Yuanling, Hunan, China: Peace

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by Father Rob Carbonneau, C.P.
Edited from the original for online publication

New grave marker for Catholic missionaries
buried in Yuanling, Hunan, China

Deceased Catholic missionaries rest in peace in Yuanling, west Hunan, China. Their gravestone prompts us to think in new ways about China. It is a symbol of reconciliation and hope. Take a moment to touch the Chinese characters and English words with your eyes. Looking at the gravestone—built during the summer of 2004—is a living testament to the faith and hope of local Catholics in west Hunan, China. Ponder the picture. It is an invitation to learn from this Chinese story of history and faith.

An invitation to China:

In April 2004 I received an email invitation to visit China. It was a surprise. It came without warning. Included in the invitation was the news that the bodies of seventeen Catholic missionaries who had been buried in Yuanling from 1925-1950 were to be exhumed and reburied at a new location.

I knew this to be a sacred invitation. I had got the email several days before I was to preach at the three April 24-25 weekend liturgies at St. Joseph’s Monastery Parish in Baltimore, Maryland. The topic of the homily was to be the prayerful remembrance of Father Godfrey Holbein, C.P. He had grown up in that Irvington neighborhood. To the shock of United States Catholics, he and Fathers Walter Coveyou, C.P. and Clement Seybold, C.P. were murdered by Chinese bandits on April 24, 1929.

Having written my 1992 Georgetown history dissertation on the life, death, and memory of the three priests, it was an event etched in my heart. Now the email from China transformed the tone of my Sunday homily. With the imagination of faith I knew that I was reflecting on a sixtieth anniversary that was both historic and very much alive in the present moment.

Preparation to visit west Hunan:

Immediately I alerted the Passionist leadership about the invitation to visit the new grave site. They agreed that my visit to Yuanling was a priority since it was a sincere invitation from local Yuanling Catholics who had a long-term relationship with the Passionists. Helpful was the fact that I had visited Yuanling in 1989 and 1999.

Pleased that I planned to visit in August 2004, the Yuanling Catholics showed their profound love and respect for the deceased Catholic missionaries by sharing their intent to erect a new memorial marker. The original individual grave markers had been destroyed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) as symbols of western imperialism. Consequently, they needed from the Passionist archives the name, date of birth and death, as well as the country of origin of each deceased missionary. To my surprise I learned that there were seventeen deceased Catholic missionaries buried in Yuanling. Nine Passionists, six Sisters of Charity of Convent Station, New Jersey, one Grey Sister of the Immaculate Conception in Canada, and one laywoman—a German doctor who had volunteered to work in the Yuanling mission.

Limited data at the Passionist archives meant contacting the leadership and archives of the Sisters of Charity and the Grey Sisters. The information gained not only brought the deceased missionaries to life but proved to be the catalyst for Sisters of Charity Janet Lehman, Dolores Lew and Noreen Holly to receive and accept—with short notice—the invitation of their leadership to participate in this historic trip. Unfortunately, a schedule conflict prevented Father Jefferies Foale, C.P., General Council member and liaison to Asia, from participating on the trip as he had first planned.

A Successful Tour:

The four of us had a successful trip. Local Catholics did so much to prepare for our visit. It was they who learned that Yuanling town officials were to build a new road—right through the unmarked missionary graveyard—from the Yuan River to the town center.

On Wednesday August 11th I arrived at the Changsha airport. I arrived first in the afternoon from Shanghai. Sisters Lehman, Lew and Holly arrived later in the evening via Hong Kong. Changsha is the capital of Hunan, a busy yet smaller city from where we had arrived.

On Thursday, August 12th we woke up, had breakfast at our hotel, and took two taxis to the Changsha bus station. Our group of four, and some Yuanling Catholics, boarded the public bus. Our trip from Changsha to Yuanling was more than 370 kilometers. We left at 10:50 a.m. and arrived at 6 p.m. The first hour or so was highway. This has been built in the last five years or so. The rest of the trip was into a mountainous region that resembled a trip through the back roads of the state of West Virginia in the United States. Arriving in Yuanling we had a banquet where we met the town officials—which included the mayor and the head of tourism.

On Friday, August 13th we went by bus with the local Catholics and government officials to the new grave site several kilometers outside the city. This was a spiritual experience in that the local Chinese Catholics brought with them flowers for the grave site, devotional candles, and firecrackers. Chinese Catholics sang the Salve Regina Catholic hymn in Chinese. At the grave site we took pictures. Respectfully—but with frustration—we followed the national government regulation which stated that foreigners could not lead a prayer service. Even so we could not help feel we were in a sacred place as we supported the Chinese Catholics in their prayer.

After lunch in town we traveled by bus to Maolu Lane—which had been part of the town of Yuanling on the Yuan River. Still standing and used by the government was the school building that had been built by Father Ernest Hotz, C.P. We toured more of city before supper after which we returned to our hotel for the night.

On Saturday, August 14th we went with local Catholics and government officials on a three-hour bus ride to Wuxi. That is where the Sisters of Charity had their mission site. It was of particular interest to us because that was a long-term residence of Sister Carita Pendergast, S.C. Seeing the former mission—now used as a clinic—brought the efforts of the sisters to life. After eating lunch locally, we arrived back in Yuanling where we had the chance to visit a local middle school. With eagerness the students engaged us in conversation to practice their English. I tried to practice my Chinese. It was another successful day.

On Sunday, August 15th we visited the local Yuanling Catholic Church. From there we took an hour boat ride on the river. With imagination we experienced a momentary glimpse of what it was like for the missionaries who were so dependent on river travel. Our final meal was a celebration of respect and friendship with people from Yuanling.

On Monday, August 16th the four of us took the seven hour bus ride back to Changsha. The sisters left for Beijing on August 17th. After a day of historical research in the Hunan Provincial Archives I went to Shanghai on August 17th.

The new grave stone honors the deceased Catholic missionaries of our respective congregations who gave their lives in China. The success of this trip could not have been accomplished without the love and attention of the Catholics and government officials of Yuanling, Hunan. We owe them profound thanks, respect and prayers.

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