THE GOLD LODE by Caspar Caulfield, C.P. 1976

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The Diocese of Yüanling (28,896 kmq) lies in the mountainous southwest sector of Hunan Province,China. The capitol of the same name at the juncture of the Yuan and the Pai rivers means “Yuan-river-ford”. An octagonal bronze column erected on the bank of the Pai river about 1,000 A.D. warns the inhabitants to desist from banditry. As of 1949 this plague persisted. The gains of the Church were made despite outlawry and warlordism.

The Chinese population (5,000,000) speak southern Mandarin and are famous for peppery foods and equally peppery dispositions. The Miao, an aboriginal tribe, inhabit the borders with Szechwan province. Economically Yüanling is part of the Hunan rice bowl. The banks of the rivers are terraced with rice paddies to the level water can be lifted by musically-turning bamboo waterwheels. The higher slopes are planted with tea and a tree which yields lacquer for varnish. Gold is panned in the creeks and silver, mercury, antimony and pitchblend are mined.

Yüanling was entrusted to the Passionists in the United States in 1921, to St. Paul of the Cross Province assisted by Holy Cross Province. The pioneers over the next twelve years planted the Church in sixteen cities. Their letters published in The Sign magazine and describing encounters with bandits and the fight to overcome famine, turning even the temples into hospices for the starving, inspired many a missionary vocation in the nineteen twenties. Then came two Red Army treks through southwest Hunan in 1927 and 1933. Civil disorder led to the murder by bandits of Fathers Walter Coveyou, Godfrey Holbein and Clement Seybold. Eighteen other missionaries lost their health during those perilous times.

The Catholics who did not deny their faith became an important group. One such was Veronica, a fisherwoman, who during the siege of Yüanling when the capture of Fathers Cuthbert O’Gara and Paul Ubinger seemed imminent, appeared unexpectedly with an offer of escape. She made a condition that she be publicly humiliated and be driven from the mission in disgrace. This was done so as to remove her from suspicion later. That night she hid the two Fathers under the floor boards of her little skiff and put out to midstream fishing. When sentries shouted at her she answered boldly “I’m only an old lady fishing!” After two hours she had drifted far enough below the blockade to put the missionaries ashore and they escaped.

Yüanling was made a Vicariate Apostolic in 1934 and Msgr. Cuthbert O’Gara was named its first bishop. Shortly after, the Japanese invaded China and the combat lines thrust inexorably inland until they were only 35 miles from the Vicariate borders. Wave on wave of refugees and sick and wounded soldiers flooded the cities. Passionist missionaries bent every resource to help, assisted by the Sisters of Charity of Convent Station, N.J., and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, PA. Later other communities came to help: the Grey Nuns of Ontario Canada, and two Hungarian groups, the Sisters of Notre Dame of Kalocsa and the Sisters of Charity.

The numbers aided were legion. Shelters for 20,000 were built, and each refugee, adult or child, was given the price of a loaf of bread a day. A hospital with 200 beds was constructed at Yüanling. Clinics for the poor were opened in sixteen missions. Three large orphanages were established. When China decorated Sister Alma Marie a Sister of Charity, for first aid given eighty thousand soldiers, reporters interviewing her thought the figure a mistake. But the Sister who had ministered for years to a full company of sick soldiers brought to her clinic each day, spelled it out in truth, “e-i-g-h-t-y!” Four other Sisters died in the fight to prevent epidemics in this war stricken area. Daily bombings devastated the cities, destroying schools and convents. When the Allies entered the war nine Passionists, including Bishop O’Gara, were trapped in Japanese controlled regions and sent to internment camps for the duration. With all this the faith prospered. China in recognition of wartime help allowed religion to be taught in the schools. The catechumenates were filled with hundreds of adults taking instruction. Youthful Chinese vocations entered the seminary and the Sisterhoods.

Peace when it came brought the elevation of Yüanling to the status of a Diocese. Very soon after, Nationalist China collapsed. When the armies of Mao Tze-Tung invaded Hunan in 1949, eighteen Passionists including again Bishop O’Gara and eighteen Sisters fell under Communist rule. The Catholics stood firm in their faith. The Red propaganda cadres were forced to destroy the Church group by group. Ten priests were imprisoned as the first step, five under house arrest, and five sent to Chinese jails for periods of from three to five years. The remaining foreign priests and Sisters were expelled from China, after trial or public humiliation. Bishop O’Gara was unfrocked in the cathedral, marched through the streets in public ignominy, then penned up next to a pig sty where he suffered for a year and a half before being expelled from China for fear he would die a martyr. An attempt was made to start a schismatic church, which failed. With that the Catholics were classified as “friendly-to-foreign-powers”, a category that meant being allotted the worst land to farm and the poorest means of livelihood. The three Chinese priests and six Chinese Sisters who remained with the Yüanling Catholics were all subjected to brainwashing techniques. A letter recently addressed to Sister Ann Assunta, a Sister of Charity, was returned with the notation “this person is dead!”.

The Communist persecution marks the third effort since the Middle Ages to destroy the Catholic Church in China. Each time it rises stronger than before. The Passionist mission to Yüanling represents an attempt in the twentieth century to expand the Church into a geographical division of that continent and among a people where it did not exist before. Eighty Passionists from pioneer days to expulsion took part in this sacred expedition. Their sacrifices in the face of banditry and famine, war and communist hate, revealed the qualities of a sector of the Chinese populace in southwest Hunan so naturally valorous and good as to be predisposed to the Faith, – a find akin to the discovery of a lode of purest gold. To express it biblically, a field has been found in which lies hidden a treasure. Every sacrifice must be made to possess that mission field for the Church and to enroll the peppery Hunanese in the kingdom of heaven.

Article is from Missionlands of Saint Paul of the Cross, edited by Caspar Caulfield, CP in 1976. Biographical summary of Fr. Caspar Caulfield

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