Thursday 13 December 2018

'Millions of Chinese to be won for Christ!': 100 years of 'The Far East'

When The Far East magazine launched in 1918, the ­missionaries behind it were about to take on the not-inconsiderable challenge of converting the Chinese. ­Sarah MacDonald recalls what ­happened next

Missionary years: Fr Edward Galvin carrying out a baptism in China
Missionary years: Fr Edward Galvin carrying out a baptism in China
The first edition of The Far East magazine
One of the Columban schools

Sarah MacDonald

'The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." LP Hartley's famed opening to his novel The Go-Between seems an apt metaphor for the 100-year history of The Far East magazine.

First published in January 1918, Ireland's oldest Catholic mission magazine has seen many changes in its production methods, design, ethos, content and editors. Long-standing readers of the magazine tend not to be so excited about its recent forays into digital publishing and social media or its editorial changes of the guard. What matters is whether Pudsy Ryan is still to the good.

Generations of Irish men and women grew up with The Far East as a staple of their religious reading, thanks to uncles or aunts who were Columban missionaries, or their school's promotion of the magazine. Many today recall with affection eagerly leafing through its pages to catch up on the latest instalment of 'Pudsy's Diry', in which the young rascal recounts his latest antics in English littered with grammar and spelling bloopers.

These days The Far East magazine continues to publish articles on the various projects Columban missionaries are involved in, in the 15 countries around the world where they serve. The first issue was launched amid the political turmoil that followed in the wake of the 1916 Rising and as World War I entered its final bloody year. Its aim was to inform readers about a new missionary enterprise - the Maynooth Mission to China, better known today as the Missionary Society of St Columban or the Columbans. The venture was the brainchild of Cork priest Fr Edward Galvin (1882-1956) and Fr John Blowick (1888-1972).

One of the Columban schools
One of the Columban schools

Galvin had already spent four years in China's West Chekiang, an eastern coastal province known today as Zhejiang, by the time he returned to Ireland in 1916. In China, he had ministered to some of Chekiang's population of "11,000,000 pagans". The scale was staggering to the tall, rangy Irishman. He saw the potential for expanding the Church in China and he saw the material and spiritual needs of the people. "If one wants to do anything among the Chinese, one must get rid of that air of superiority which Europeans are fond of assuming. The Chinese are quick to detect anything in that way. You cannot imagine how they love a European priest who treats them as equals. I must say I have found them very lovable," he explained in one letter.

Back in Ireland, Galvin was introduced to Blowick, a young professor of dogmatic theology in Maynooth, who despite his academic high-flying was sensing a call to become a missionary. Blowick was an able administrator with many contacts in the Irish Church. Invoking the patronage of the sixth-century missionary abbot, St Columban, Galvin and Blowick's new Irish religious society audaciously set its sights on converting China.

With a surfeit of priests in Ireland, "Millions of Chinese to be won for Christ!" was the call to action.

In October 1916, the Irish bishops gave their approbation to the Maynooth Mission to China and by the end of 1917, a new seminary was set to open in Dalgan Park, Co Galway. The Vatican's formal recognition followed in 1918, which is the centenary the Columbans are marking this year.

Naturally, it was not all plain sailing for the new society. A malicious rumour was circulated by British intelligence that the Maynooth Mission to China was a front for Sinn Féin members seeking to dodge service in the British army. In May 1917, Fr John Blowick was summoned to Rome over the rumour. Some years later, he recalled: "They said we weren't genuine missionaries at all. We were a bunch of Sinn Féiners who were providing a decent front for priests that didn't want to go to the army."

Despite the hitch, discussions between the new society and the Vatican about a territory in China began. In November 1919, Rome agreed that the Columbans could minister in Hanyang, a district of the city of Wuhan. The territory had a population of five million people, the majority of whom were illiterate farmers and fishermen.

The Far East magazine reported the news: "The reveille has sounded; the door has opened; out yonder is the battleground for Christ." Later, two other vicariates, Nancheng in southern China and Huchow, near Shanghai in the east, would also become Columban mission territories.

On March 26, 1920, the first batch of Columbans set out on a journey, led by Fathers Blowick and Galvin, that would take them 5,000 miles to the east to places most Irish people had never heard of. The SS Nile docked in Shanghai on August 17, 1920 and that night the Irish arrivals were sailing up the Yangtze river towards Hanyang.

In China, Fr Galvin, who was appointed as the first bishop of Hanyang in 1927, was concerned about the plight of women. It was not just their low status or lack of education, but they were routinely mistreated. Both he and Blowick believed women missionaries would be able to tend to their needs in a way priests couldn't.

Galvin set up a local order of Chinese nuns while Blowick established the Missionary Sisters of St Columban with Lady Frances Maloney, widow of the former governor-general of Trinidad, in Ireland in 1924. Doctors and nurses were among the Irish women who joined the Columban Sisters and brought their expertise to China. In doing so, they challenged a Vatican prohibition on nuns working in medicine - especially midwifery.

Bing Crosby connection

One member of the first batch of Columban missionaries to go to China had a link with the US actor and crooner Bing Crosby. Fr Dick Ranaghan was a skilled cameraman who recorded some of the Columbans' ship-board activities as they sailed to China. Later, he filmed and photographed the streets and people of Hanyang. According to Columban historian Fr Neil Collins, Ranaghan used the footage to create a silent film to drum up support for the mission in the US.

"By 1934, it was worn and needed to be re-edited. Bing Crosby and his brother Larry agreed to do that. The new edition of Cross and Dragon was brought up to date and included scenes from the first voyage to China in 1920."

Larry Crosby suggested that Bing add 'Adeste Fideles', 'Stabat Mater' and the mission hymn 'Lift Up Your Hearts' to the film. "When Ranaghan called to thank the Crosby brothers, they suggested a record of the three hymns be recorded which the priest could sell on his promotion tours. On the B-side, Bing Crosby sang 'Silent Night'," said Fr Collins.

For three years Ranaghan used the film and records successfully to promote Columban mission work, but sadly that all came to an abrupt end when Ranaghan was killed in a car crash in Iowa in October 1937.

Columban missionaries in China faced great hardship, particularly in more isolated rural parishes. Often there was little by way of food, and no water or lighting. When darkness fell, missionaries could either sleep or pray. Though the number of Catholics in Hanyang rose with the arrival of the Columbans from 14,000 in 1922 to 17,000 by 1930, the conflict between communist and nationalist forces and the political turmoil in China resulted in those figures declining again. School enrolments dropped drastically.

When Mao Tse-tung's Red Army crossed the Yangtze River in April 1949, church property was confiscated and churches were closed. Like other Christian missionaries, the Columbans were seen as a threat by the communists. The first Columban martyr was Fr Tim Leonard, who was captured by communist bandits while saying Mass in his parish of Nanfeng and was stabbed to death in July 1929. Other Columbans died at the hands of communist brutality, including Fr Cornelius Tierney. In all, 17 Columbans were killed in China, the Philippines, Korea and Burma between 1929 and 1950. Dozens of others were assaulted, imprisoned or deported.

By 1953, all Columbans had been expelled by the communist authorities in China and their schools, parishes and hospitals were in ruins. Fr Dan Fitzgerald, who died in 2016 aged 100, recalling the day when the communists took over Galvin's final property in Hankow, said Galvin's reaction was: "'Tis lonely work losing all you have."

According to Fr Fitzgerald, the founder's expulsion from China by the communists "nearly broke" Galvin's heart. By the time he was expelled in September 1952, Bishop Galvin was 71 years old, but in a photograph of the time, he seems much older. It shows his total exhaustion.

In Hong Kong, he was diagnosed with leukaemia. Asked by Fr Fitzgerald what his sense was of his years in China, Galvin replied: "Utter helplessness". He died in Dalgan Park, Co Meath, four years later in February 1956; he was 74.

One hundred years on, the Missionary Society of St Columban has missionaries in 15 countries around the world, in places like Peru, Chile, Myanmar and Fiji. It is still getting vocations from these mission territories.

As for the bitter-sweet engagement with China, while a few Columban missionaries are once again living there, the Chinese government forbids missionary work.

Former editor of The Far East, Fr Cyril Lovett explains that these Columbans are "living out an apostolate of presence, service and dialogue. They are helping disabled people form a support network and do small handicrafts in their homes, and they are helping local seminarians with English and other studies. Their profile is practically anonymous."

Perhaps of more significance is the fact that the Columban headquarters is now no longer located in Ireland but in Hong Kong.

Sarah MacDonald is the first lay - and first female - editor of The Far East magazine

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