Spring 2001 Vol. 21 - No. 121 : Chinese Women Journey through History


Candida Xu: Mother of the Church in China
Tripod Staff

        Of all the women who throughout the centuries have generously served the Church in China, the most re-markable is, without doubt, Candida Xu. Candida Xu was born in Shanghai in 1607, four years after the baptism of her grandfather, the noted Chinese convert and scholar, Xu Guangqi (1562-1632). She was born on the feast day of St. Candida, from whom she got her name.

        Candida’s mother was exceptionally devout and carefully instructed her daughter in the faith. She taught her to pray from a very early age. As a child of ten, Candida would say the rosary almost every day.

        According to her biographer, Philippe Couplet, S.J., who profited greatly from Candida’s charity, she was her grandfather’s darling. He allowed her to play with his clocks, world globes, crystal lenses and other curios. Her carefree youth ended when her mother died. Candida was 14 years old. Two years later, in 1623, her father married her off to a rich young man who, however, was not a Christian. Such mixed marriages were very common at the time, and approved since the number of Catholics in China was so miniscule.

        After her marriage, she made her home in Songjiang, where she lived either in her in-laws’ country home on the Isle of Tian, or in their city home, in the northeastern part of Songjiang. During the course of her marriage, Candida bore her husband eight children: three sons and five girls.

        Candida carefully watched over her children’s education in the faith. When she heard the priests say that families in the West gathered in the evening for prayer, she introduced this custom into her own home. Every day, all the children and household staff were invited to a common prayer during which she herself would read to them from some spiritual or devotional book. Two years before his death at the age of 46, in 1635, her husband, touched by her consis-tent goodness and her prayers, asked for baptism.

        The city home where Candida lived was only a few feet from the Jesuit residence and church. This made it possible for her to maintain contact with the priests. These contacts increased follow-ing the death of her husband in 1637.

        Francesco Brancati (1671), Philippe Couplet (who lived in Songjiang until 1675, the year he left for Shanghai) and J. Le Faure (Shanghai 1675) all profited greatly from her benefactions. Songjiang prefecture (on which Shanghai also depended at the time) was very prosperous, and in 1650, it was the most prosperous prefecture in all of China.

Candida during her early widowhood

        Candida lived forty years after the death of her husband, and her widowhood was not typical of widows of her era in China. She was a free spirit who traveled with her son through various regions in China—something not often done by women—and she did not hesitate to tell the Jesuits what they ought to be doing, and even how to do it. They welcomed her suggestions and were deeply aware that when it came to meeting the needs of others, no effort was too much for Candida. The needs of the church, of the Jesuits, as well as all the poverty around her, touched her deeply. She set about trying to alleviate every kind of need she saw. To do this she used some of the financial resources from her family capital, but most of the money came from her silk embroidery project. This project, the product of her ingenious and ever active and creative mind, insured ongoing revenues for her favorite charities. She transformed her residence into a silk embroidery workshop, and enlisted the help of her daughters, her servants and her friends. All joined her in this work, and the success of her endeavor was nothing short of miraculous. She succeeded in sending subsidies to about 25 priests scattered throughout the provinces.

Construction of churches

        The construction of churches was an overriding concern for her. To meet the need for new churches, she financed the buying of houses and transformed them into places of worship. With the help of her father, James, and her own resources, she helped in the construction of many churches in Shanghai, Songjiang, Changshu, Taicang, Nanking, [Nanjing] etc. For Candida a church alone did not suffice, she saw that each church had a house adapted to the needs of the resident missionary.

        She had a special predilection for her own church dedicated to the Holy Virgin near Songjiang, and for the main church (the one for men only) in Shanghai. For these, she hired the best artists in Macau and Goa to paint large portraits of the apostles and the four evangelists.

Basil, Candida’s truly filial son

        Basil, one of Candida’s three sons, was a man of politics. He was a government inspector whose work required him to travel through a number of different provinces. Candida was eager to accompany him. Besides helping her to escape the life of a recluse common to women at the time, and especially of widows, she wanted to get an idea of the conditions of the Catholic churches in the areas under his jurisdiction. She became his traveling companion.

        When she arrived in Nanchang in Jiangxi Province, she was struck by the miserable appearance of the little church there. She immediately bought a piece of land, and had a large church built. In Hubei, she learned that there was only one priest in the entire prov-ince. She immediately wrote to the Jesuit superior asking him to send a priest to Wuhan. It was 1657. The three Motel brothers had just arrived in China with five other French Jesuits. The Jesuit superior acquiesced to her request and assigned James Motel to Wuhan. There she built two churches, one on each bank of the Blue River.

        Candida wanted to follow her son as far as Sichuan, but this was a dangerous voyage that risked ruining her health. She agreed to return home, but she made him promise to follow up on her church construction work. Actually, he had a church constructed in Chengdu, and another one in Chongqing. Through the intervention of his mother with the Jesuit superior, Nicholas Motel, James’ brother, was assigned to Sichuan Province.

        In 1664, Basil was transferred to Henan Province. Knowing that Father Herdtricht was in the neighboring province of Shanxi, she arranged for him to meet Basil in Kaifeng in view of building a church there. The church in Kaifeng that had been cared for by the Portuguese priest, Figueredo, had been engulfed in the Yellow River flood of 1642. The emperor had had the dikes on the river broken hoping to drown 10,000 rebels who were besieging the city under the rebel Li Zicheng.

        At the instigation of the eunuch, Yang Guangxian, and almost immediately after the church in Kaifeng had been reconstructed in 1666, a violent persecution broke out. All foreign priests were arrested. They were, first sent to Peking [Beijing], then to Macau where they were imprisoned. She personally financially supported the Jesuits during the period of persecution, and during their detention in Canton [Guangdong]. Candida furnished them with subsidies and intervened with the authorities to assure that the prisoners would be decently treated.

        Her son Basil came to her help, but his efforts resulted in his dismissal from his job. Calm returned at the end of six years and, the Jesuits returned to their mission posts in 1671.

        Basil was cleared of any wrongdoing and assigned to a post in Yunnan. But his faith was wavering and unsteady. He wrote a book of moral counsels inspired by Buddhist doctrine. His mother, alarmed, did penance, prayed and wept. She ordered him to give her his writings and the printer’s blocks and she had them destroyed in the presence of the missionaries. What is truly amazing here is that Basil obeyed, made a general confession and honorable amends profoundly eager to appease the grief of his mother.

Working for women

        Her deep concern for the construction of churches did not exclude other works of charity. Candida was particularly concerned about the need for women to be better instructed in the Christian faith.

        Tradition posed a serious problem to the Jesuits in the education of women. Women also found receiving the Sacrament of Penance very difficult. Aware of this difficulty, Candida invited the young ladies to come and greet the priests. Candida felt that a great deal of the difficulty would be alleviated if the women got to know the fathers better.

        To enhance the knowledge of the women’s faith, she gathered devout women in her own home. There she herself instructed them. Since girls at that era could not easily leave the house, she begged the priests to leave their astronomical pursuits and their philosophical studies for a while, and compose spiritual texts and to translate devotional literature for the girls and the women.

Concern for her own household

        Aware of the needs for better instruction in the faith within her own household, she diligently catechized her family members and the large number of the persons under her charge. She also worked hard to bring renegades back to the faith.

Extraordinary sensitivity to every kind of need

        Her ability to be attentive to every need and her sensitive courtesy in every situation was nothing short of amazing. When Couplet set sail for his historic voyage to Europe (1680), she gave him a gift of beautiful embroidery, and a chalice for the churches of St. Francis Xavier in Rome, Malines and Paris, as well as the neces-sary sum to purchase more than 400 works in Chinese that the Jesuits had published during their stay in China in order to offer them to Pope Innocent XI as a gift.

        She very actively, though very quietly, also gave financial support to the poor Christians in her locality. She paid for the care of the sick, bought caskets for the poor who died and even bought a parcel of land for their burial. She saw that the death rituals followed the regular Chinese tradition, and she gave extraordinary attention to the families of the dead.

        Her heart went out to abandoned and handicapped children. To alleviate their situation, she financed an orphanage in Suzhou to receive the newborn, especially girls. She instructed the women she trained for this work to baptize the babies in danger of death. If any one of them did die, which was not unusual, she arranged for a Christian burial for the tiny deceased in a separate cemetery.

        Her charitable concerns knew no bounds. She was obviously not only concerned for the church’s material welfare, but for the pastoral aspects of the church as well. To this end she set up three new sodalities in Shanghai, paying for all the furnishings needed, and the ongoing operating costs. She did not leave the sodality members to fend for themselves once their physical needs had been met, but she stimulated sodality activities and encouraged believers during periods of persecution.

Mendicants at her door

        Mendicants assailed her house. Her staff and other family members were not too keen about having these mendicants all over the house. To alleviate the situation, she had a door opened in the back of the house where she set up a special enclosure for them and where she herself served them.

        When, on one occasion, she met a group of blind beggars who acted as fortune tellers, she was appalled and decided to take care of their needs immediately. She instructed them in the faith and sent them out on mission. She carefully instructed them to stop de-ceiving people with their divinations. She would care for their needs. Their work was to go out and tell the story of salvation in Jesus Christ. These converted blind people now carried the light to the poor and to a completely different stratum of society.

Candida celebrates her 60th birthday

        On her 60th birthday, Candida’s extended family gathered around her according to the sacred ritual in the Empire. There were receptions, banquets, and feasting for eight days. Candida sat imposingly in the midst of her children, grandchildren and servants. After the ceremony she took off her pearl studded silver headdress. She painstakingly took every pearl off one by one, and gave each one to the poor. While the sound of the music of the theatrical troupe filled the house, Candida retired to the chapel dedicated to Mary and thanked God for all the benefits that she and her family had enjoyed.

Praise for her extraordinary life

        Candida died on the 24th of July 1680, at the age of 73, amidst the prayers of her family and after having received extreme unction. Her grave marker consisted of a large cross decorated with extracts from the Apostles' Creed; under the inscription INRI were the three characters for faith, hope and charity.

        Following her death, Father Couplet wrote, “We must add that the moment that Madam closed her eyes, her face, without any shadow of suffering, glowed with an immense peace. Her countenance expressed such joy as if she saw heaven and the Savior accompanied by the angels coming to welcome her into heaven.”

        Pope Pius XI later cited her as a model of Chinese Catholic Action. Her spiritual legacy is still alive today, active in the dynamism of the Catholic population of Shanghai. The Old Catholic families of the municipality whose roots go back for three centuries, have remained faithful through every persecution. They owe this unusual and saintly woman, who played such a singular and irre-placeable role in the development of the mission of the Church in China, a deep debt of gratitude. She is still considered today as the Mother of the Church in China.


Golvers, Noel. “Le Role de la Femme dans la Mission Catholique au Dix-Septieme Siecle au Jiangnan: Philippe Couplet et sa Biographie de Candida Xu (1607-1680),” Courier Verbiest, Bulletin Trimestriel, Vol X, June 1998.

Charbonnier, Jean. Histoire des Chetiens de Chine, Memoire Chetienne, Coedition Desclee/Begedis, Paris, 1992, pp. 121-127.

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