A Return to China

Oct 26, 2023

Last June Columban missionary Fr Kevin O’Neill returned to the Chinese city of Wuhan where he lived 11 years ago. He writes about some of the changes of the intervening years and the special Columban connection with this part of China.

My last visit to China was five years ago and I last lived here 11 years ago.

Arriving back in Wuhan after 11 years, I knew life would be very different – so many changes would have taken place. One thing was for sure, I no longer had to explain to family and friends at home in Australia, before departing, where Wuhan was, as I had to do when I first came here in 2009.

Conversations with friends in Wuhan during the past weeks have naturally included how they and their families managed to get through the tough years of the pandemic.

When the Columbans came to Wuhan over 100 years ago they worked in the Diocese of Hanyang, one of several dioceses at that time, located across the city of Wuhan and the surrounding countryside. Today the diocese of Hanyang continues to be served by a small number of priests and sisters.

The oldest priest in the diocese, at the age of 51, is 10 years younger than me. He is also the administrator of the diocese. Over the past 11 years four new churches and a pastoral centre have been built in the diocese.

Small Catholic communities have now grown in size and the new pastoral centre, with accommodation for over 200 people, is a focal point for the formation of the laity who enthusiastically attend periodic weekend seminars.

Another new church and pastoral centre are well on the way to completion and there are dreams for more to come.

My recent visit to the country area of Hanyang diocese was in stark contrast to some visits in years gone by. This time was a very leisurely full-day event. Together with Columban Fr Dan Troy and Ruairi Sommers, a former AITECE teacher visiting Wuhan with his wife Mary from Ireland.

Fr Kevin O’Neill In conversation with Mr Zhang, the owner of the property where Fr Charles Cullen was buried. Photo: Fr Dan Troy

We were the hosts once again of the diocesan administrator. He proudly took us to visit the new pastoral centre and two of the newly built churches as well as a newly purchased apartment – come chapel – in a growing city where the hope is for another new church to be built so that there too the Catholic community might grow.

We also visited the burial place of Columban missionary Fr Charles Cullen who in the summer of 1923 became the first Columban to die in China. He had been here for less than two years when a combination of illness and summer heat took a severe toll on his life.

Ten years ago at the request of Fr Cullen’s family a renewed effort was made to find the place of his burial.

It was discovered that the village, originally known as Ko Cha Dzae, had later become known as Bai Guo Shu. This led to a visit to the village about 200 km northwest of Wuhan, a place where the older people remembered the church’s location and a grave until their removal in the 1950s.

An elderly man even referred to hearing about the large ropes that were used during the burial ceremony, a fact supported by a Far East magazine photo from the time.

In 2013 a plaque to commemorate the 90th anniversary of Charles Cullen’s death was erected and blessed by Fr Joseph Li, Administrator of Hanyang Diocese. Those who attended the blessing met 97-year-old Guo Dong Zhi. She was just seven years of age when Charles Cullen died. She remembered him, and she remembered his funeral.

Fr Charles Cullen (1896-1923)

A visit to the burial place of Charles Cullen seemed to be an appropriate way to prepare for the centenary of his death. The original compound of the church is still as it was ten years ago. It is about 70 years since the church and grave disappeared.

A disused school building is now where older people gather to play mahjong. When we spoke with them, they said they knew that a church had existed there and that a priest had also been buried there long ago. We also met Mr Zhang, the owner of the property.

Fr Kevin O’Neill is from Australia. Ordained in 1992, he was formerly Superior General of the Missionary Society of St Columban.

Read more about Fr Charles Cullen’s life here: https://columbans.ie/remembering-fr-charles-cullen-the-first-columban-to-die-in-china/

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