Friendship in Fenghuang, West Hunan, China

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Introduction by Fr. Rob Carbonneau, C.P.

The story is familiar in the China Catholic missions of the 19th and 20th century. So-called Chinese pagans approached the mission gates to seek physical assistance or food. On the one hand, both parties knew that spiritual assistance or reception of the Catholic sacraments was not the priority. On the other hand, both parties had confidence in the blind faith of the moment. It was a story told monthly in Catholic or Protestant mission magazines once the end of the 1842 Opium War opened the treaty ports to foreigners. This in turn led generous American and European Catholics to donate money and offer many a prayer for anonymous Chinese people.

Kindness and relief work changed lives forever. The ensuing essay by Dr. Dali Tan reminds us that the people in the mission magazines then or now were not anonymous. In fact, the essay once again extols the value and importance of missionary archives.

In September 2002 I received a letter from Dr. Tan. She wanted information to make a meeting between her father and a Passionist priest missionary, Jeremiah McNamara, in Fenghuang, Hunan, China comes to life. I suggested she consult the Passionist archives website. Finding that helpful, the China collection of the Passionist Historical Archives was able to produce a back issue of “With the Passionists in China” and other resources about West Hunan, China. Her contemporary story of friendship in Fenghuang, West Hunan is a living legacy of trust, study, reconciliation, and cross-cultural guangxi or relationships. In other words, the acknowledgments which begin her essay are an important contemporary historical record.

Since 1999 Dr. Tan has been on the faculty of the Landon School, Bethesda, Maryland. She has taught or is currently teaching Chinese I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII and VIII. She has also worked as the Director of the six-week Landon-in-China summer language immersion program in 2001 and 2002. Due to the SARS outbreak, the 2003 summer program had to be cancelled. In 1982 she obtained a B.A. in English, Heilongjiang University, China. An M.A. in English and American Literature, Liaoning University, China followed in 1985. In 1997 she graduated with a Ph. D. in Comparative Literature, University of Maryland, College Park. Dr. Tan has published and lectured widely. In June of 2003, Dali Tan was selected as the most influential teacher by 2003 Maryland Presidential Scholar, Raleigh Martin and received the Teacher Recognition Award from the U.S. Department of Education.

The Passionist Heritage Newsletter thanks Dr. Tan for permission to publish this friendship story. Originally, the essay printed below was part one of a 2003 two-part paper entitled “Tracing a 65-Year Old Tie of Friendship between a Chinese Family and Two Americans.” Made possible by a grant from the Schinnerer family, the second section was entitled “My Uncle Yingke Tan and Mr. Joseph E. Stepanek.” You may contact Dr. Tan at [email protected].    -Editor, Father Rob Carbonneau, C.P.

How Shen-fu Ye Shiduo, Passionist Father Jeremiah McNamara,
saved the life of my father Tan Changming in 1937

by Dr. Dali Tan, Ph.D.

Father Jeremiah McNamara, C.P.


My first thanks go to the Schinnerer family for this great opportunity. I would like to especially thank Damon Bradley and other Schinnerer grant committee members for their endorsement of this project. I would also like to give special thanks to Ellie Johnson for encouraging me to apply for a Schinnerer grant to trace the tie and to Robert Mooney for helping me find information on the internet. I am very grateful to Mr. Bao Dingguo from Fenghuang, Hunan Province for providing vital information and guiding us in our long finding journey in Fenghuang. For guiding us through the Western part of the Hunan during our entire trip and providing all the necessary logistics, I would especially thank Mr. Liu Zhigan.

I also would like to express my deep appreciation to Father Gao Fuyou, Paul Fan, Father Robert Carbonneau and the Passionist Historical Archives in New Jersey for providing me crucial information for this project. For their unfailing technical support throughout the entire process of putting this report together, I would like to thank Marlene Sclar, Jean Jeffress and Liz Blasco. Last, but certainly not the least, I want to thank my parents, Changming Tan and Yong Fu, my Uncle Yingke Tan and Toni and Joseph Stapanek for all their help on this finding journey. Without their enthusiastic encouragement and support, the successful completion of this project would have been unthinkable.


When my father Changming Tan was infected with malignant dysentery at the age of eight, it was an American priest (Ye Shiduo in Chinese), who saved his life. When my uncle Yingke Tan contracted TB in 1949, it was an American, Mr. Joseph E. Stepanek, who loaned him some money so he could have complete bed rest and get recuperated. When I was young, these two family stories had moved me deeply and aroused my curiosity about the far away country called the United States. This family tie with those two Americans has greatly influenced my professional choice as well as my personal life.

My Father Tan Changming and Ye Shiduo: Passionist Father Jeremiah McNamara

When my father was eight years old, my grandfather Tan Jutao was the magistrate for the County of Fenghuang, Hunan for a year (1937-1938). During that year, he worked diligently with his predecessor to prevent the bandit gang breaking into the town of Fenghuang and successfully made the bandit gang abandon their siege. Not very long after that, my grandfather was transferred to Xupu, and then Anxiang, another troublesome place. Before the family left the town, my father got very sick from malignant dysentery in 1937. It was during the time of the Anti-Japanese War which had begun that same year. It did not take long before there was a dire shortage of medical supplies and services throughout China. This shortage even reached into interior Hunan Province. At loss as to what to do, my grandfather dropped into the Catholic Church in despair. An American priest asked him “What is the matter? Your face is covered with gloomy cloud?” When he heard the situation, the priest said to my grandfather “Hurry up and take the boy here. I am a doctor.” That was how my father’s life was saved. All my father had were the two sources: the incomplete name, the Chinese title for the American priest (Ye Shiduo) and the incomplete place name, the Catholic church in the town named Fenghuang in the western part of Hunan Province.

My Reconciliation Journey Back to Hunan

With the help of the Schinnerer grant, I went back to China and accompanied my father in our journey to trace Ye Shiduo’s whereabouts. Our first stop was Zhijiang, Hunan because we heard that it has a Catholic church with an active congregation. We met a Chinese priest, Father Gao Fuyou, and related to him the purpose of our journey. Father Gao told us that he himself had gone to Fenghuang to look for the old church but without any success. Needless to say, both my father and I were very much disappointed at the news. The good news was that Father Gao possessed a copy of the Chinese translation of a missionary memoir Havoc in Hunan: The Sisters of Charity in Western Hunan, 1924-1951 (Morristown, N.J.: College of St. Elizabeth Press, 1991) by Sister Mary Carita Pendergast, a Sister of Charity who was a missionary in the Yuanling Diocese from 1934 through 1954. In this book, we found Ye Shiduo’s name in English-Father Jeremiah McNamara. We also learned that he was a Catholic priest in the Passionist religious order. Even though Father McNamara’s church was located within Yuanling Diocese, almost nothing was told about him in this book. Against all odds, we decided to go to Fenghuang ourselves and thought that our journey would not be in vain even if we could find the ruins or relics of that church.

In the ancient town of Fenghuang, we were lucky enough to be introduced to Mr. Bao Dingguo who lived in the vicinity of the church when he was a young boy. He used to play inside the church which he remembered as having a very tall ceiling and colorful windows. He took us there and we found the entire foundation of the church and some buildings that used to belong to the church. We went into the dilapidated building and my father thought that it was the church hospital where he was hospitalized for more than two weeks. Besides remembering Ye Shiduo and the sisters who nursed him back to health, my father also recalled that the cream of potato soup was very delicious. The potato and tomato were all planted by the church personnel.

Who was Father McNamara?

Later, Robert Mooney helped me find some more information about Father Jeremiah McNamara, C.P., St. Paul of the Cross Province from the internet. Through the Chinese priest Father GAO, I was able to contact Father Rob Carbonneau at the Passionist Historical Archives in New Jersey, who helped me locate a couple of photos of Father MacNamara and some of his articles in a column called “The Passionists in China” in The Sign Magazine. Born on April 2, 1898 in Philadelphia, Father McNamara attended St. Francis Assisi School there and the Passionist Preparatory Seminary in Baltimore, Maryland. From 1924 until 1945, he was a China missionary in Human. He died of heart failure in Jamaica, New York on June 3, 1971 after three years of extended illness.

In his articles, Father McNamara showed great dedication and devotion to his cause during a very difficult time and in a very remote and impoverished area of Human where people lived in the dark shadow of atrocious war, deadly diseases and lawless bandits. But first of all, he was a very kind and compassionate person. Writing back to the readers of The Sign Magazine from his post in Human, China, Father McNamara describes the bleak condition of the time. “To be sure, we are not in the battle zone, but we cannot but feel the effects of the terrible struggle which is still going on. The drain on the man power, the finances, the morale of the country is far-reaching. Prices are soaring” (“Sister Joseph’s Homecoming,” The Sign Magazine, 17 April 1938:546).

Father McNamara continues in his article to inform his readers about the crimes of the bandits. “Langton, Supu, [Xupu] Fenghwang [Fenghuang], and the whole Marang valley are affected by these lawless bands who have taken occasion of their country’s distress to harass the people. Perhaps, in the absence of the regular troops, the country folk themselves will eventually find a way to put a stop to the banditry” (Ibid, 547).

At the end of the article, Father McNamara pleaded to his readers for help: “We ask our friends not to fail us in this hour of need. We ask for more prayers for peace, and for more help for our material wants. Unless we are forced out, we shall continue at our posts… I would like to remind our readers that, though we suffer, these good people to whose spiritual welfare we are devoting our lives, suffer still more. Few of them make the headlines. They live and die unknown to the world. But they know pain and poverty and heartache. It does not make their anguish less that they are not vocal.

“They are God’s children, just as truly as we are. In a real sense we are all our brother’s keepers. If in the grace of Faith and the abundance of this life’s goods we have no thought of those less fortunate, surely our Divine Lord will ask a reckoning. …I am sure, however, that it is not merely with the thought of recompense that our Catholics give to the missions. They see in their afflicted and needy fellowmen the image of their Maker. It is in His name that we beg for your help. Please do not fail us.” (Ibid, 547)

During our long finding journey, we also met Mr. Yao Chunsheng who heard about the purpose of our trip and came from another county (Xupu) and volunteered to assist us at Fenghuang. He is a native of Yuanling and when he was a child, an American Catholic priest cured his disease and saved his life.

What I have learned

My father tried to find Ye Shidou by writing letters to Fenghuang, but all his correspondence was like a stone dropped in the bottomless ocean. He was certainly grateful to finally find the church, and see Father McNamara’s pictures, and read his writings found in the Passionist Archives.

My father writes: “The victory of Christianity lies in its spiritual power. The true salvation is the self-salvation of the soul. During the development of capitalism, material gains blinded people’s eyes in many western countries while the Christian spirit has been the spiritual pillar to purify the souls and provide social stability. It would by no means be an exaggeration to say that Christianity created the Western civilization. Christianity does not only belong to the West, it also should be the cultural heritage of all the human kind. During the East and the West cultural exchanges, if the westerners rejected the culture of Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism of the East, we people from the East would definitely find it ridiculous. In the same light, if we reject Christianity, would we not be very ridiculous also?”

My father was very pleased to see that Catholic culture has its followers in Western Hunan. The Chinese church puts its emphasis on the rural and poor areas. It is definitely the right path. However, my father thinks that the Chinese church should also try its best to deepen the merge and mutual assimilation the Catholic culture and the Chinese culture and bring this merge and assimilation to a much higher level. Only in this way will Catholic culture take root in China.

During our trip, our guides took us to see the Southern Great Wall along the border between Fenghuang County and Tongren County in Guizhou Province. This meandering wall was built to prevent the armed conflicts between the Han people and the Miao Ethnic minority people and to maintain a comparatively stable peaceful environment and economic and cultural exchanges between the two ethnic groups. Unlike the world famous Northern Great Wall of China, the Southern Great Wall of China has been unknown to the majority of the Chinese until very recently. The Southern Great Wall has lost its military defense function and become a historical testimony for the merge and mutual assimilation of different cultures through conflicts. I sincerely believe that in a similar way, the cultures of China and the United States will have a very bright future through merge and mutual assimilation.

I would like to borrow a poem by Emily Dickinson to eulogize all the American friends like Father McNamara who helped Chinese people in their time of need:

If I can stop one Heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain
If I can ease one Life the Aching
Or cool one Pain

Or help one fainting Robin
Unto his Nest again
I shall not live in Vain.

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