BENEDICTINES
in
 
SZECHWAN,
CHINA
 

 Xishan Priory

Reliquary of St. Therese of Liseux,
Xishan Priory

 

 


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THE story of the Benedictines of Szechwan Province during the first half of the Twentieth Century can be divided into three epochs or phases encompassing two different geographic locations.  The three phases correspond to the first three superiors of the monastery, each of whom possessed a unique vision of how Benedictine monasticism could best serve the needs of the Catholic Church in China: The two geographic locations are:, Xishan, near Chongking, where the community was first established in 1929; and Chengtu, the capital of Szechwan Province where in 1942 the monks were compelled by the vicissitudes World War II to seek refuge

 

 

 

PHASE 1: CONTEMPLATIVE ASPIRATIONS
1927-1933: Xishan, Prior Jehan Joliet

 

 

 


IN 1926 Fr. Jehan Joliet, a monk of the Abbey of Solesmes, and Fr. Pie de Cocqueau of the Abbey of St. André (now know as St. Andries, Zevenkerken), departed the port of Marseilles for Beijing to establish a monastic community.  Their work represents a collaboration  between their respective abbeys, and although it was always understood that the new foundation would be a canonical dependency of St. André, the composition of the community they established would continue until the very end to reflect cordial cooperation between St. André and the Abbey and Congregation of Solesmes.

    From its beginnings the Abbey of St. André had been designated as a “monastery for the Missions”.  Since 1898 the community had been committed by its founder, Gerard Van Caloen to monastic missionary work in Brazil; and his successor, Theodore Neve had in 1910 accepted the Apostolic Prefecture of Katanga in the Congo. Through their publication Les Bulletin des Missions the monks of St. André had wholly identified with the vision of inculturation encouraged by Benedict XV in Maximum Illud and which received tangible form on October 28, 1926 with the ordination in Rome of the first six Chinese bishops.  It was the intention of Abbot Theodore Neve that the new foundation be made in the diocese of a Chinese bishop. Fr. Joliet was wholly in accord with this plan. As a naval officer in the eighteen-nineties he had visited and fallen in love with China and its people; it had become his dream as a monk of Solesmes to facilitate a “harmonius grafting between an authentic Christian tradition and ancient Chinese civilization”.[1]  Before leaving for China Fr. Joliet had spent a year at St. Andre, and he believed that he and Abbot Neve shared a common vision for the Chinese foundation.

Jehan Joliet as a Naval Officer

Abbot Theodore Neve of St. André

  After ten months of language-study in Beijing Fr. Joliet and Fr. Pie were encouraged by the Apostolic Delegate, Msgr. Constantini, to establish their foundation in a new diocese that would soon be created out of the diocese of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province.  They accepted his recommendation and were graciously received by Msgr. Rouchouse, the Bishop of Chengdu, who offered them a site called Xishan (“the Western Hill”) about an hour’s walk from the city and prospective see of Nanchong..  They were offered accomodation by Fr. Paul Wang, the bishop-elect of Nanchong, who arranged for the first monastic buildings to be erected at Xishan.

Bishop Rouchouse of Chengdu

Bishop Wang of Nanchong

  Within a short time after their arrival in Nanchong serious illness compelled Fr. Pie to return to Belgium; however in February, 1929, Fr. Joliet was joined by two new confreres.  Fr. Emile Butruille was monk of Osterhout, a monastery of the Solesmes Congregation: an artist and enthusiastic student of oriental culture, he had initially hoped to be sent to Japan; but upon learning that Fr. Joliet was implementing the ideals of Solesmes in China, he prevailed upon his superiors to allow him to join the venture in Xishan.  Accompanying him was Fr. Hildebrand Marga of St. André, a monk deeply devoted to his abbot.  Fr. Hildebrand’s detailed correspondence kept Abbot Theodore Neve abreast of every aspect of life in the new foundation.  The following month the buildings were ready for occupancy, and the Priory of St. Andrew was canonically erected in March, 1929; with Fr. Joliet as superior.  The following year the the community received two additional recruits, Fr. Gabriel Roux of Solesmes and Fr. Dominc Van Rollenghem of St. Andre.

Xishan Priory, from below

During the next four years, as postulants arrived and the project of monastic formation pressed, it became increasingly apparent that Prior Jehan Joliet wished to implement at Xishan a very different model of monastic life from that with which Abbot Neve was familiar. There was, first of all, the fundamental question of the orientation of the monastery in regard to the local diocese and the Chinese Church.  Fr. Joliet envisioned a traditional monastic integration of serious scholarship with ordinary manual labor, reminiscent of the Abbey of Solesmes, where liturgical and historical scholarship are conducted in an alternating rhythm of liturgical prayer and manual labor.  Benedictine monasticism could thus model an interconnection, even a fusion, of roles that in Chinese society were kept rigidly apart through the distinction between educated, intellectual public servants (Mandarins) and a peasantry that performed manual labor.[2]  Fr. Joliet’s vision of this fundamental orientation did not include any significant external apostolates for the monks , at least during the first years of the foundation, such as teaching or pastoral work, both of which were the norm at St. Andre but were very uncommon in the Solesmes Congregation.


Xishan Priory

Reliquary of St. Therese of Liseux,


A second, related issue concerned the length of time and the degree of cultural immersion that would be necessary before the monks could imagine themselves competent to preach or teach in China.  Fr. Joliet admired the controversial methods of the 16th century Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci and envisioned a slow process of language-study and integration into Chinese culture for the monks.  There would be no attempt to influence or critique Chinese culture until real linguistic competence had been achieved and the underlying philosophical and cultural issues had been thoroughly studied.  This would take a long time: how long was impossible to say; but for the forseeable future the Benedictine monks of Xishan would embrace a posture of listening and learning, rather than one of teaching and preaching. 


Ciborium, Xishan Priory

Chapel and Altar, Xishan Priory


A third and more tangible point of disagreement between Prior Joliet and Abbot Neve concerned the canonical distinction between choir monks and laybrothers.  Joliet’s biographer, Henri Delcourt, has highlighted similarities between Fr. Joliet’s aspirations and those of his contemporary, the Vincentian Fr. Vincent Lebe, founder of the Little Brothers of St. John the Baptist.  Both Lebbe and Joliet hoped to overcome a tendency towards racial and cultural segregation inherent in the monastic distinction between lay brothers, who generally performed manual labor and were not highly educated, and choir monks, destined for the priesthood who needed to be proficient in Latin.  Both founders wished to eliminate this two-tiered system, which favored Europeans and tacitly implied the superiority of Greco-Roman cultural values. Fr. Lebbe was able to accomplish this goal by founding a new religious order; however Fr. Joliet found Abbot Neve unwilling to countenance any relaxation of the traditional canonical requirements.  In the ensuing controversy Fr. Joliet pleaded his case with the Apostolic Delegate, while Abbot Neve sought the aid of Cardinal Von Rossum, Prefect of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith.  In the end, however, no formal adjudication was required. Physically ill and overcome with exhaustion and frustration, Fr. Joliet effectively resigned by withdrawing to a hermitage near the seminary of the diocese of Chengdu in Hopatchang on May 23, 1933, where he remained until his death four years later.


 

 

PHASE 2: ACTIVE MINISTRY. 1934-1942: Xishan,
Priors Gabriel Roux and Raphael Vinciarelli

 

 

 


IN the wake of Fr. Joliet’s withdrawal Abbot Neve decided to visit the new daughter-house in person.  He undertook a canonical visitation of Xishan in 1934 and stayed at the monastery for two months.  With him he brought “reinforcements” from St. Andre, Fr. Raphael Vinciarelli and Fr. Thaddeus Yong-An-Yuen.  He appointed as prior of the Xishan community Fr. Gabriel Roux, who had transferred his vow of stability from Solesmes to St. Andre, and whose vision of monastic life more closely approximated that of Abbot Neve.

THE VISITATION of 1934: Prior Roux, Bishop Wang, Abbot Neve, Fr. Raphael, Fr. Thaddeus

Prior Gabriel Roux planned to transform the Xishan monastery into “a center of learning which would serve first the Nanchung area, and later the whole province of Szchewan.”[3]  He envisioned both an elementary school that would serve the local Catholic community, to be staffed by laypeople but financially supported by the Priory, and a seminary that would serve the local diocese of Nanchong.  The elementary school was built first and was in operation by 1935; and although the seminary buildings were not completed until two years later, Fr. Roux encouraged the monks to make themselves available to teach Bishop Wang’s seminarians.  Thus Fr. Roux was present at the priestly ordination of the first deacon taught by his monks; however he had contracted typhus and was too weak to offer the liturgical responses at the ceremony.  He died very soon afterwards, having served as prior for less than two years.

Prior Raphael Vinciarelli

Dom Lou Tseng-Tsiang

Following the death of Fr. Roux, Abbot Neve appointed Fr. Raphael Vinciarelli prior, a position he would retain for the remainder of his community’s history in China, and for years after its subsequent canonical transfer to Valyermo in California.  The first months of Prior Raphael’s administration were overshadowed by uncertainty as to the future of the Xishan community.  The rural location of the monastery was considered too remote for an effective apostolate by certain influential monks of St. Andre, chief among them being the celebrated Fr. Lou Tseng-Tsiang who had joined St. Andre in after retiring from a career in Chinese politics.  Although he would never return to China [4] Fr. (later titular Abbot) Lou attempted to influence the direction of the work in China “behind the scenes” at the in Belgium and through influential friends.  In this instance he had persuaded a Shanghai philanthropist, Mr. Lo Pa Hong, to offer St. Andre a plot of land in distant capital of Nanjing.  Fr. Raphael and Fr. Thaddeus had already undertaken an initial reconnaissance of the area in 1936 before the death of Prior Gabriel.  Following his appointment as prior, Fr. Raphael send Fr. Thaddeus back to Nanjing to await developments.  As time wore on it became apparent that Mr. Lo Pa Hong’s support was conditional upon the return to China of Fr. Lou Tseng-Tsiang: when it became clear that this would not happen, the prospects for a shift in focus from Nanchong to Nanjing vanished, and the commitment of St. Andre to the foundation in Xishan became more secure.

   Throughout his administration as prior Fr. Raphael supported and encouraged the educational projects begun by Fr. Gabriel Roux.  The elementary school flourished and the seminary was completed in 1937. Both institutions remained in operation until 1942.  However, Fr. Raphael was also supportive of external apostolates; and under his leadership the number of monks involved in both part-time and full-time ministry outside the monastery increased dramatically.  Following the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937 the capital of China was moved to Chongqing, and at the request of Archbishop Yupin Fr. Thaddeus was assigned to work in what might be termed “Catholic News Ministry”, first in Chongqing, then in the southwestern city of Kunming, then back again in Chongqing from 1939 to 1942.[5].  Of three new confreres who arrived from St. Andre in 1937, two were similarly assigned to full-time ministries outside the monastery.  Fr. Vincent Martin became superior of the monastic medical corps created by the increasingly famous Fr. Vincent Lebbe,[6] who had been convinced by Chiang-kai Shek to leave his community in order to engage in covert propaganda work behind the Japanese lines.  Fr. Wilfrid Weitz agreed to serve as French language tutor to Madame Chiang-kai Shek.  Only the third new confrere, Fr. Eleutherius Winance, remained in Xishan, serving as a professor in the seminary.

  By late 1942 the effects of World War II had reduced the Benedictine community in Xishan to desperate straits .  Cut off from St. Andre and Belgium by the war, the community was left without financial support: thus in the spring Fr. Raphael had approached Bishop Wang for financial assistance in order to pay the teachers in the elementary school.  The monks barely had enough money to feed themselves, and none to pay the teachers.  The bishop was able to offer only the equivalent of about fifty dollars.  Fortunately, Abbot Alcuin Deutsch of St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, providentially sent an unexpected donation which enabled the community to pay the teachers at the end of the academic year; but it was clear that the community could not afford to reopen the school in the fall.  Again Fr. Raphael approached Bishop Wang, this time asking whether the monks might support themselves by going into parishes.  The Bishop’s reply was shocking: “No.  Why don’t you send your monks to the diocese of Chongqing where Fr. Wilfrid learned Chinese so well.”  There were undoubtedly complex political and financial reasons for Bishop Wang’s refusal of assistance; [7] but whatever his motives, his decision constituted an effective expulsion of the monks from his diocese


 

 

PHASE 3: INTELLECTUAL APOSTOLATE
 1942-1952: Chengdu, Prior Raphael Vinciarelli

 

 

 


Left with no other alternative, Prior Raphael took the extraordinary step of relocating the monastic community to Chengdu,[1] where Bishop Rouchouse offered the monks hospitality and financial assistance.


Chengdu Priory


The Japanese incursion and regular bombing of Chongqing had transformed Chengdu into a city of refuge and an increasingly important political and intellectual center.  Within a few months of his arrival Fr. Raphael was invited to teach at the University of Yen-King.  Over the next two years the scattered monks were able to slowly regroup in Chengdu in a house provided by Bishop Rouchouse, and one-by-one teaching positions were found for several of them.  Prior Raphael, Fathers Alberic, Eleutherius, and Werner taught philosophy, language, and art history at the University and the Academy of Fine Arts.  Fr. Werner also served as Catholic chaplain to the US army troops stationed in Chengdu.  In 1944 Fathers Wilfrid and Thaddeus finished their work for the Kuomindang and were able to rejoin the community in Chengdu.  Three priests of the community, Fathers Hildebrand, Emile, and Paul Ou temporarily stayed behind in Xishan with the monastic candidates.

  During these first “unofficial” years in Chengdu (the canonical transfer had not yet been approved) Prior Raphael conceived the idea for what would eventually become an “Institute for Advanced Chinese and Western Studies”.  He envisaged the monastery becoming a spiritual crossroads where the rich multicultural environment of Chengdu would facilitate what today would be called ecumenical and interfaith dialogue and research.  Bishop Rouchouse was eager for the Benedictines to play an active role in the religious and intellectual life of Chengdu, and he encouraged Prior Raphael’s aspirations.  Although still reticent to sanction the transfer from Xishan to Chengdu, the community of St. Andre gave official approval for the new Institute. The problem of finances was solved by Madame Chiang Kai-shek, who offered Fr. Thaddeus Yang travel-money for a fund-raising expedition in the United States, from which he returned in May, 1945.  Despite opposition from some clerics and prelates in the United States,[2] Fr. Thaddeus’ “loathsome begging expedition”, as he would later describe it,[3] was successful; and, supported by further gifts of property from Bishop Rouchouse, the Institute and the new priory in Chengdu slowly began to take shape.


Hood of Red Cope, Chengdu Priory

Hood of Green Cope, Chengdu Priory


In 1947 the canonical transfer of the monastery from Xishan to Chengdu was officially approved by the Abbot and Conventual Chapter of S. Andre.  On July 11, 1949, the Feast of St. Benedict, the new Priory of St. Benedict and the Institute of Advanced Studies were formally inaugurated in Chengdu.  However the government of Chaing Kai-Shek was to survive for only five more months on mainland China.  Chongqing fell to the forces of Mao-Tse-Tung on December 10, followed by Chengdu on December 25.  In light of later developments it is significant that in October, 1949 the monks had encouraged the creation in Chengdu of a local chapter of the Legion of Mary at the Priory of St. Benedict.  Members of the Legion of Mary proved to be extraordinarily successful in organizing resistance to the “Triple Autonomy” or “Three Self Movement” that required Catholics to break official ties with the Vatican.  Members of the Legion were specifically targeted by the Communist authorities, and those who organized or supported the Legion were subjected to interrogation and imprisonment.[4]

   The expulsion of the Benedictines from Chengdu by the communists was accomplished gradually, over three years.  Prior Raphael was first summoned for questioning in March, 1950, and the monastery, from which all evidence of Dom Werner’s work with the US army had been prudently removed, was subjected to periodic nocturnal raids in search of subversive literature.  On June 18, 1951 Prior Raphael was summoned to the Office of Foreign Affairs and arrested for refusing to denounce the Legion of Mary.  After three months in prison he and was tried in a “people’s court” with Fr. Eleutherius, and the two were sentenced to permanent exile.[5]  One-by-one the same procedure was repeated for the other monks, and on March 2, 1952, the last foreign Benedictine of Chengdu, Dom Gaetan Loriens, was expelled from China.  During the next three years Dom Paul Ou and Bro. Peter Zhou Bangjiu who remained behind were arrested, tried as enemies of the state, and sentenced to prison.  Nothing certain would be known of their fate for the next thirty years.


 

 

EPILOGUE and CONCLUSION
 

 

 


In 1955 the Priory of St. Benedict in Chengdu was canonically transferred to Valyermo in the “high desert” of Southern California, where it was dedicated as St. Andrew’s Priory (now St. Andrew’s Abbey).  The ranch that became the new monastery was chosen by Fr. Vincent Martin, who had traveled to Harvard to complete a Ph.D. soon after being released by the Japanese at the end of World War II.  He was joined at Valyermo by Prior Raphael and Fathers Eleutherius, Alberic, Gaetan, Werner, and Wilfrid; Fathers Emile and Hildebrand elected not to join the reconstituted community.[6]  Two young Chinese in triennial vows, Brothers Felix Tong and Bernard Wang, had been sent from Chengdu to the United States before the community was expelled: they completed their studies, were ordained, and rejoined the community in Valyermo.  News was eventually received that Fr. Paul Ou had died in prison, but that Bro. Peter Zhou Bangjiu had survived and been released after twenty-seven years of imprisonment that included two years of solitary confinement.  Following a complex series of political machinations Br. Peter was able to join the community at Valyermo in 1984.[7]  

  Although it was originally envisioned that the relocation of the monastery in Southern California would be temporary, until such time as a return to China became feasible, the community of St. Andrew’s Abbey has acquired an American identity and the community regards itself as a permanent part of the Catholic Church in Southern California.  The character of the community at Valyermo reflects all three phases of its Chinese roots.  The contemplative vision of the founder, Prior Jehan Joliet, is reflected both in its remote, austere location and in ministries of spiritual direction and hospitality that invite guests to share in the daily monastic rhythm of silence and speech, prayer in work.  Prior Gabriel Roux’s commitment to theological education is continued by monks who teach in the diocesan seminary and other institutions of higher learning.  Prior Raphael Vinciarelli’s openness to pastoral ministry is actualized by monks who assist on weekends in local and distant parishes.  Although it is unlikely that direct assistance to the Church in China will again be part of the work of the monks of Valyermo, the community will always remain grateful to the culture that nourished and challenged their community in its youth; and the Chinese people will always remain in their prayers.

 

[1] Delcourt, Henri, The Grain Dies in China, A.I.M. Bulletin

[2] This interpretation of Fr. Joliet’s vision comes from Fr. Vincent Martin, who as will be described, joined the community at Xishan in 1936 and spent time with Fr. Joliet in his hermitage in Hopatachang shortly before Fr. Joliet’s death.

[3] Thaddeus Yong An-Yuen, O.S.B., The Chinese Adventure of an Indonesian Monk, 1.

[4] Fr. (later titular Abbot) Lou Tseng-Tsiang served in China as Minister of Foreign Affairs and briefly as Prime Minister during the tumultuous years between the death of the Dowager Empress and the rise of Chaing Kai-Shek.

[5] In Kunming he helped edit Vincent Lebbe’s Catholic-patriotic daily, I-Shih Pao. From 1939 he edited “Le Correspondent Chinois”.

[6] Despite skepticism and opposition, Fr. Lebbe transformed his newly-created “Little Bothers of St. John the Baptist”into a medical corpsattached to the Third Army Unit.  Fr. Vincent Martin remained their superior until he was captured by the Japanese in 1940.

[7] Dom Werner Papiens de Morchoven, who accompanied Prior Raphael during both interviews with Bishop Wang believed that the bishop was afraid to support the monks because of Fr. Raphael’s Italian ancestry.  China had sided with the Allies, and at this time Italy was part of the Axis.  Fr. Werner believed that in the highly-polarized political climate of wartime China the bishop feared reprisals from local authorities if he showed favoritism to one who might be suspected of complicity with the Axis Powers.  Chiang Kai-Shek had sought to forestall this through a letter supportive of the Xishan monks he had sent to Bishop Wang; but in Fr. Werner’s opinion “the bishop didn’t believe it.”

[1] As prior of a dependent monastery he had no authority to close or relocate the community, and the canonical transfer of the foundation from Xishan to Chengdu would not be officially recognized by the relevant ecclesiastical authorities until 1947.  Indeed, the decision to move the community from the jurisdiction of a Chinese bishop to the diocese of a European bishop was criticized by some at St. Andre as a betrayal of the model of inculturation the community was expected to live out.

[2] Cardinal Cushing was particular contemptuous of Catholic “Intellectual Apostolate” in China.  Before abruptly showing Dom Thaddeus out of his office, the Cardinal railed against Chaing Kai-Shek and all those (including the monks) who opposed Mao Tse-Tung and his “agrarian reformers”. Yang an-Yuen, “Chinese Adventures”, 6.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jeann Pierre Charbonnier, Christians in China,A.D. 600 to 2000, John Pierre Charbonnier, (Ignatius Press, 2007), pp. 438-39.

[5] Fr. Eleutherius has described the last years in Chengdu and analyzed the psychological methods employed by the authorities: The communist persuasion, a personal experience of brainwashing , Eleutherius Winance ; translated from the French by Emeric A. Lawrence (New York : P.J. Kennedy, 1959).

[6] Hildebrand Marga returned to St. Andre in Belgium.  Emile Butruille remained in the Far East and became an early member of St. Anselm Priory in Tokyo, a foundation of St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, where he remained until his death in 1965.

[7]  Bro. Peter’s autobiography provides details of these years: Dawn Breaks In The East , Br. Peter Zhou Bangjiu (Serenity Press, 1992).

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