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Catholic Heroes . . . St. Augustus Chapdelaine

February 24, 2015 saints No Comments


Christianity has never been warmly welcomed by the authorities in China, but that did not stop the missionaries over the centuries who have gone there to save souls. Christianity has existed in various forms since the Tang Dynasty (eighth century).
The first reports of Catholic priests going to China go back to the 13th century. John of Montecorvino, an Italian Franciscan, arrived in Beijing in 1294. Although he made many converts, and he began to translate the Holy Bible into Mandarin, the official Chinese language, the mission did not thrive.
In 1582 Matteo Ricci was sent to China. His subtle approach and his diplomacy met with some small success with the emperor and with Chinese authorities. Even though he died in 1610, the Jesuit mission continued finding favor with many Chinese until the middle of the 18th century. Jesuits were appointed to prestigious positions such as painters, musicians, mechanics, and instrument makers.
However, in 1826, the Daoguang emperor published a new clause to the “fundamental laws” of China. This clause stated that Europeans would be put to death for spreading Roman Catholic Christianity among the Han Chinese and the Manchus.
Although some hoped that the Chinese government’s new law pertained only to Catholics, Protestants were also targeted. In 1835 and 1836, whenever Protestants supplied Christian books to Chinese children, they were either strangled or expelled.
Meanwhile in France, a man entered the seminary who would play a major part in European interactions with China — most of it as a result of his death.
Augustus Chapdelaine was born on January 6, 1814 to Nicholas Chapdelaine and his wife Madeleine Dodeman. Augustus was the youngest of nine children of this farming family who lived in the northwest French province of Normandy.
As soon as Augustus finished grammar school, his father insisted that he return home and work on the farm. Although Augustus felt called to the priesthood, his father refused to let him enter the seminary, claiming that he needed Augustus’ help on the farm.
By the time Augustus was 21 years old his parents changed their minds because of tragic circumstances. Being God-fearing persons, and having lost two of their other sons in death, they reconsidered their decision regarding the vocation of Augustus. They decided that he should pursue his calling to be a priest.
On October 1, 1834, Augustus entered the minor seminary at Mortain. Because of his advanced age — he was twice the age of the other students — they called him “Papa Chapdelaine,” a nickname that followed him for all his life
On June 10, 1843, Augustus made his final vows for Ordination. He then served as an associate pastor from 1844 until 1851, when he obtained permission to join the foreign missions. He was two years past the age limit to enter the French Foreign Missions, but he so impressed the men of the mission that they accepted him because of his uncommon zeal and enthusiasm.
Augustus returned home to Normandy to say a final goodbye to his family. He then said his last Mass with them and buried his sister. Having bid them farewell, he asked them to pray for him since he probably would never see them again. Then he departed for Paris, from where he left for China on April 30, 1852.
About four months later, he landed in Singapore, on September 5, 1852. His journey was interrupted in Singapore when he was robbed by bandits who took everything he had. Hence, he stayed in Singapore for almost two years, trying to replenish his wardrobe and supplies for his mission in China.
Finally, in 1854, Augustus arrived in the Chinese Guangxi province, located on the northeast border of Vietnam. This was nearly 20 years after the Protestants were expelled for their proselytizing through giving away books and preaching.
In 1854, the authorities still held that no evangelizing was allowed. Augustus celebrated his first Mass in Guangxi on December 8, 1854. Ten days after his arrival, the authorities arrested Augustus in Su-lik-hien. He spent two weeks in prison before he was released.
For the next two years, Augustus ministered to the local Christians, converting hundreds to the Catholic Church. During this time, he adopted the dress and appearance of the Chinese, wearing the black suit, growing a small but long beard, as well as letting his hair grow long, bound in a queue behind his head. He also wore the black hat common to the Chinese scholars.
On February 26, 1856, the Chinese authorities cracked down on the Christians and arrested Augustus once again. They returned him to the prison in Su-lik-hien where the Chinese magistrate had him sentenced to death for preaching to and converting the Chinese people. Augustus had been denounced by Bai San, a relative of one of the converts. He was beaten severely and hung outside the jail in an iron cage.
Along with St. Lawrence Pe-Man and St. Agnes Tsau Kouy, St. Augustus Chapdelaine was beheaded on February 29, 1856. His feast day is celebrated on February 27.
News of his death reached the head of the French mission in Hong Kong on July 12, 1856. On July 25, the charge d’affaires filed a formal and strong protest to the Chinese Imperial Viceroy Ye Mingchen, claiming the murder was a violation of the agreement the two governments had made. He demanded reparation from the Chinese.
The French officer also sent a report to the French foreign office which pursued the demand for reparation. The Chinese viceroy claimed that Chapdelaine had violated Chinese law, and catered to known rebels who had repeatedly been arrested. To appease the French, the arresting officer was arrested. It did not work — a much greater conflict was brewing.
Sometime after the martyrdom of St. Augustus, the French declared war on China. Once the French had won the war, the Chinese agreed to allow the French missionaries freedom to tend the Catholics in China. Some historians suggest that the French merely used Chapdelaine’s death as a pretext to further their colonial aspirations.
Nevertheless, St. Augustus sacrificed his life to spread the Gospel in China. Pope Leo XIII beatified him on May 27, 1900. Pope St. John Paul II canonized Augustus on October 1, 2000.
Dear St. Augustus, the Catholic sheep in China still suffer much persecution. May our Lady watch over them as the Mother of Mercy and bring them comfort and solace during their trials. Amen.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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