Our Lady of China, Covid-19, the Legion of Mary in China


Our Lady of China
With the inscription: Mother of God, pray for us

Someone sent me this photo back in April, in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and expressing a desire that we should pray for the people of China, where the virus began in Wuhan.

That city is a conglomeration of three cities: Wuchang, Hankow and Hanyang.

When the first group of Columban priests, including our Co-founder Fr Edward Galvin, travelled to China in 1920 some went to Hanyang. In 1927 Fr Galvin was ordained as the first bishop of what was then the Vicariate Apostolic of Hanyang. It became a diocese in 1946.

Bishop Edward Galvin and Fr John Blowick
Co-founders of the Columbans (mid-1950s)

Bishop Galvin lived through wars and natural calamities, serving the people of his diocese with one desire: to do God's will. He was expelled from the People's Republic of China in 1952. In a report he wrote that year he stated the reasons the authorities gave for this.

You have opposed and obstructed the establishment of an Independent Church in China. You have brought into being a reactionary organisation called the Legion of Mary. You have engaged in anti-patriotic propaganda against the government. You have destroyed the property of the people.

Archbishop Antonio Riberi, appointed Apostolic Internuncio to China in 1946, asked the Columbans the following year if Fr Aedan McGrath could be his delegate to travel through China establishing the Legion of Mary. Father Aedan had been involved with the Legion for quite some time by then with the encouragement of Bishop Galvin.

In his book The Splendid Cause, a history of the Missionary Society of St Columban, my fellow Columban priest Fr Neil Collins writes about the experience of a young Irish Columban priest, Fr Oliver Whyte, newly-arrived in China in 1947 in a place called Nanzin where he began the first praesidium of the Legion of Mary in the district. Three other praesidia followed, in Huchow city, Songlin and Sinkadhay. Members of a legion praesidium undertake apostolic work, especially visitation of hospitals, prisons, hostels for down-and-outs, and private homes. Whyte asked the Nanzin legionaries to visit lax Christians, and to instruct house-bound catechumens. All the members of his praesidium were illiterate, except one lady who had to act as both president and secretary. Perhaps the greatest  fruit of the Legion was the effects on the members themselves. Through involvement in the apostolate of the church, study of the Legion handbook, the discipline of a weekly meeting, and prayer, they become so committed that most could resist all communist pressure and indoctrination.

[The basic unit of the Legion of Mary is known by the Latin word 'praesidium', the plural of which is 'praesidia'.]

In The Splendid Cause, Fr Neil Collins tells us, A Campaign of newspaper attacks began in June 1951, with bitter articles on the 'imperialists' in the church. Chief of these was the papal internuncio, Riberi, but the Legion of Mary was also mentioned. Riberi was expelled on 4 September 1951. Two days later Aedan McGrath whom Riberi had appointed in 1948 to organise the Legion throughout China, was arrested. The Chinese government officially suppressed the Legion on 7 October 1951.

I doubt that the authorities in the People's Republic of China were aware that 7 October was the Feast of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary.

Madonna del Rosario
Caravaggio [Web Gallery of Art]

The Splendid Cause then quotes Columban Fr John C. Casey: The next day the secret police, dressed in black uniforms or in mufti arrived . . . From now on the destruction of the Legion of Mary was the immediate target . . . Beating them, roping them halfway to jail were common methods used in the attempt to break them down . . . This went on for over six months . . . Yet not one of them broke down . . . and in the end the Communists had to admit that they were beaten.

Fr Casey along with three other Columbans, Frs Owen O'Kane, Patrick Reilly and Patrick Ronan, were arrested in June 1952 and imprisoned for 17 months. and expelled 'eternally' from China on 28 November 1953. They became known to the Columbans as 'The Four Felons'. You can read about them here. Several members of the Legion of Mary were arrested along with the four priests but there are no records of what became of them.

L to R: Frs Patrick Reilly, Owen O'Kane, John C. Casey, Patrick Ronan
'The Four Felons' after their expulsion from China.

Fr Aedan McGrath was released on 2 May 1954 after nearly three years in solitary confinement and spent the rest of his long life working with the Legion of Mary, especially in the Pacific region. I came to know him very well in the Philippines. He died suddenly at a family gathering on Christmas Day 2000 at the age of 94. I witnessed something quite extraordinary at his funeral, which I wrote about in A Heavenly Farewell. There's a video version of the article that includes the brief video of Father Aedan himself below.

Fr Aedan McGrath talks about his only friend in prison in China

Fr Aedan NcGrath with St John Paul II

Fr Neil Collins ends his section in The Splendid Cause on the work of Columbans in China with this paragraph.

The small group of Columbans in Huchow, 1946-53, trained no students for the priesthood, and their ministry in the district might seem to have been fruitless. But the most striking achievement was the formation, in a very short time - Casey's praesidium existed for only two years - of several remarkable praesidia of the Legion of Mary. The communists searched for members of the Legion who would make accusations against McGrath or the other priests and found none. When Oliver Whyte returned to Nanzin fifty years later he found a healthy church, and one faithful parishioner was the lady who had been the president of the praesidium.

Legion of Mary Tessera
Leaflet with the Prayers of the Legion of Mary

I know very little about the particular image of Our Lady of China that was sent me. Googling will show many other images of Our Lady of China but not this one.

The whole world has been affected this year by Covid-19 that originated in Wuhan in an area with which the Columbans and the Legion of Mary have close connections. But the Church in China has grown in recent decades despite many hardships. I have met young priests and religious from China who joyfully live their faith and that gives me great hope.

May Our Lady of China obtain God's choicest blessings on the people of China, on the Legion of Mary and on Columban missionaries.


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