‘The Red Lacquered Gate. The Early History of the Columban Fathers in China’ by William E. Barrett

Book Review

Fr Conor Donnelly
Nairobi, Kenya

The history of the Catholic Church in China in the early 20th century and the lead up to the Communist take over have not been much written about yet.

Barrett narrates a moving tale about how a young diocesan priest, Edward Galvin, from Cork in Ireland, founded and lead a society of diocesan priests to minister in China. He started in 1912 with nothing and had 250 priests in the society with 250 seminarians at his death in 1955. There were seminaries at Dalgan in Ireland and in Brooklyn and Omaha in the US.

It is an interesting story of the trials of setting up any organization in the Church when you start with nothing, which is always the case.

We do not associate diocesan priests with missionary evangelization. But many countries have such a national organisation: Les Missions étrangères de Paris (MEP) in France ,  Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions( PIME) in Italy, Mill Hill in the UK, Maryknoll in the US, Kiltegans and Columbans in Ireland. Their stories are only now being written.

Communist China treated the missionaries badly. Some Columbans were martyred. Some day they may be canonized. Others were expelled at short notice and with only the shirt on their backs. This was the case of Bishop Edward Galvin of Hanyang. After 30 years of work his diocese was in ruins. The details are moving. They will be a source of inspiration for Chinese Catholics as the country opens up and the phoenix rises from the ashes.

The second world war from a missionary Chinese perspective is different. Sometimes the big powers seemed to favour the Communists. The local Chinese were treated as badly by the Communists. There was hunger. Plunder was the order of the day.

Bishop Galvin was aided by Columban Sisters, whose order he also founded, and Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross from Kentucky. He was edified how these women stuck at their posts in the extreme conditions of war, heat and communist oppression, always fostering the human and spiritual development of the people through schools, hospitals  and every work of mercy.

Not one person in Hanyang would betray the priests and nuns to the communists.

Columbans were also martyred in Malate parish in Manila, a few metres from where the Pope said Mass recently. All this is little known. These stories should be made available to young people so that they can be inspired with evangelical zeal in this century as others were in the past.

William E. Barrett, The Red Lacquered Gate: The Early Days of the Columban Fathers and the Courage and Faith of its Founder, Fr. Edward Galvin. Xlibris, 2014.

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