At a Mass in Dalgan Park, Fr Neil Collins recalled the lives of the 24 Columban martyrs who died violently on mission over the course of the Society’s 100 years. Relatives of the 23 priests and one Columban Sister joined Columban missionaries for the commemorative liturgy. Here is Fr Neil’s reflection:
Good morning and welcome to this celebration of the 24 Columban martyrs.
As you know the Bishop of Galway erected the Society of St Columban on the 29 June 1918 and the Bishop of Killaloe set up the Missionary Sisters of St Columban on 29 September 1924. The first group of fathers went to Hanyang, China in 1920. Sisters followed in 1926.
TIM LEONARD was in the first batch of Columbans who went to China in 1920. And he was one of the ten Columbans sent to Jiangxi Province in 1928. It was a dangerous time and place. Mao Zedong had just established a Communist base in the nearby Jinggang Mountains. Tim arrived in the parish of Nanfeng on 14 August 1928. A Communist band captured the town on 15 July 1929, took him to the mountains, and two days later stabbed him to death, allegedly because ‘he cursed us and injured us’. He is buried in San Gang near Nanfeng.
CORNELIUS TIERNEY was born 1 Dec 1872. When he joined the first group gong to China in 1920 he was 48 and had had an operation to remove a kidney. He was the superior of the Nancheng mission. On 14 Nov 1930 while supervising a building project for Fr John Kerr he was taken prisoner by communists. Kerr reported that Tierney was stripped of his clothes, his hands were bound and he was brutally scourged. Afterwards they threw a soldier’s red cloak around his shoulders, and all this time he was being mocked. How often he was scourged is not known. His captors released him early in January 1931 and he walked about twenty miles towards safety, but he was seized by another band and died on 28 Feb. 1931. His remains were exhumed from where his captors buried him and reburied at Nancheng.
In 2014 Fr. Joe Houston reported, ‘Cornelius Tierney’s grave was eventually built over. However, about 10 years ago the gravestone appeared as a slab. At the time I didn’t go to see it and when later I asked Tommy Yu about it he said it had disappeared again.’
FRANCIS VERNON DOUGLAS was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1910. He was ordained for the Archdiocese of Wellington in 1934, joined the Columbans in 1938 and was sent to the Philippines. Japan invaded the Philippines in 1941. In 1943 Japanese soldiers seized Frank in the parish of Pililla. They seemed to believe that he had knowledge about the guerrillas in the district. Witnesses reported, ‘That night Father was taken to a nearby parish named Paete and was locked up in the Baptistery. Here the investigation and the torture continued for three days and three nights’. Frank was beaten savagely and given the ‘water cure’ where the victim’s stomach is forcibly filled with water. Then a board is placed across the abdomen and pressure exerted on it to expel the water.
For those three days and nights he was tied by one hand to a pillar in the church, unable to lie down. A Filipino guerrilla, Frank Quesada, one of many men imprisoned in the same church, told how Frank prayed the rosary in Tagalog, and heard his, Quesada’s, confession. On the evening of 27 July 1943 soldiers took Frank, threw him, covered in blood, into a truck and drove him away. His fate remains unknown.
PATRICK McMAHON was born in Dundalk in 1916. He did his secondary studies at St Macartan’s College, Monaghan, before joining the Columbans. The President of St Macartan’s wrote, ‘His conduct has been most exemplary. His character is all that could be desired in a candidate for the priesthood. He is straightforward, truthful, and obedient.’ He was ordained priest in Dalgan Park, Shrule in 1940 and joined the British Army as a chaplain.
The Allies landed in Normandy on 6 June 1944. Some days later the 9th Royal Tank Regiment, to which Paddy was attached, arrived in France. During a fierce battle in Normandy on 14 August 1944 Paddy went out under fire in an ambulance to rescue a Canadian soldier. On the return journey the ambulance was hit by a shell and he was killed. Paddy is buried in the churchyard at Ussy, Normandy, France.
Michael O’Doherty, Archbishop of Manila, wrote to the superior general of the Columbans, Michael O’Dwyer, in August 1928 asking for priests. PATRICK KELLY and Michael Cuddigan arrived in Manila at the end of May 1929, and took over the parish of Malate. In the following years JOHN LALOR, JOHN HENAGHAN, JOE MONAGHAN and PETER FALLON joined them.
When war came in 1942 John Lalor turned the Malate school into the Remedios Hospital. The first patients were wounded and sick Filipino prisoners-of-war just. By the end of the year most had recovered enough to be discharged. Their places were taken by sick American prisoners from the internment camp in Santo Tomas University. Patrick Kelly became chaplain for the internees, offering Mass in the open air. Both Lalor and Kelly, together with many of the volunteers in the hospital, were involved in getting food and medicines to the American prisoners. A prisoner-of-war listed many people, Filipino and foreign, who helped internees.
‘The Catholic Priests of Malate who died did great work. Fr Kelly aiding escaped prisoners in Manila, contact between internees and their families. Fr Lalor, who first opened the smuggling to Park Ave Elementary School, aided Bilibid Prison POWs also. Fr Monaghan asked for old clothes, shoes and money for POWs. Fr Henaghan also did good work.’
The Japanese arrested Kelly, Lalor and Monaghan on Christmas Eve 1944, and brought them to the military police headquarters at Fort Santiago, Manila, where they were brutally beaten and questioned for four days. After their release they would not talk about their ordeal. US troops returned to the Philippines in October 1944, entering Manila on 3 February 1945. A terrible battle ensued, and much of the city was destroyed in a fierce artillery duel. Thousands of civilians died, many of them from ‘friendly fire’. An untold number perished in an appalling massacre.
During the last days of January and early February Japanese forces divided the city into zones, rounded up the men, and killed them. Priests and religious, most of them Spaniards, Germans and Irish, were among the dead. Four Columbans, Patrick Kelly, John Henaghan, Joseph Monaghan, and Peter Fallon, and all the laymen in the Malate church, were taken away to the Syquia Apartments on 10 February 1945. Their bodies were never found. John Lalor was in the Remedios Hospital and escaped the round-up. Three days later he was resting with some of the hospital staff when an American shell hit the wall beside them killing all except one.
Patrick Usher led seven newly ordained Columbans to a new mission in north Burma in the autumn of 1936. One of them was THOMAS J MURPHY from Naas.
Japanese forces invaded Burma from Thailand on 15 January 1942, and reached Bhamo on 3 May. In response to representations made by the Vatican to the government of Japan orders came from Tokyo in October 1942 that the missionaries were to be protected. The reaction of the authorities in Burma was to intern the Columbans in St John’s Leper Asylum in Mandalay
House arrest for the Columbans ended in 1945. From February they could hear the boom of guns and when a British unit dug in at the corner of the asylum grounds on 15 March the priests and the patients were in the middle of a battle. Next morning, while the priests were saying Mass, a random Japanese shell burst right above them. Thomas Murphy fell in his vestments mortally wounded. Seven others were injured.
Korea was a Japanese colony when Owen MacPolin led the first group of Columbans to Mokpo in 1933. Five years later a second mission opened in Chunchon under Thomas Quinlan. During the war in the Pacific American, Australian and New Zealand priests were repatriated. The others were eventually interned. Tom Cusack remembered how by 1945 ‘we had three fistfuls of rice a day and no chance of getting anything else.’
Worse was to come in 1950 with the outbreak of the Korean War.
TONY COLLIER was ordained 21 Dec 1938 and assigned to Korea. He was interned 1941-45. When North Korean forces crossed the 38th Parallel, the dividing line between North and South Korea, on 25 June 1950 Tony was in charge of the second Columban parish in Chunchon. He was taken into custody, briefly interrogated and then shot dead on 27 June.
On the same day the Reds landed by sea to the north and the south of the town of Mukho where PATRICK REILLY was parish priest. When they occupied the town he went to a catechist’s house about five miles north-west of the town. He remained with the catechist, Nam Francis, for twenty-six days until a soldier saw him. He was beaten up, roped, and brought to the police-station in Mukho. It seems that he was being marched from Mukho to Kangnung but after ten or twelve miles became weak and the guard shot him on 29 August. An old man found his body on a mountain path and he was buried in Mukho. In October 1951 his body and that of Tony Collier were re-interred in the grounds of Chunchon Cathedral.
Among the servers at the funeral was Gabriel Kim, 26-year-old Korean Catholic, whom the communists shot with Father Collier and was left for dead.
JIM MAGINN went to Korea in 1936. He was pastor in Samchok when North Korean Communist forces invaded in 1950. Although he had ample time to escape the invading Reds, he chose to remain with his tiny band of Christians, about 100 in all. He was captured, accused of being an American agent and executed on 4 July. He was 39 years old. A Korean Christian buried him about two miles from the priest’s residence. On 26 March 1952 he was re-interred alongside the graves of Father Collier and Father Reilly among the ruins of Chunchon cathedral.
Tom Quinlan, Philip Crosbie and FRANK CANAVAN were interned in a school outside Pyongyang before they and hundreds of other prisoners were taken to camps on the Yalu River. From 31 Oct to 9 Nov a Korean major, nicknamed The Tiger drove them on a death march during which many died. In November Canavan contracted pneumonia. The North Koreans set aside certain houses as “hospitals”. Phil Crosbie wrote, ‘I use the word with caution, because 99% of those who were sent there died. They were simply isolated, unheated places where ill prisoners were taken to die away from the others.
Frank was ordered to go to one such building. After a few days he was allowed to return to the main camp but he was sent away again. Ignoring our protests to the guard, as he was being led away to the hospital for the second time, Frank turned around, waved his hand and shouted: “This is nothing. You should have seen what the English did to the Irish!” I never saw him alive again. We had attempted to keep up morale by reminding him that we were going to eat Christmas dinner in a free world. “I’ll have my Christmas dinner in heaven,” he replied. He died on 6 December.
PATRICK BRENNAN, a priest of the archdiocese of Chicago, joined the society in 1936 and went to Korea the following year. By 1950 he was Prefect Apostolic of Kwangju. THOMAS CUSACK, ordained in 1934, was parish priest of Mokpo. JOHN O’BRIEN, ordained in 1942, was an army chaplain during the WWII. He arrived in Korea in 1948. When North Korea invaded all three decided to stay in Mokpo. In a letter to his mother Cusack wrote, ‘Mother, if I were to leave my people I would never have a sound night’s sleep again.’ North Koreans arrested them on 24 July and took them to Taejon prison. UN troops landed in Inchon on 15 September forcing the North Koreans to retreat. Before they left Taejon on 24 September they massacred all prisoners including the three Columbans.
TOMMY FLYNN was ordained priest for the Archdiocese of Dublin. During WWII he served as a chaplain with the Gurkhas. In 1948 he joined the Society and was sent to the Philippines where he worked in Labrador, a communist guerrilla [Huk] stronghold. His rectory was raided on the night of October 30, 1950 and Tom was taken away and murdered. When the owner of one of the houses burnt down during the raid returned & cleaned the debris they found bones & a chain of a Rosary. These were buried after a Funeral Mass attended by Fr Sam Sheehan, the local Columban Fathers, Sisters and the people of the parish. The head stone reads “Fr Tom Flynn killed October 30, 1950- RIP”. In 2003 his remains were exhumed and interred in the family plot at Ballysheen, Co Clare
JOHN WALSH was ordained priest in 1945 for the diocese of Cork and joined the Columbans that year. He went to Burma in1952. In 1964 Jack and Bob O’Rourke staffed a mission in Mogokzup, some 50 miles north-west of Myitkyina. On 23 March 1964 Walsh set off for Mogaung, a shopping centre on the railway about fifteen miles to the south, to buy supplies for the Sisters’ clinic in Manbang. When he failed to return O’Rourke felt very worried and next day set out to look for him. Meanwhile word reached Mogaung that a priest had been shot. A search party found the body about four miles from the town. He lay, face downwards in a shallow grave, with his rosary beads under his face. There were two bullet wounds in his head and one in his chest, as well as bush knife gashes in his leg. The killers were pro-government village guards and the actual murderer said it was because ‘he was a priest for the Kachins’. He is buried at Myitkyina, Burma.
MARTIN DEMPSEY sailed to the Philippines in 1962. In 1970, he opened the new parish of Balabagan, in the predominantly Muslim province of Lanao del Sur. The parish high school had 350 students, Christian and Muslim. On the morning of 19 October 1970 at the daily flag ceremony Martin corrected a 14-year old student, son of the Muslim mayor. A short time later the boy and his older brother entered the school grounds armed with a revolver and a carbine. The priest invited them to his office to talk. Instead, they shot him. After his funeral the bishop, Patrick Cronin, negotiated with the mayor. His two sons would leave the area, and the school could continue. Two priests volunteered to take Martin’s place. Cronin selected Ned Burke.
JOAN SAWYER joined the Columban Sisters in 1952 and worked in Ireland, Britain and the US before going to Peru in 1977. There she served in the huge parish of Condevilla in the city of Lima ‘giving totally of herself’. She became the voice of the poor.
In 1982 she began a new ministry in the Lurigancho Prison, on the outskirts of Lima among the city’s poorest inhabitants. She wrote, “It is three months since I started work in the Lurigancho Prison, Lima, which with over 5,000 men, is the largest establishment of its kind in Peru… It is a sad, depressing, foul-smelling, unhealthy place, as are most prisons in Latin America, and yet I can say that these three months have been the most deeply rewarding of my life…”
She was assigned to two cell blocks, each with 350 men. She prayed with them, visited their families, and followed up their cases in the Department of Justice.
On 14 December 1983 nine prisoners attempted to break out of the prison taking Joan and other sisters as hostages. After long negotiations the authorities gave them an ambulance and driver. But as soon as the vehicle left the prison the police opened fire on it killing Joan and seven of the prisoners. Thousands of poor people attended her funeral, under a banner, ‘Juanita you will live on in the hearts of your people’.
JAMES DONOHUE was born in Bofeenaun, Ballina, Co Mayo, on 10 Sept 1916. He was ordained priest at Dalgan on 21 Dec 1941. World War II made overseas travel impossible so he accepted a temporary appointment to the diocese of Menevia in Wales. When the war ended he was assigned to China. On the 22nd of September seventeen Columbans left Liverpool on the SS. Empress of Australia. One of his companions remembered, ‘The missionary tug-o’-war team conquered all the others without conceding a single pull… Father James Donohue, with his sixteen stone three pounds, was our anchor-man at the end of the rope.’
He remained in Nancheng until 1950 when the Communist take-over resulted in the expulsion of all missionaries. For the next 33 years he served in Japan. A mentally deranged man assaulted his housekeeper. Jim came to her aid but the attacker struck his head with a rock causing internal bleeding. He died on 2 January 1985 and is buried at Fuchu, near Tokyo.
VINCENT J. POWER was born in 1931 at Clonmel, Co. Tipperary He was ordained priest in Dalgan on 21 December 1955. Appointed to Japan in 1956 he served two terms as Superior in the Kanagawa area and was OTP Director in 1981. In 1984 he was appointed to Ireland and was Socius for the Spiritual Year in Dalgan until 1989. In 1990 he went to the new mission in Jamaica and became pastor of Falmouth. Vincent was concerned for the poor, especially the elderly who were hungry and lived alone.
On the morning of 21 April 1994 he was murdered in his Church of St. Joseph, Falmouth, Trelawny. While he was praying alone he was attacked on the head and upper body with a machete. Parishioners arriving for Mass found his body. His keys were taken and the house ransacked. He was the second priest murdered in Jamaica in six months. The man convicted for his murder, Isaiah Morgan, was himself killed in a prison uprising in 1997. Vincent is buried at a plot beside his church in Falmouth, Jamaica.
RUFUS HALLEY from Waterford was ordained as a Columban priest in 1969 and went to the Philippines. He learned Tagalog and for more than ten years worked in parishes near Manila.
However, fighting broke out in the southern Philippines in the 1970s. At the suggestion of Pope Paul VI Bishop Bienvenido Tudtud set up a prelature in the almost completely Muslim city of Marawi. Its sole aim was reconciliation between Muslims and Christians. Rufus joined in 1980, learned the language of the Muslims, and looked for ways to meet them. He even worked half each day in a Muslim store in the market. Eventually he became parish priest in the town of Malabang. 70% of the students in the parish high school were Muslims, which meant that Rufus could visit their homes regularly. They grew to trust him, to the extent that he was instrumental in bringing peace to a Muslim clan, divided for ten years by a bloody feud.
In 2001, masked men shot him dead on the outskirts of the town in an attempted kidnapping. Muslims asked for his body for a day and prayed the Koran around the coffin. They joined their Christian neighbours for the wake and funeral. A Muslim teacher from the school spoke in the church saying that Muslims called him Alongan meaning the sun, because he radiated light to those around him.