Note: This account of the Catholic martyr saints who died in the Wuchang district of Wuhan, China, was delivered after the Holy Mass offered by Bishop Thomas Daly at the Our Lady of Lourdes Cathedral, Spokane, WA. Divine Mercy Sunday, 19 April 2020; it was originally posted at Catholic World Report on that same day:
Providence often carries us in unexpected directions. When I was in Wuhan, China, some time ago conducting research on the martyr saints of that area, I was certain that almost no one from my native U.S. had ever heard of Wuhan, and I also thought that they never would hear of Wuhan. I was wrong. “Wuhan” is now in the common lexicon of nearly every person on earth.
Today I would like to offer some remarks on two Catholic missionaries – both Vincentians (that is, members of the congregation of priests founded by St. Vincent de Paul [1581-1660]) – who were martyred in a district of Wuhan: Saint Francis-Regis Clet, CM, (1748-1820) and Saint Jean-Gabriel Perboyre, CM, (1802-1840). We are all anxiously aware of the Covid-19 virus that is sweeping across our planet, and there is much about how these two Catholic martyrs suffered and died that will sound familiar to those who know how this particular illness afflicts those who have it. Saints Clet and Perboyre lived in fear because of the chaos and turbulence that churned around them; they were isolated; and they died from strangulation. They are among the few Catholic saints who died because they could not breathe.
These saints of China were canonized not only for how they suffered and died, but also for their heroic witness of charity and faith. The famous Carmelite nun, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), was so impressed by these two martyrs of Wuhan that she kept in her personal prayer-book a holy card of Saint Perboyre. I shall organize my remarks into four brief sections: first, I will provide a few details about the lives of Saints Clet and Perboyre; second, I will describe the fear they experienced before their deaths; third, I shall describe their isolation; and fourth, I will recount the holiness and courage they displayed during their final suffering and death in Wuhan, China.
The French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain (1892-1973) said that, “A person is a saint only after death, and before death he is on the way.” What he meant by this is that the qualities of sainthood are often seen when a person is still alive. Clet and Perboyre were both good examples of Maritain’s assertion. Francis-Regis Clet was the tenth child of a family of fifteen children, and when he was twenty-one years old he entered the Vincentians because of his admiration for Saint Vincent de Paul’s love for the poor and afflicted. He was in Paris when the violent persecution of Catholics began during the French Revolution (1789-1799), and when priests were being exiled from their native France he volunteered to go to China where he was certain to confront more of the same persecution.
Francis-Regis Clet knew that human life is from and for God, and so he was determined to leave a place that seemed to be turning away from God in order to serve the poor in a place that did not yet know God. Before boarding his ship to China, the unpretentious son of Saint Vincent wrote a letter to his sister, Marie-Thérèse: “Providence has destined me to leave here and work for the salvation of souls [in China].” He began his life as a missionary in China in 1789, and three decades later he was tied onto a wooden pole in Wuhan; a rope was wrapped around his throat and he was slowly deprived of the air his body required to remain alive.
Jean-Gabriel Perboyre, like his confrere, Father Clet, was born into a large French Catholic family, and four of his siblings, like him, became Vincentians because of their desire to serve others as Jesus had, and to follow in the footsteps of Saint Vincent. Jean-Gabriel joined the Vincentians when he was only sixteen years old, and while he was in the seminary he was known to have had such a passionate devotion to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament that he spent long hours in front of the tabernacle in prayer and kneeling in thanksgiving after receiving Holy Communion. Catholics can easily imagine his inner anguish when he was prevented from celebrating Holy Mass while held within several Chinese prisons.
Jean-Gabriel’s brother, Louis, was also a Vincentian, and Louis was sent to China before Jean-Gabriel. The two brothers – in both blood and in religion – were very close, and thus when the news reached Jean-Gabriel back in France that Louis had died of illness on his way to China it was a painful shock. While on his deathbed, Father Louis Perboyre, CM, (d. 1831) wrote a letter to his brother, Jean-Gabriel: “I am dying before I can accomplish my goal – I hope that my priest brother can come and take my place.” Jean-Gabriel did take his brother’s place; he left France five years after Louis’ death, and in 1835 he took his first steps as a missionary on Chinese soil. For Perboyre, his time in China was short. He was tied to a pole and strangled, just as Clet was, only five years after his arrival.
The ancient Greek writer of tragedies, Sophocles (fl. 497 BC), wrote of fear, that, “To him who is in fear it seems as if everything around him rustles.” In fearful times, it is all too easy to be afraid of what one would not notice in ordinary times. While Clet and Perboyre served as missionaries in China, the empire was fraught with turbulence. While Clet lived in China, there was a rebellion led by a millenarian sect called the “White Lotus Society,” and local officials lumped Christians into the same group. The result was terrifying for both the missionaries and Chinese faithful; Christians were hated and attacked both by the White Lotus group and the government.
In one letter, Francis-Regis Clet wrote that, “they destroy everything in their path, burning houses and taking everything they can carry, and then they kill everyone who cannot escape in time.” For Perboyre, the turbulence he experienced was both external and internal – not all saints face fear with a sense of peace and resignation. When the landscape around him grew more violent and alarming, Jean-Gabriel, as one source puts it, “experienced an intense anguish of the soul” and “was harassed by a violent temptation to despair.” It was reflecting upon the Apostle Thomas’ disbelief that removed doubt and fear from Perboyre – “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe” (Jn 20:27). But even more than fear, it was the aloneness of isolation that most afflicted Clet and Perboyre before they were finally executed in the Wuchang district of Wuhan.
An anti-Christian intrigue in 1818 forced Francis-Regis Clet into hiding. On May 25, the imperial palace in Beijing was suddenly enveloped in “strong winds and torrential rains, while the sky turned red as thunder pealed above the city.” The emperor’s advisors suggested that the strange occurrence was caused by the spiritual interference of the Christian missionaries, and thus constables were sent to arrest Father Clet. He was forced to remain in seclusion, hiding in small caves and remote places in the woods. He eventually sought refuge in the home of a Catholic family, where he “sheltered in place” for six lonely months.
Clet’s location was eventually revealed by an apostate and he was locked in chains. He was delivered to a local court, where he was forced to kneel on chains while his face was beaten with a leather strap because he refused to denounce his Christian faith. When he was later transferred to the prison at Wuhan, his clothes were, as one witness described them, “stained with blood from cuts and wounds caused by the blows . . . he endured from his journey there.” He was condemned to death by slow suffocation on February 17, 1820, and he was taken to the execution ground where he “calmly endured strangulation when a chord was tightened around his neck in three stages.” His remains were affectionately collected by devout Chinese Catholics, and they were eventually sent to Paris where they are today kept in the Vincentian motherhouse.
Perboyre’s suffering and death, some say, was even more cruel. An anti-Christian movement emerged in 1839 that forced Jean-Gabriel to live in a state of isolation, and through this time he was hidden and protected by Chinese Christians who sheltered him despite the danger of losing their own lives. After offering Holy Mass on September 16, 1839, a local Christian arrived to inform Father Perboyre that two officials and a large band of troops were quickly approaching the church. Perboyre refused to escape the danger until he had consumed the Blessed Sacrament and gathered the sacred vessels to protect them from being profaned. He fled only a few moments before the church was besieged, and he survived by hiding in forests and the hidden rooms of Chinese Christian homes.
He was eventually discovered and seized by patrolmen, who dragged him away by his hair to be interrogated in tribunals. He was tortured – forced to kneel on chains and hung from beams by his thumbs – before being taken to Wuhan along with several Chinese Christians who refused to abandon their pastor. In his Wuhan prison cell, Jean-Gabriel Perboyre was chained to the wall – the chains were so tight that he lost part of a foot and a hand. One of the Chinese Christians with Perboyre, who had taken the baptismal name of Stanislaus, was tortured along with Jean-Gabriel. Stanistaus was taken to a dung hill where he was ordered to trample on a crucifix and deny his Christian faith – and he was condemned to die for refusing to follow that command. Father Perboyre heard Stanislaus’ final confession before he crawled to his execution, for his limbs had been too badly beaten for him to be able to walk upright. What Perboyre endured was as cruel as what his friends around him had suffered; he was made to kneel on broken glass, his face was branded with the accusation, “teacher of false religion,” and he was forced to wear his vestments while being paraded about and and humiliated.
At last, Jean-Gabriel Perboyre was summoned from his cell on September 11, 1840, and led to his execution while carrying a sign announcing his sentence. A Vincentian record of his final moments is difficult to read, but I will recount here the section that describes how he was executed in the Wuchang district of Wuhan.
The executioner then placed a cord around his neck and slipped a piece of bamboo into the knot. With a strong twist, he tightened the cord around the convict’s neck, and then he loosened the cord to give the poor sufferer a moment to catch his breath. Then he tightened the cord a second time, and relaxed it again. Only after the third twist did he keep the cord tightened until death followed.
Official records of Perboyre’s execution coincidentally note that his death occurred on a Friday afternoon at 3:00 pm, the traditional day and time that Christ breathed his last breath on the cross. Local Christians bribed the officials to acquire the rope and clothes that remained on Perboyre’s body after his strangulation, and his body was tenderly interred beside the grave of Francis-Regis Clet at a place called Hong Mountain near Wuhan. I keep some of these fragments of Clet and Perboyre’s clothing near my desk in my office. Among the things that most moved those who watched Perboyre’s punishing interrogations was that when the magistrate commanded him to step on the crucifix, he would simply pick it up and kiss it, as he would if he were receiving the Last Rites of the Church.
I rather like how G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) describes Christian courage. He says that, “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die.” Both Clet and Perboyre hoped to live and continue their service to the Church in China, but they were ready for death when Providence called.
I’ll conclude here with a few comments on what has happened to the Catholic community in recent decades in connection with the historical examples of Saints Clet and Perboyre. When I travelled to Wuhan I had two main objectives: to discover how Christians in that area still view these two Vincentian martyrs, and to locate the precise location where they were executed by slow strangulation. Naturally, the Vincentians were very helpful; they provided important access to their archival records, and they funded my travel to China.
What I discovered was quite astonishing; local Chinese Catholics still remember and commemorate the examples of Clet and Perboyre. In fact, seminarians now preparing for the priesthood in the Wuhan seminary affectionately care for the two tombstones that formerly adorned the graves of Clet and Perboyre; the stone monuments are often seen surrounded by fresh flowers and seminarians praying for their intercession. These gravestones were relocated to the home of a local Catholic where they were concealed and protected during the destructive years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The Franciscan bishop of Wuhan, Bernadine Dong Guangqing, OFM, (1917- 2007) conducted a search for the gravestones after the Cultural Revolution had ended, and had them restored and installed at the Huayuanshan Catholic Seminary. With the help of the rector of the Wuhan cathedral I was also able to locate the precise location where the two Vincentian martyrs were executed in 1820 and 1840.
In recent months, the Catholic seminary, churches, and holy sites of Wuhan have been places of fervent prayer as many members of the Christian community have suffered and died from Covid-19. Many have tasted the suffering of Saints Clet and Perboyre as they, too, have struggled to breathe. The assurance that the martyr saints of Wuhan await them in heaven has offered much consolation to the Chinese Catholics of that area. Perhaps some who have died are now breathing freely with them in the light of the Beatific Vision, where sickness is unknown.
Everything I have said here about Saints Clet and Perboyre may sound like what some scholars would dismiss as pious hagiography, but what I have conveyed is merely the accounts that can be read in Church records as well as the official imperial documents held in state archives. The word martyr means “witness,” and they certainly witnessed to not only the convictions of their faith and love for God, but also to what Christian suffering and death can look like when one understands what awaits those who suffer and die in relationship with God. Clet and Perboyre were both martyrs, and there is no such thing as martyrdom without suffering or martyrdom without death. Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471), the famous author of The Imitation of Christ, said that, “One who knows how to suffer will later enjoy much peace; such a person is . . . a friend of Christ and an heir of heaven.”
I’ll end with the words of Saint Perboyre – one of the two saints of Wuhan – that were written on Saint Thérèse of Lisieux’s holy card that bore his image; they describe Perboyre’s advice for how each of us should confront suffering and death: “Puisque Dieu a voulu mourir pour nous, nous ne devons pas craindre de mourir pour Lui” – “Just as God wanted to die for us, we should never fear dying for Him.”
Saint Francis-Regis Clet and Saint Jean-Gabriel Perboyre, Pray for Us.
Note on Sources: The sources used for this talk derived largely from materials consulted as I prepared for my book on China’s Catholic saints, China’s Saints: Catholic Martyrdom during the Qing (1644-1911)(Lehigh University Press, 2011). Perhaps the most valuable materials I used were those now held in the main archive of the Congregation of the Mission (Vincentians) in Paris, France. I was kindly assisted by Fr. Claude Lautissier, CM, the archivist at the Vincentian motherhouse.