICM has developed into an international and multicultural congregation with approximately 800 missionaries in 23 countries.
Father Patrick Taveirne CICM