Semester Break at the Passionist Historical Archives for College Credit: A Personal Reflection

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by Kerry Erlanger, University of Scranton – 2010

From left: Fr. Rob Carbonneau, Kerry Erlanger and Dr. Roy Domenico (Department of History, University of Scranton)

When asked about history, people often envision academics huddled around yellowing books filled with names and dates far too numerous to recall. When asked about archives, they think of libraries, the movie Indiana Jones, or, the worst option, they do not think of them at all. It might come as no surprise that a good many people do not actually know what an archives is or what its purpose is. Truthfully, I myself was not quite sure what to expect when I expressed my interest in the January 2009 semester break internship at the Passionist Historical Archives in Union City, New Jersey. But the prospect of having access to the types of things one might find in an archives was motivation enough. I wanted to look at some history. In the course of my internship I learned not only about the inner workings of an archive, but also a great deal about the Passionists who inspired by their faith, decades before I was even born, braved the relatively unknown land of China.

Passionist Father Rob Carbonneau, who was to direct my internship, greeted me on my first day. Rather than introduce me to the archives right away he first took me on a tour of the building, explaining the role of the Passionists as it is today. The building that houses the archives serves as one of the headquarters for the Passionists in the United States. It is home to several different offices and a Passionist residence that sat on the top floor for priests and brothers. During our tour Father Carbonneau stressed to me that the archives, though it certainly could not exist without the documents so often associated with it, depended very much on the people working in other departments to help keep it afloat.

History, Father Carbonneau said, is more than the old documents I was to be looking at. There is a living, breathing element; a humanity that draws it all together and gives life to the building we were in. The Passionist missionaries who risked their lives in China were much more than the diaries they kept or the letters that they wrote. They were real people, individuals with a story who gave up their lives with family and friends in order to traverse a foreign country in search of the greater good.

The history of the Passionists in China only lasted from 1921 to 1955, yet it encompasses a wide variety of events and incidents that make it no less important than the history of those who have worked their missions for far longer. The Passionists first came to China in 1921 with visions of extending the good news to the poor Chinese who had never been witness to it before. God was alive in the hearts of the Chinese it seemed, but they would need some guidance in coaxing Him out. I dove into the history of these missions, wanting to learn anything and everything I could. Had life been difficult for them to adjust to? How did they manage arriving not knowing the language? Were the Chinese people hospitable or hostile? These were all questions I was dying to have answered.

Photographs and Journals:

After reading several papers that described the Passionist missions in more general terms, Father Carbonneau gave me a box of photographs to sort through. Many had been sent home from China by the missionaries and were later donated to the archives by family members. The photographs spanned from the 1920s to 1950s and encompassed a wide variety of subject matter. There were pictures of the priests, landscapes, Chinese people who lived in the area, and the mission itself, as well as many other things. Some of the photographs were labeled on the back, identifying the place and people in them. It was fascinating to begin to put faces to the names I had read in papers that had been written by Father Carbonneau.

My favorite thing by far was the opportunity to look at the journals of Passionist Father William Westhoven and the scrapbook and journals of Passionist Father Leonard Amrhein. Westhoven’s journals spanned from 1937 – 1941 while Amrhein’s were written during the 1940s and 1950s. Both Passionist priests gave an interesting view into the daily lives of the missionaries sent over to China during that time. I was eventually able to compare Father Westhoven’s journals with a audio tape interview Father Carbonneau did with him in 1974.

Father William Westhoven, C.P.:

He was ordained on December 22, 1923; two years after the China missions began. He nervously volunteered to go to China in 1924 and was quickly sent to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There, to help prepare for China, he took a first aid course that taught him, among other things, how to deliver babies. Westhoven and his thirteen companion priests were the largest that had been sent to China up to that point. They were sent on their journey with the chilling words “all of you are going to work and some of you are going to be martyrs.”

The journey to China was long, but after several stops Father Westhoven and the others eventually arrived in Hunan province, China. In both the journals and interviews he describes the difficulties of the language barrier as well as customs. When the Passionists arrived in China they had no knowledge of the language and were thus obliged to study with a tutor and learn the rest as they went. As for customs, no woman was ever to come alone to the mission and they never came to Church in sandals. Mass proved to be of some difficulty for the Chinese since it was said almost entirely in Latin, with the exception of prayers that were in Chinese. For the most part the Passionists did not suffer much opposition from the local Chinese. Only on occasion would they hear the words “foreign devil” uttered towards them.

During the Sino-Japanese War in China (1937 to 1945), many of the Passionist missions took in refugees who were escaping the Japanese. They came to Hunan in the thousands, both orphans and families. Each mission was allowed by Passionist Bishop Cuthbert O’Gara to house one thousand refugees. They were given $3.00 per person to buy rice, cloth, tobacco, and other things to sell cheap to the Chinese refugees when prices at the market were too high for them to afford. Westhoven says that he was bothered by the immensity of the missionary’s task. They seemed to be “engaged in something that would never be done.” Religion was not pushed upon the Chinese unless they asked at this time because the priests found themselves too busy trying to maintain the missions. Eventually, at his mission site Westhoven opened a school to teach doctrine, which was attended by many Chinese interested in converting to the Christian faith.

Father Leonard Amrhein, C.P.:

His journals and scrapbook gave an interesting insight into the unique experiences of those priests who had the misfortune of being imprisoned by the Japanese during World War II (1941 to 1945). Prior to this, the journals describe life at the missions underneath the looming threat of the Japanese. Entries that describe the numerous air raid threats they were forced to endure are also tinged with amusing anecdotes of the teasing Fr. Amrhein fell victim of because of his height. In a letter saved from his journey to China a friend already in Hunan jokes that the Chinese are scrambling to find a bed that will long enough to fit the over six foot tall priest.

The raids continued and Father Amrhein describes his frustrations with maintaining the mission and all its refugees. Every now and then an entry is written to mark an important event in the war outside of Hunan. An announcement of France’s invasion by Germany in 1944 sits in between entries that describe conversions to Catholicism by the Chinese and the troubles of feeding so many people. It is an interesting contrast.

The mission Father Amrhein is in charge of is far from the main city and so many of the alarms only produce one plane, if any at all. Eventually there is less mention of air raids as his concerns were gravitating more towards that of the daily life of the mission. I noticed that for several days the almost daily entries stop, but then Amrhein’s small script soon returns with horrifying news. The mission had been destroyed in an air raid. Afterwards his concerns gravitate towards the rebuilding of the mission and all the difficulties that come with it. There is also mention of even further escalating tension between the Chinese and Japanese. Finally, the entries stop again, but this time for years. We find out from later letters that Amrhein has been imprisoned by the Japanese; a fate that he is luckily able to survive after several years.

A scrapbook, compiled by his family back home, contains many trinkets and pamphlets that Father Amrhein had sent with his letters. He saved every single one of the menus from the ships he traveled on both to and from China. There are also postcards, a ticket from the Rose Bowl he attended on his way to China and pamphlets from the Jesuit school in Peking he attended to learn Chinese. Most interesting are the souvenirs, if they can even be called that, from his time as a Japanese prisoner. There are meal cards and lists that detail the duties of each prisoner in the camp. I found the inclusion of a red sash, worn by Father Amrhein himself to denote him as a prisoner, to be the most chilling.

Joannes Zheng:

Along with the audio recording of Father Westhoven’s interview, I was also able to listen to a recorded interview conducted by Father Carbonneau with Joannes Zheng, a Chinese man who had grown up in the Hunan missions. The interview was conducted on May 10, 1989 during one of Father Carbonneau’s trips to China. Zheng, whose English was quite good, described from a Chinese perspective what it was like to live and work in the community around the missions. He talks favorably of the Passionist priests and his conversion to Christianity. In his mind the priests were very well liked for the most part and only faced opposition from bandits who did not care whether they were American or Chinese. I found this sentiment of his is echoed many times in the priests’ journals. Zheng is asked by Fr. Carbonneau to pray the Our Father in Chinese and he recalls the words with ease. I found this part of the interview to be particularly remarkable as Father Westhoven is also asked in his interview if he can pray in Chinese, which he does. The impact of the missions is still greatly important to both these men decades after the Passionists were forced to leave Hunan by the Communist government.

My favorite thing by far was the opportunity to look at the journals of Passionist Father William Westhoven and the scrapbook and journals of Passionist Father Leonard Amrhein. Westhoven’s journals spanned from 1937 – 1941 while Amrhein’s were written during the 1940s and 1950s. Both Passionist priests gave an interesting view into the daily lives of the missionaries sent over to China during that time. I was eventually able to compare Father Westhoven’s journals with a audio tape interview Father Carbonneau did with him in 1974.


The Passionists’ expulsion from China in 1955 was bittersweet. On the one hand it allowed the priests to return to their friends and families back in America, but they were also forced to leave the new family they had gained in China. Many of them had never entertained the idea of returning home. Indeed, they expected to die in China. When the United States Government had urged the priests to leave at the onset of World War II they had ignored them in favor of continuing the work that God had sent them to do.

Father Westhoven echoes a common sentiment among the priests in his 1974 audio interview when he admits that he never regrets his time in China. Life was difficult for the Passionists who were sent home after having adjusted to mission life. It must have been terribly upsetting to leave. Still, they retuned home knowing their efforts had not been in vain. Second generation Christians had been born and were able to enter the seminary, sowing the seeds for a Chinese clergy. They themselves were also forever changed by their experiences. Studying your religion in another language, said Westhoven to Carbonneau in their interview, has a way of enhancing your understanding of it. The Chinese Catholic Christians in Hunan are still there today, continuing the work that the Passionists began decades ago.

Editor’s note:

During the January 2009 semester, The Passionist Historical Archives was pleased to cooperate with University of Scranton Professor of History Roy Palmer Domenico, Ph.D. and provide a college credit study internship for Ms. Kerry Erlanger. In preparation for her experience, she was sent some literature on the wide variety of material in the historical collection. Upon her arrival she decided to investigate the Passionist mission to China. We are proud to publish a slightly edited version of her reflection paper written for Dr. Domenico.

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