Three martyred at China mission

  • September 15, 2011

Fr. Prosper Bernard, Fr. Alphonse Dubé and Fr. Armand Lalonde were three of more than 100 Quebec Jesuits who became missionaries in China between 1918 and 1954. They are also three of more than 300 Jesuits worldwide martyred in the 20th century.

The involvement of Quebec Jesuits in China started with an invitation from France’s Jesuits. A few helping hands were sent from Quebec to Shanghai. But their numbers quickly grew as Quebeckers embraced the mission to China. Jesuit missionaries were supported by Quebeckers through the Holy Childhood Association and parish-based missionary weeks.

“There was incredible international awareness (in Quebec),” said Jesuit historian Fr. John Meehan of Campion College in Regina.

By 1931 the Canadian Jesuits had developed their own mission in Xuzhou Province into an apostolic prefecture — the missionary equivalent to a diocese. Aware that Quebec had once been mission territory, the Quebec Jesuits erected the Xuzhou Apostolic Prefecture the day after St. Jean Baptiste Day in 1931.

The China missions had been incredibly successful through the 1920s and into the 1930s, but things were already taking a turn for the worse when Bernard reached China in 1935. The Japanese occupation of Manchuria had begun in 1931 and by 1937 Japanese forces were launching attacks on China’s major cities to further their dream of a pan-Asian empire.

As Shanghai fell, French Jesuit Robert Jacquinot negotiated with Japanese and Chinese nationalist forces to create a safety zone for civilians — a city within the city of Shanghai where non-combatants could take refuge. The rules Jacquinot worked out with the two opposing armies eventually became one of the inspirations for the Geneva Convention after the Second World War.

Bernard, Dubé and Lalonde took up Jacquinot’s idea in their rural communities in Anhui Province west of Shanghai. The Jesuits’ became mayors of their refugee communities, arranging for housing, food and medical supplies.

They stood up to Japanese soldiers who had a reputation for rape.

In Shanghai and Nanjing, Jacquinot had leverage over the Japanese in the form of foreign press and diplomats on hand to witness Japanese abuses. Out in the countryside the Quebec Jesuits were on their own.

By 1943 Japanese forces had lost patience with the Jesuit safe zones and began accusing the priests of harbouring combatants in civilian clothes. March 18, 1943 the three Quebec Jesuits were executed. People who had been in the safe zones reported seeing a cross in the sky that day.

“The locals there already treat them as martyrs and saints,” said Meehan. “These men died for their faith and died trying to save civilians... They really were heroes.”

Catholic Register


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