Passionist Father Marcellus White A Living Legacy

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by Fr. Rob Carbonneau, C.P.

Father Marcellus White, C.P. visits in China

The Passionist Historical Archives is pleased to announce:

A gift of $10,000 has been given to St. Paul of the Cross Province by the family of Passionist Father Marcellus White. It is their wish to establish THE FATHER MARCELLUS WHITE, C.P. CHINA EDUCATION AND FRIENDSHIP TRUST. It is administered through the offices of the Passionist Historical Archives, 526 Monastery Place Union City, NJ 07087.

Father Marcellus White loved China.

From 1935 until 1955 he was a missionary in the western region of Hunan province. His zeal for the Gospel was obvious in his tireless desire to administer the sacraments to Chinese Catholics. Likewise, he showed incredible compassion for the many Chinese refugees displaced by war in China during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. During the 1940s Father Marcellus was even a part-time chaplain to pilots from the famous “Flying Tigers” squadron led by Claire Chennualt. One of their air fields was in Zhijiang, [Chihkiang] Hunan, the same place where the Passionists and Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, Pennsylvania had a parish mission.

Father Marcellus White was born November 28, 1908 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He died on May 15, 2002 in Brockton, Massachusetts. The son of Richard and Johanna Deasy White, he attended St. Mary’s High School, Waltham, Massachusetts from 1922 until 1926. He then entered the Passionists. On August 15, 1928, he professed his Passionist vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and his promise to promote the memory of the Passion of Jesus. This was done in West Springfield, Massachusetts. Richard was his baptismal name; Marcellus was his religious name. Seminary training followed. He was ordained a Passionist priest on April 28, 1934 in Scranton. After another year in Scranton, Pennsylvania for Sacred Eloquence—a training course in preaching—he was assigned to the Passionist mission in Hunan, China.

Little did Father Marcellus White suspect, however, that he would become most famous because he was imprisoned by the Chinese Communists. Arrested on February 24, 1952 in Yungshun, Hunan, he was transferred to the Yuanling, Hunan jail. There he lived, eventually, in solitary confinement with his fellow Passionist Father Justin Garvey, who was also arrested. All their actions were monitored even to the point of standing or sitting. Both Fathers Marcellus and Justin were arrested because the Communists considered them to be imperialists. Eventually both were released on November 19, 1955 into Hong Kong.

A behind the scenes account of this picture is that it was Pope Pius XII himself who wanted to have his picture taken with Fathers White (on the left) and Garvey (on the right) when they met him after their release from prison. Normally he did not always agree to photo opportunities.

Some people may be very surprised to hear that Father Marcellus thought that his best years as a Passionist priest were his two years in prison. He told me this in 1989 when I had the privilege of having Father Marcellus as my tour guide through West Hunan, China. Prison was the highpoint of his priesthood, because he had to accept the gift of absolute trust in God. Simply put, he let God love him. This was freeing to him. How? He accomplished such freedom of spirit and heart in prison by reciting childhood prayers and devotions, remembering his Passionist novitiate and seminary prayers, saying the Rosary, and constantly calling to mind the love of his fellow Passionists, friends, family, and Chinese people. In prison he was free to let God love him. Before, he informed me, he had always been told to love God. This was a simple thought and also a command. In prison such a command was reduced to a kind of emptiness which required that he let God into his life. He found God there because he was open to let God find him In essence, he, Father Marcellus White, was freed in prison!

Released, he emerged with more zeal. From 1958 until 1993 he was sent again to be an overseas missionary in the Philippines. He loved the United States, the Philippines, and any other place where he traveled or lived. But he never got tired of sharing news about China. For him it was about God and a personal experience of reconciliation. Yet, in reality his stories about China were always his faith stories about his experience of God.

The purpose of the Father Marcellus White Trust

When Father Marcellus died on May 15, 2002 in Brockton, Massachusetts, it was the wish of his sister Mary O’Brien to keep alive his love and understanding for China.

The Trust was established in 2003. Trust monies will be used in the following two areas:

  • Since 1921 the Passionists have always tried to maintain friendly relations with the people and the Catholic Church in China. In furtherance of that goal, this portion of the trust shall be used to sustain activities designed to continue such friendship with Catholics in Hunan Province and/or to sustain the Catholic Church in China. At present plans are being put in place to disperse monies from this section of the trust. They may be applied to this end on an annual basis.
  • Given the importance of the China collection in the Passionist Historical Archives, this portion of the trust shall be used to sustain the diverse efforts of the Passionists and/or their representatives to promote public education of the Passionist history in China. Whenever possible, attention should be given to the use of the Passionist Historical Archives. They may be applied to this end on an annual basis.

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