China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2018/Jul

A brief history of Our Lady of China

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his 2007 Letter to Catholics in China, invited Catholics all over the world to pray for the Church in China on May 24. In this section of “A day of prayer for the Church in China,” he wrote:

Dear Pastors and all the faithful, the date 24 May could in the future become an occasion for the Catholics of the whole world to be united in prayer with the Church which is in China. This day is dedicated to the liturgical memorial of Our Lady, Help of Christians, who is venerated with great devotion at the Marian Shrine of Sheshan in Shanghai. (Papal Letter to China 2007, 19).

Sheshan in Shanghai, has been famous as a pilgrimage attraction in Eastern China since 1920s. But the title of Our Lady of China was used not in Shanghai at first, but in another famous pilgrimage place in northern China, Donglu (東閭) Village, in the Diocese of Baoding in Hebei.

In 1924 the apostolic delegate to China, Archbishop Celso Costantini (剛恆毅), called for the first Council of China in Shanghai. One of the main resolutions of the council was to devote the Church in China to Our Lady. And the Madonna of Donglu Church was considered the standard Portrait of Our Lady of China. Since then, Our Lady’s Church in Donglu has been an important pilgrimage attraction for Catholics in China.

The Apparitions in Donglu

Our Lady of China is the name given to the Blessed Virgin Mary who first appeared in Donglu Village in 1900. It was the time of the Boxer Rebellion.

According to Jean Charbonnier, a priest of the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP), in June 1900, 40,000 Boxers attacked the village of Donglu, which is situated about 150 kilometers south of Beijing. The 700 or so Christians, plus over 9,000 refugees, had organised their defense. Four times the Boxers attacked and were repelled with losses (Charbonnier, 2002, p.337).

The Boxers did not give up easily. After one month they came again with more backup. Father Charbonnier further wrote:

In July the Boxers appealed for help to the imperial army. Several thousand soldiers, armed with rifles and antiquated cannon, attacked the village, forty-four times it is said. Each time they were repelled, leaving cannon and rifles on the ground (Charbonnier, 2002, p.337-338).

Eventually, the village survived all attacks with minor casualties. Several Boxers became Christians afterwards. They reported that what had frightened them most was a Lady in White, who often appeared above the place. A sure sign, they thought, that anyone who entered the village would not get out alive (Charbonnier, 2002, p.338).

The local Christians believed that it was Our Lady’s apparitions that saved the faithful community from their enemy. So they started the adoration to Our Lady at the huge church in the village.

The Virgin Mary appeared in white and a fiery horseman (believed to be St. Michael) chased away the soldiers. The pastor of Donglu, Father Wu, commissioned a painting of Mary with the Christ child dressed in golden imperial robes. This painting became the image of Our Lady, Queen of China.

Donglu became a place of pilgrimage in 1924. The image was blessed and promulgated by Pope Pius XI in 1928.

Sheshan Basilica and the statue of Our Lady

Sheshan Basilica of Mary, Help of Christians is one of the most prominent pilgrimage shrines in China.

No doubt, Shanghai is an important city in eastern China. It is the hometown of Xu Guangqi, one of the three pillars of lay Christianity in 16th century. In 1840s, after the Nanjing Treaty, European Jesuits revisited this eastern entry of Yangtze River after 200 years of absence.

They found the Xu family members were still devoted Catholics even though they had received no priestly ministry for more than 200 years. Then Shanghai developed into one of the most important ports of entry to China for missionary.

The shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Sheshan is located in Songjiang District, western Shanghai. In 1863, the then superior of the Jesuit community in Shanghai purchased property on the south side of the mountain of Sheshan and built a retreat house for retired Jesuit Fathers, with a small chapel next door.

On 1 March 1868, Bishop Adrien Languillat, SJ, apostolic vicar of Jiangnan (covering Shanghai and surrounding provinces in the Eastern part of China), consecrated the chapel and blessed the statue of Our Lady Help of Christians.

The reason why a small chapel eventually was rebuilt as a huge basilica varied according to different sources. Some said it was because of the threat of the Taiping Army (1850-1864) while others attributed the reason to the worries aroused by the burning of churches in Tianjin in 1870.

Anyway the Jesuit in Shanghai promised to build a basilica on top of Sheshan to be dedicated to Our Lady, if they were able to survive the troubled periods. Finally on 15 April 1873, the basilica was consecrated by Bishop Languillat. In 1874, Pope Pius IX granted an indulgence for those who completed a pilgrimage to the Shrine during the month of May.

Dedication of the Church in China to Our Lady in 1924

At the close of the above-mentioned Shanghai Synod, Archbishop Costantini, along with all the bishops of China, consecrated the Chinese people to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Sheshan Basilica of Shanghai was built in 1935, and was chosen to be the first basilica in the Far East by Pope Pius XII in 1942. A statue of the Madonna was placed on top of the structure. During the Cultural Revolution, the statue and the basilica were destroyed and basilica was confiscated by the local government.

In May 1981, the People’s Government of Shanghai returned Sheshan Basilica to the Diocese of Shanghai.

The basilica was renovated in the 1980s, and the statue was replaced on the top in 2000. The new statue features a standing Blessed Virgin Mary carrying the Child Jesus on her head, while his arms reach out in a cruciform gesture. The base of the statue is the original one – that of a Chinese dragon – the whole representing Our Lady stepping on the head of the devil. A bronze replica of the statue was placed inside the basilica.

In his 2007 papal letter to Chinese Catholics Pope Benedict invited Catholics all over the world to join in the prayer for the Church in China on this special date. He wrote:

I would like that date (May 24) to be kept by you as a day of prayer for the Church in China. I encourage you to celebrate it by renewing your communion of faith in Jesus our Lord and of faithfulness to the Pope, and by praying that the unity among you may become ever deeper and more visible. I remind you, moreover, of the commandment that Jesus gave us, to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us, as well as the invitation of the Apostle Saint Paul: ‘‘First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way. This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4); (Papal Letter to China 2007, 19).

Anthony Lam,
18 April 2018

Joseph Tsu, 1934, (Parvus Tractatus de Peregrinationibus B. M. V. in Sinis)
Charbonnier, Jean, 2002, Christians in China: A.D. 600 to 2000, Ignatius Press, San Francisco.