Passionist Fathers Walter Coveyou, Godfrey Holbein and Clement Seybold (1929-2009)

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By Fr. Rob Carbonneau, C.P.

From Left: Rev. Marcil; Dr. McCord; Fr. Carbonneau; Dr. Lodwick; Dr. Lee; Dr. Kinkley

On April 24, 2009 the Passionist Historical Archives in Union City, New Jersey sponsored a free event from 1pm to 5pm where approximately 70 people gathered for the symposium: Life, Death, Memory and Understanding: A memorial celebration on the 80th anniversary of the deaths of Passionist Fathers Clement Seybold, Godfrey Holbein and Walter Coveyou in west Hunan, China.

Participants felt the historic meaning of the day in several ways. First, they learned the context. It was exactly 80 years to the day—April 24, 1929—that these priests had been murdered by bandits. Also, they were reminded that in 2004, local Yuanling, Hunan, China Catholics had been able to secure a more suitable burial site and memorial for these three priests as well as other deceased priests, sisters, and laity who had died in the service of bringing the message of the Gospel to China. Second, the participants had the opportunity to view the three painted portraits of these “missionary martyrs” which had been commissioned in the 1930s and hung on the wall of the former Passionist Monastery of St. Michael’s in Union City. When the monastery closed in the 1980s, these inspiring portraits were moved to the Calvary Spiritual Center in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. It was the recent decision by the Passionists to close that ministry site that prompted the portraits’ return to Union City where they will once again find a home with the Passionist Historical Archives. Third, given the importance of the deaths of these three men in Passionist history, it was decided to have a panel symposium on the religious, historical and cultural impact of their deaths.

Father Rob Carbonneau, C.P., Ph.D. hosted the gathering and provided a short introduction to the day from 1:00pm to 1:30pm. This was followed by excellent, 15-minute presentations by each of the following speakers:

  • Dr. Jeffrey Kinkley, Ph.D. (Professor of History, Department of History, St. John’s University, Queens, New York), spoke of his use of the Passionist China Collection in the mid-1970s for his biography of 20th century Chinese writer Shen Congwen. In particular, Dr. Kinkley remembered how his use of the archives led him to gain the insight of Passionist Father Theophane Maguire, who wrote the book Hunan Harvest. In the end, the audience was reminded that Passionist missionaries in 1920s west Hunan found themselves as part of the complex political and social upheaval at the end of the warlord era in China.
  • Dr. Joseph Lee, Ph.D. (Professor of History and Co-Director of East Asian Studies Program, Department of History, Pace University, New York), reflected on how the Passionist China Collection teaches about the longstanding faith-life of local Catholics still to this day. He made special mention of the necessity to study the expression of devotional religion in the lives of Chinese Catholics and Christians both past and present.
  • Dr. Kathleen Lodwick, Ph.D. (Professor of History, Department of History, Penn State University, Lehigh Valley, Center Valley, Pennsylvania), commented on the value of the Passionist China documentation as an impetus for greater shared scholarship into the future by scholars of Protestant and Catholic missionaries to China. Her comments are a clarion call to cultivate a new generation of scholars to study the American Catholic experience in 20th century China as found in Catholic missionary archives and the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.
  • Rev. Michel Marcil, S.J. (Executive Director, U. S. Catholic China Bureau, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey), spoke about the steady and dynamic growth as well as the challenges of the contemporary Chinese Catholic Church. Stressing their lived faith of prayer, participation in the sacramental life of the Church and their respect for the Pope, Rev. Marcil accentuated the climate of hope and reconciliation among Chinese Catholics, especially in light of their receiving a letter from Pope Benedict XVI in 2007.
  • Dr. Edward McCord, Ph.D. (Associate Professor of History and International Affairs, Director, Taiwan Educational and Research Program, Elliot School of International Affairs, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.), noted that the 1929 deaths of these three Passionist priests not only remind us of the historic dangers that were present for missionaries during this past century, but more importantly set before us the fact that there are still present dangers that face those committed to humanitarian services for the good of others. Clearly, the spirit of faith, service and sacrifice that motivated the Passionists of the 1920s can still teach us.

Indeed, the symposium was a success. All in attendance realized the cross-cultural significance of these 1929 deaths for contemporary society. Finally, all recognized the value of the Passionist Historical Archives, particularly the China Collection, for scholars and those interested with the ongoing issues of dialogue on Chinese history, culture and religion.

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