Summer 2001 Vol. 21 - No. 122 : Christian Studies Catholic Spirituality in Mainland China


A Service Interrupted: A Brief History of the Columbans in Nancheng
Joseph Houston, SSC

        Jiangxi Province, located in the southwestern part of Eastern China, derives its name, Jiangxi, (West of the River) from the fact that the southern bank of the Changjiang (Yangtse) River marks the western border of the province. The largest river in the province itself is the Ganjiang. Because of this, the province is often referred to as Gan.

        Nanchang is the provincial capital. The total area of Jiangxi comprises more than 160,000 square kilometers and boasts of a population of approximately 34,000,000 people. The area is famous for its beautiful mountains which ring three sides of the province, and its large lakes. The most famous of these is Poyang, China's largest fresh water lake, located in the central section of northern Jiangxi. Mount Lu, or Lushan, noted for its scenic beauty, ranks among China's most popular summer resorts. The Jinggang mountains also attract tens of thousands of tourists every year since the spot has particular historical significance. It marks the first base area of the Communist led Revolution and the beginning of the Long March and ultimately, Communist victory.1

        Religion has always had a place in the minds and hearts of the inhabitants of this area. The Taoists, members of China's indigenous religion, have long claimed the Sanqing and the Longhu as their sacred mountains. These, located in the northeast of the province, also attract many pilgrims.

        The Catholic Church has had long-standing interest and presence in Jiangxi. History records that the Jesuits entered the province as early as the 16th century. In this article, after a few preliminary remarks on the early history of the Catholic Church in the area, I will concentrate on the former Diocese of Nancheng where the Columban Missionaries carried out their missionary apostolate from 1928-1953.

Part I: The Catholic Church in Nancheng, 1616-19282

Brief historical background

        In the late 16th century, the Jesuits had a residence in Nanchang City, Jiangxi Province. Matteo Ricci lived there from 1595-1598, before making his way to Peking.3 It was the Portugese Jesuit, Father Joao da Rocha, however, who, around l6l6, first brought the Gospel to Nancheng (Kienchang). A church was built in that city around l628. Da Rocha also evangelized the neighboring villages. In Jiudu, he made 579 converts and constructed a large mission compound. Alan Sweeten commented that, "No other urban or rural location in Jiangxi could lay claim to so many Catholics and such extensive facilities."4

        In the course of the 17th century, other famous Jesuits such as Frs. Prosper Intorcetta and Henry de Premare also worked there. In 1696, Jiangxi became a vicariate and by 1702 the Church had also been established in the town of Nanfeng, 30 miles due south of Nancheng.

        In 1723, Yungzheng became the emperor. He was severe and cruel though capable and enterprising. In 1724, he issued an imperial decree that forbade the preaching of Christianity in the Chinese Empire that led to the confiscation of all churches and church residences in Jiangxi. He deported the Jesuits, who had sided with his opponents. People who disagreed with him were swiftly eliminated. The Church only survived through the courage and daring of a few Chinese priests who visited scattered groups of Catholics by night, offered Mass and administered the Sacraments5. Although Yungzheng's reign only lasted for 12 years, the nationwide persecution he initiated lasted more than one hundred years. One Jesuit lamented: “The Christians are dejected....our large and beautiful missions are deserted."5

        When the Church re-emerged in the 19th century, the Catholics were concentrated in remote country areas such as Lienchu, 30 miles southeast of Nancheng. Early in the century, Rome had entrusted the whole Catholic Church in Jiangxi to the Vincentians. In 1845, when Jiangxi again became a vicariate, the Vicar Apostolic, Bernard Vincent Larribe, took up residence in Lienchu.

        In 1855, Francis Xavier Danicourt became Vicar Apostolic of Jiangxi and transferred the vicariate residence and the seminary to Jiudu. This city later became the birthplace of several priests, who contributed significantly to the Church in Jiangxi in the 19th century. In 1872, Father Joseph Yu, ordained in 1844, rebuilt the church of Jiudu, destroyed in the Taiping rebellion. In fact, it is recorded that Father Yu built 30 churches in all during his lifetime.

        Temple festivals occasionally made for conflicts between the Catholics and other residents of Jiudu. Nevertheless, for the most part Catholics and their neighbors lived peacefully together.6

        In the latter part of the 19th century, there were Catholic communities in villages and towns close to Jiudu, such as Qidu, Pakan, Gaopi, and Luki. There were also plans to establish a strong Catholic center in Nancheng. A church, which later became the Nancheng Cathedral, opened on May 24, 191l. In the early years of the new century, Bishop Casimir Vic built a church in Nanfeng. Around this time Catholic communities were also developing in Shangtang, near Nancheng, and in Lichuan close to Fujian Province.

Part 2: The Columbans in Nancheng, 1928-19537

        The Columbans began their mission in Nancheng in 1928. Bishop Jean Clerc-Renaud, C.M. transferred the area of the future diocese to the Columban Fathers on January 14, 1928. On June 3 of the same year, Father Cornelius Tierney, superior of the new mission, arrived in Nancheng with Father Peter Toal. A larger group of priests soon followed. By 1948 the number of Columbans had increased to 31, four of whom were Chinese priests. Father Tierney remained the head of the mission for less than three years. In November 1930, he was arrested by Communist activists, severely beaten, led away, held for ransom, and died in captivity on February 28, 1931.

        Tierney wasn't the first priest of the new mission to die a violent death. In July 1929, in Nanfeng, Communist guerillas broke into the church while Father Timothy Leonard was saying Mass. He tried to stop them from desecrating the Blessed Sacrament. He was beaten and taken away to be tried, and on July 17, after the trial, he was hacked to death.

Political context

        In July 1927, the Communist soldiers of the Jiangxi garrison in Nanchang attempted to seize the city. They were led by Chu Teh who had gathered a 15,000 peasant-worker army. They held the city for three days before the Nationalists closed in on them. The uprising collapsed on August 1, 1927. The rebels managed to break through the siege on August 5. A remnant of the soldiers made its way to the Jinggang Mountains in southern Jiangxi, and joined Mao Zedong and his army. In January 1928, the forces of Chu Teh, Chen Yi and Mao combined to form the Fourth Red Army. Chu was the commander and Mao was Communist Party representative. In July they moved their headquarters to Juichin, in southeast Jiangxi. In early 1929, the Nationalists forced Mao and Chu out of their base on the Hunan border in southeastern Jiangxi.

        In 1931, Mao was elected Chairman of the Soviet government, which was centered in the town of Juichin. From 1930 to 1934 Chiang Kai-shek launched Five Campaigns of Encirclement and Extermination against the Communists. The fifth campaign finally routed Mao and his rebel companions out of the base they had held for several years. During the first part of 1934 the Red Army suffered terrible losses, and by midyear it was completely crushed. The Red Army broke through the siege on October 15, 1934, and began the Long March with 85,000 soldiers. On November 10, 1934, Juichin fell to the Nationalists.8 With the Chinese armies in shambles, the Japanese army met with little resistance. It overran Manchuria and set up a puppet government, and enthroned Emperor Pu'i on March 1, 1934, giving him the title "Prosperity and Virtue." It was in this atmosphere of chaos, rebellion, violence and war that the Columbans set out to bring the Gospel to the people of the territory entrusted to them by the Church.

Bishop Patrick Cleary

        Father Patrick Cleary replaced Father Tierney as superior of the mission. Father Cleary had pursued his studies in philosophy and theology at St. Patrick's in Maynooth, Ireland, and had been ordained on June 18, 1911. He was a professor of canon law and theology and later had been named rector of the Columban Seminary in Ireland. He was described as a "tall, handsome, poised young man." He arrived in Nancheng in December 1931 and shortly afterwards wrote to a friend, "It (Nancheng) is simply delightful, with a charming church, a compound full of buildings that would house an army."9

        On July 21, 1933, Rome appointed Father Cleary the Prefect Apostolic of Nancheng, and in December l938 he became Vicar Apostolic. He was ordained bishop in April 1939. On the feast of the Most Holy Rosary, 1947, the imposing Gothic church of Nancheng was filled to overflowing. It was the inauguration day of the Diocese of Nancheng and the enthronement of its first bishop, Most Reverend Patrick Cleary.

        The diocese covered an area of east central Jiangxi Province whose population at the time was around one million, 7,396 of whom were Catholics. Bishop Cleary remained in Nancheng until his expulsion in December 1952.

Columban Sisters arrive in China

        On March 17, 1935, six Columban Sisters, headed by Sr. Columban, arrived in Nancheng. Their work eventually included running a dispensary, a school, an orphanage, an old people’s home, and a hospital. Some Sisters visited the prison, and all were active in the relief of the victims of the cholera epidemic of 1939. The Sisters were also in charge of a community of virgins.10

Parish life

        In 1937, the Columbans were preparing people for baptism in 60 catechumenates within the region. Much of the teaching was done by paid lay catechists. By 1948 the diocese had 13 parishes, some with newly built churches, many with new parish houses, staffed by one or two priests. The parishes had mission-stations where a priest celebrated Mass on certain Sundays. The number of Catholics doubled between 1928 and 1942. In 1952 Catholics numbered 9,500. Bishop Cleary was convinced not only of the importance of religious education for the Catholics, but of education in general. He saw education as a significant contribution with long term effects. He therefore, opened a primary school in each parish. In 1948 the school enrollment had reached 1,814. He also recognized the need for a seminary for the church to grow and prosper.

Seminary education

        The major seminary, opened in Nancheng in 1913, had closed in 1926. Bishop Cleary was very keen on the development of a Chinese clergy. It was, in fact, his pastoral priority. He reopened the seminary in 1936, when the seminary was transferred from Qidu to Nancheng.

        The regional seminary in Jiujiang was occupied by the Japanese so Bishop Cleary, assisted by Father John Chang, gave one of the students, James Yang, his training in philosophy and theology in Nancheng, and ordained him in August 1942.

        There were seven students in the major seminary in Nancheng in 1948. Four of the students continued their studies the following year in a safer location in China. They were eventually ordained in Genoa, Italy. The situation was such that Bishop Cleary decided not to continue the major seminary after the summer break of 1948. Some major seminarians did receive their formation in Nancheng in the midst of the upheavals of 1949-1952. Bishop Cleary ordained one of them, Joseph Peng, in August 1952.

St. Luke’s Hospital

        Father Tierney had been aware of the need for a hospital in Nancheng. The arrival of the Sisters signaled the beginning of this project delayed by Father Tierney's death. The Sisters opened two temporary wards. Then, in 1938, Frs. Jeremiah Dennehy and Thomas Ellis purchased a house across the road from the Nancheng parish church. By early 1940 they had turned the house into a 35-bed hospital.

        The hospital was destroyed in the shelling prior to the entry of the Japanese into the city in 1942, so Father Thomas Ellis decided to open a temporary hospital on the church compound. It eventually had one hundred beds, and in 1948 alone 1,010 in-patients were treated there. The hospital was taken over in 1951 by the new authorities and has been functioning ever since.

Japanese occupation and its aftermath

        There was constant fighting following the Japanese occupation. This gave rise to a serious refugee problem. Eight hundred refugees were sheltered within the church compound and every day many were treated for disease.

        Bishop Cleary described Nancheng after the Japanese withdrawal, "Nancheng City is literally no more." Only 18 houses were left intact. At the request of the International Relief Organization, Bishop Cleary established the Nancheng Relief Committee in September 1942. The money provided by International Relief was used to buy food, medicine, clothing, seeds, coffins, and to help people reestablish their businesses. In Guangchang, 70 miles to the south, Fathers Cornelius O’Connell and Bernard Murtagh took care of 1,000 refugees.

Thomas Ellis

        Father Thomas Ellis who had been instrumental in the founding of St. Luke's Hospital, was famous for his good works, but he was even more noted for the holiness of his life. Father Ellis arrived in Nancheng in 1931 and died of typhoid in 1945. Edward Fischer describes how the Sisters remembered him: "He seemed to search out the most ulcerous, evil-smelling, tuberculous, down-and-outers of Nancheng."11 He set up workshops to give employment to refugees in the production of candles, rosaries, and printed catechisms. Bishop Cleary described the impression his work for the destitute made on others:

        To those who watched him dragging his weary feet in their straw sandals through the devastated city… and flooding our emergency wards with half starved creatures… He was considered a brother to Vincent de Paul or John of God.12

Jail and expulsion

        The People’s Liberation Army occupied Nancheng in June l949. In the course of 1951 the majority of the priests were either tried and expelled, or ordered to move, or forced to apply for visas to leave.

        In September 1951 a reform movement got underway in Nancheng to promote a church independent of the Pope. In early December Bishop Cleary excommunicated the leaders of the movement and refused the sacraments to those who joined it.

        On February 8, 1952, Bishop Cleary, Fathers James Yang, John Chang, Paul Yu, Luke Teng and Seamus O’Reilly, and a catechist, Matthias Hsu, were put on public trial. Their accusers were mainly members of the church reform movement. At the end of the trial all the accused were marched through the town to the courthouse. Fathers Yang and Chang, and Matthias Hsu were sent to jail, while Bishop Cleary, Father Yu, and Frs. Teng and Seamus O’Reilly were sent back to the church.

        On December 14, 1952, Bishop Cleary was tried again, and expelled from the country. On the following day he was escorted out of Nancheng. The two Fathers O’Reilly left within a month.

Part 3: Under the People's Republic of China, 1953-2000

        Following Bishop Cleary,'s expulsion, Father Joseph Peng assumed the administration of the diocese. He was the only priest left to look after the Catholics of Nancheng. In this period of darkness the seminarians, Joseph Wu, Peter Xie and Thomas Yu, left for Shanghai in January 1953 to continue their theological studies. This provided a glimmer of hope.

        Father Peng was arrested on September 8, 1955, and eventually sentenced to a 12-year prison term. A few months before, Father James Yang was released from jail in Nanchang where he had been tortured in an unsuccessful effort to make him join the Patriotic Association. He returned to live at the church in Nancheng in April 1955, and later assumed the position of Vicar General, Over the next few years he was able to visit several of the parishes.

        By this time, however, three newly ordained priests, the students who had set off to study theology in Shanghai in 1953, were on hand to help him. They had spent up to 18 months in prison, but had been released in January 1957 and returned to Nancheng. Father Yang arranged for Archbishop Zhou Jishi, the Ordinary of the Nanchang Diocese, to ordain them in Nanchang on April 8, 1957. They said their first Masses in Nancheng on April 9, and shortly afterwards began to help out with the visitation of parishes and the administration of the Sacraments.

        Father Yang recalled Easter 1957 as a time of joy:

The Easter of 1957 was really a glorious feast for us. There were seven priests in Nancheng and we performed all the ceremonies with our traditional solemnity ... as we still had the chapel and the convent.13

        The period of Easter joy was short. The three new priests were arrested in late autumn 1957, charged with opposing the establishment of a National Patriotic Church, and sent to labor camp. Father Yang was arrested, once again, in October of the same year and eventually sent to prison in Nanchang. In October 1958 a meeting of Catholic Representatives of Jiangxi Province assembling in Nanchang, denounced him as a counter-revolutionary. In a letter from prison to Columban Father Edward McElroy in 1980, Father Yang wrote:

        Let the Holy Father know that though small and unknown to fame as our diocese is, there are in it four priests bravely fighting for their faith. They have refused to join the patriotic church at the loss of their freedom for more than 25 years. In fact, five of their comrades in arms have already offered their lives for the same cause.14

Brief sketches of the Chinese priests of Nancheng

Father John Chan

        Ordained by Bishop Cleary in 1939, John Chan was tried along with Bishop Cleary in 1952, and then jailed. He was released in 1954 because of ill health and returned to Nanfeng, where he died on January 6, 1960.

Fathers Luke Teng and Paul Yu

        Father Teng, who had been ordained in 1928, was jailed in January 1951. He was released in 1954, but re-arrested in 1958 and sent to a prison farm near Poyang Lake in northern Jiangxi. He died in 196l, presumably of hunger. Previously, in Pakan, where he was the parish priest, the Commissar had said to him that he would be forced to give up his superstition, and he answered: "It is my faith. I believe in it and I'm prepared to die for it."15

        Father Paul Yu was put on trial with Bishop Cleary in Nancheng in February 1952. He was afterwards released. In 1958, he was arrested with Father Luke Teng, and like him, sent to a prison farm near Poyang Lake where he seems to have died, shortly afterwards, presumably of starvation.

Father Joseph Peng

        Joseph Peng, arrested on September 8, 1955, died sometime between 1966 and 1968. He was sent to a prison farm, and apparently, tortured during the Cultural Revolution. During his ordination retreat in 1952, aware of the suffering that awaited him, he had said: "If I can do something for God and for the Church I shall die happy."16

Father Philip Zhou

        Father Zhou was ordained in 1928. He was jailed in the autumn of 1957. On his release he lived under virtual house arrest in Hengtsun. He was reported to be still alive in 1974, but the time of his death, presumably caused by starvation, isn't exactly known.

        Father Yang mentioned three other priests in his letter of 1980.

Father Joseph Wu

        After his arrest in 1957, Joseph Wu was sent to a labor camp where he was very badly beaten on two occasions and eventually sent away as unfit for work. After 1979 he was teaching in a school in Linchuan, Jiangxi Province, where he occasionally was able to carry out pastoral work. He died in January 1982 and is buried in Nancheng.

Father James Yang

        Between his arrest in 1957 and his release in 1988, Father Yang spent time in prisons in Nancheng, Linchuan, and Nanchang. He spent most of the time in the plastics factory attached to No.1 Prison. In 1981 he was treated for cancer in a hospital in Nanchang. Then, still suffering from cancer, he was released in January 1988. He eventually returned to Nancheng, to be cared for by a niece. He was still regarded as a criminal until his death on the November 29, 1988. A fellow prisoner, Father She Fang (a pseudonym), wrote of him in the Hong Kong Sunday Examiner on February 15, 1990,after his death:

        Because of his gifts, qualifications, and good reputation, there was no priest in Jiangxi province comparable to him... I consider myself to be very fortunate to have struggled and suffered side by side with this outstanding priest for nearly 30 years.

Father Peter Xie

        After his arrest in 1957, Father Peter Xie spent the next ten years in jail or prison camp. On his release, he returned to Nanfeng to live with a brother. He worked as a cook in a restaurant, and during the Cultural Revolution he was a gatekeeper at a local middle school.

        In 1979 he began to teach English in a middle school in the Nanfeng, and in 1988 he worked as a priest in the Nanchang Catholic Church. He died on October 22, 1995, and his ashes were taken from Nanchang for burial in Nancheng.

Father Thomas Yu

        After his arrest in 1957, Father Thomas Yu was sent to Zhu Fu prison farm near Poyang Lake. He was released in 1965 and worked with his family near Pakan. In 1966, he was again sentenced to ten years' imprisonment He served his term first in Nanchang No. 1 Prison and later at Zhu Fu. In 1976, he was given another ten-year sentence, the last part of which he served in Jingdezhen. On the April 22, 1988, he was finally released.

Nancheng today

        Jiangxi Province today has only one diocese. The former dioceses of Nancheng along with Yujiang, Ganzhou and Ji'an have been absorbed into the Nanchang Diocese under three ecclesiastical territories: Nanchang, Fuzhou and Ganzhou. There is only one open church bishop, Bishop John Wu Shizhen, who was named Bishop of Nanchang on July 21, 1990. Fifteen churches have now re-opened throughout the province. There are approximately 300,000 Catholics, five major seminarians and eight minor seminarians. Our Lady of Good Counsel Convent has ten novices in the process of formation; one of these is from Nancheng.

        The Columbans are not longer in Nancheng. Will they ever return there to continue their mission of service to the Church and the Chinese people? These are questions that have no definitive answers today, but we know that the Holy Spirit is still with the Church and that any work done in God's name will eventually reap its reward.


1 Survey of the Church in China, Vol. 1, Holy Spirit Study Centre, 1994.

2 Part I of this article I am principally indebted to some unpublished typescripts in Columban Central Archives (CCA) Donaghnede, Dublin: Joseph Mullen, Some Points of Interest re. Nancheng, Jesuits in Jiangxi.
Also published materials: Louis Pfister, S.J., Notices Bibliographiques sur les Jesuites de l'ancienne Mission de Chine, 1552-1773, 2 Vols; Varietes Sinologiques, Nos. 59 and 60. Shanghai, 1932-34;
George H. Dunne, Generation of Giants: the Story of the Jesuits in China in the Last Decades of the Ming Dynasty, London (Burns and Oates), 1962; C.E. Ronan and B.B.C.
Oh, East Meets West: The Jesuits in China, 1582-1773, Chicago (Loyola University Press), 1988;
Alan Richard Sweeten, "Catholic Converts in Jiangxi Province: Conflict and Accommodation," in D.H. Bays (ed.), Christianity in China: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present, Stanford, California (Stanford University Presss), 1996; Les Missions de Chine, Lazaristes Du Peit'ang, Shanghai, China, 1935-36; 1941-42.

3 Jonathan D. Spence, "Matteo Ricci and the Ascent to Peking," in Charles E. Ronan, S.J. and Bonnie B.C. Oh (co.eds) East Meets West, Chicago, (Loyola University Press), 1982, p. 12.

4Alan Richard Sweeten, "A Village Church in Jiangxi: Christianity in one Rural Locale from the late Ming to the late Qing, " in Tradition and Metamorphosis in Modern Chinese History: Essays in Honour of Professor Kwang-Ching Liu's Seventy-fifth Birthday, Vol. 2, Essays in English, Taipei (Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica), 1998, p. 1157.

5 Athanasius McIineney, O.F.M., "The Spanish Franciscans in the Province of Kiangsi, China, during the years 1685-1813," (M.A. thesis, St. Bonaventure University, New York), p. 69.

6 Sweeten, op.cit., p. 1171.
7 For Parts 2 and 3 1 am principally indebted to various CCA unpublished documents:
Also published materials:
Luke O’Reilly, The Laughter and the Weeping: An Old China Hand Remembers, Blackrock (The Columba Press), 1991;
Luke O’Reilly, Passing the Torch, Blackrock (The Columban Press), 1995; William E. Barrett, Red Lacquered Gate, New York (Sheed and Ward), 1967; Sheila Lucey, Frances Moloney, Dublin? (Dominican Publications), 1999.
8 Immanuel C.Y. Hsu, The Rise of Modern China, Hong Kong (Oxford University Press), 1975, pp. 674-675.
9 CCA. I -C-15. (December 22, 1931).
10 James McCaslin, The Spirituality of Our Founders, (Society of St. Columban), 1986, p. 204.
13 O'Reilly, op. cit., The Laughter and the Weeping, p. 180.
14 Ibid., p. 189
15 Ibid., p. 85.
16 Ibid., p. 178. 

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