Columban Pentecost

May 12, 2023

As the Church prepares for Pentecost on Sunday 28th May 2023, Fr Donal McIlraith considers the Columban Pentecost which has seen between one and two thousand priests, brothers and Lay Missionaries, like Peter, speaking foreign tongues and bringing the good news of the risen Jesus for over 100 years.

Pentecost comes from a Greek word that means fifty. The Jewish people had three great feasts each year on which people went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The first was Passover. This was the celebration of their redemption from Egypt. Each year the Jewish people relive the Passover by eating lamb, the Passover lamb whose blood on the door had saved them and the unleavened bread, the Mazzoth. Jesus died at Passover.

Fifty days later, they had Pentecost. This was originally a harvest festival, and they celebrated the covenant and the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. The third great feast was Tabernacles of the feast of Booths. This occurred later in the year and celebrated both the people living in booths or tents in the desert and their acquisition of the Holy Land.

St Luke tells us in Acts 1-2 of the coming of the Spirit and the Church’s birth at Pentecost. We are all familiar with the events. First, Jesus tells the Apostles to remain in Jerusalem until the Spirit is given. They pray this first novena with Mary and the first Christian community.

Next, Peter instigates the election of the twelfth apostle, Matthias, to fill the place of Judas. Finally, on Pentecost day, they are all filled with the Spirit, who comes to them in tongues of fire and enables them to speak many foreign languages.

The pilgrims in Jerusalem are amazed to hear them speak in their languages. This is also a sign of the mission which the Spirit is inaugurating. The mission will bring them out of the timidity they had been hiding and give them the courage to proclaim the risen Christ to all the world in people’s own language. Peter is a great example of this.

Immediately after receiving the Spirit, he preached: “This Jesus, God raised, and of that, we are all witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this which you see and hear.”

Accepting Christ and being baptised makes each person a temple of the Holy Spirit as Paul reminds us in 1 Cor 6:19. We receive the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal 5:22-23). We also enjoy the gifts of the Spirit: wisdom, understanding, council, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord (Isa 11:2-3 LXX).

The Columbans were not founded through a vision or a revelation given to the founders, as has sometimes happened. We were founded because two Irish diocesan priests let themselves be guided by the Holy Spirit. We are a diocesan Pentecost. First came Edward J. Galvin and then John Blowick.

The Columban Pentecost finally consisted of between one and two thousand priests, brothers and Lay Missionaries, like Peter, speaking foreign tongues and bringing the good news of the risen Jesus to millions over the last 100 years.

An American author, William Barrett, wrote about the life of Bishop Galvin in a book called ‘The Red Lacquered Gate.’ So far, we have yet to get a similar book on Fr Blowick. Therefore, in speaking of how Pentecost happened for the Columbans, we must first look at the life of these two. Since we have more information on Bishop Galvin, I will be able to say more about him.

Birth of a Founder

Unlike St Peter, there was no big bang for Galvin and Blowick as in Acts 2. Pentecost for these two meant being guided slowly by the Spirit to discern their way in the realities of everyday. We can see something of the timidity of St Peter in Galvin’s early years.

Born in 1882 on an Irish farm, as a teenager, he discerned in the Spirit that he wanted to be a missionary priest. His Father, John Galvin, would have none of it but do allow him to go to Maynooth, the huge Diocesan Seminary of Ireland, to become a priest for the diocese of Cork. He accepted this. After this, we see the Spirit guiding him big time through the providence of God.

The Spirit uses Brooklyn to prepare a Founder

He was ordained in 1919, and the diocese was entire, so he was allowed to look for a diocese where he could work until needed at home. He chose the Diocese of Brooklyn, NY and ended up in Holy Rosary parish there. For three years there, he learnt how to run a parish. After a while, the old missionary longing hit him, and he wrote here and there, offering his services as a missionary.

All doors were closed until that cold January day in 1912 when Canadian Fr Frazer came to lunch at Holy Rosary looking for priests for China. On the spot, Ned Galvin said yes to him. By a miracle of providence, the great missionary-minded Bishop of Cork, T.A. O’Callaghan OP, wrote, “Fr E.J. Galvin has my permission to accept an invitation for the China Mission.

China, at last and the Gift of Tongues

French Vincentian Bishop Faveau welcomed him to his diocese of Hangchow. He made such good progress in learning Chinese in the next six months that they sent him to the Vincentian Procure in Shanghai to study under the scholar Fr Luke Ting CM. He also got the experience of helping to run a mission procurement.

Back in a parish, perhaps one incident shows us, Galvin. On a missionary journey, he rode into a little village for the first time. Friend or foe? He sat at the side of the main street and lined up his medical bottles, putting them away and solemnly lining them up repeatedly. Quite a crowd gathered.

Owen MacPolin, John Blowick, and Edward J Galvin in Shanghai in 1920.

Finally, an older lady came forward, “My son is sick. Will you help us?” Carefully stowing his bottles, he followed her. He had an excellent medical sense by now. He saw that the boy could recover and administered some drugs. Then he went into the next room and talked to them about Jesus and Christianity. It was their first time hearing this. The boy’s fever broke at midnight, and he got well. The entire village eventually became Catholic.

He wrote up to 200 letters to Ireland a month, waking many to the reality of China and its need for priests. Finally, in 1915 his letters paid off when two Irish priests joined him, Frs Joe O’Leary of Cork and Patrick O’Reilly of Cavan. These two eventually persuaded Galvin that he should return to Ireland to get a “China Mission” going. Fortified by these words of God to Joshua, he set out, “Behold I command you, take courage and be strong. Fear not and be not dismayed; for the Lord, our God, is with you in everything you go to.”

The Columbans are born of the Spirit

Encouraged by the support of Fr Judge of Omaha and Cardinal Mundelein of Chicago, at the end of August, Fr Galvin arrived in Dublin and Ireland, still reeling from the Easter Rising of 1916. By 10th October, the Columbans were a reality. Key to this was Fr Blowick.

Fr Galvin knew that to start a new organisation for China, the permission of the Irish bishops was needed, and he was entirely at sea in this area. He needed someone who could get this permission. Divine Providence threw Fr John Blowick his way. They met in Dublin on 4th September, and Galvin begged Blowick to resign from the Chair of Dogma at Maynooth and take over the mission’s leadership.

Blowick, too, had heard Frazer speak and was very interested in China. After several days’ reflections, he threw in his lot with Galvin. It worked, as Galvin knew it would, and on 10th October 1916, the Irish Bishops approved the founding of the Columbans, then known as the Maynooth Mission to China.

Fr John Blowick hailed from Belcarra, Co Mayo. Ordained in 1913, he was appointed to the chair of dogmatic Theology in Maynooth even before he completed his doctorate. However, he resigned to start the Columbans with Galvin.

Propaganda Fidei in Rome then approved the Society and entrusted the Columbans with Hanyang on the Yangtse River. In 1919 Fr Blowick was elected the first Superior General. In 1920, he and Fr Galvin led the first group of 20 to Hanyang. Fr Galvin stayed on and was ordained Bishop of Hanyang in 1927.

Fr Blowick kept the home fires burning, serving the Society in Ireland all his life. Starting with Hanyang and China, then the Philippines, Korea, Burma (now Myanmar), then Japan, Fiji, and Peru. Chile, Taiwan and Pakistan (and a few others that came and went) and from an original base in Ireland/England, the USA and ANZ, the Spirit has sent people and money to the Columbans to sustain them in the providence of God from then to now. “Come Holy Spirit, Come…”

Columban Fr Donal McIlraith, Mission Awareness and Education, Fiji.

Please support Columban Mission and send a donation to the Far East Office, Dalgan Park, Navan, Co Meath C15 AY2Y. Alternatively, you can donate online at or call 00353 46 909 8275.

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