Legacy of Faith: Columban missionaries remembered in China's heartland

Fr Tim Mulroy, Fr Alvaro Martinez and Fr Dan Troy visiting the grave.

Fr Alvaro Martinez,  Fr Dan Troy and Fr Tim Mulroy visiting the grave. Photos: Fr Dan Troy

Fr Dan Troy writes about Nanfeng, a small corner of China that is forever Columban, where three of our missionaries worked in the parish and are now featured in the parish church’s stained glass windows. 

Two years ago, as restrictions around Covid-19 were being relaxed in Jiangxi province in China, the Catholics of Nanfeng parish came up with plans for much-needed renovations of the Church of the Sacred Heart. Fr Dominic Zhang drew on his own experience to negotiate the initial stages of the project with a local builder.

The first phase of the project was the reroofing of the church which had remained untouched for about 100 years. As well as the new roof, a decision was made to design and install new stained-glass windows. Fr Dominic was keen that the history of the parish would be reflected in the new stained-glass windows. This involved installing the images of three Columban priests in the windows. Each of these Columbans had served in the parish or its surrounding area during some of the years from the late 1920s until the early 1950s.

Fr Tim Leonard was killed in Nanfeng on 17th July 1929. His grave is located at the edge of the town in a setting that has also been recently renovated, the scenic space gradually developing into a place of pilgrimage for the Catholics of the diocese. His grave is surrounded by hundreds of orange trees, all of them witnesses to the fact that Nanfeng oranges have a reputation that is recognized in many parts of China.

Fr Jerry Buttimer died in this area of China due to the unforgiving heat of the summer of 1948. His grave is located at a different side of Nanfeng. For many years his resting place has been a place of pilgrimage for the Catholic community.

The large number of kneeling mats stored in a big plastic bag near his grave is an indication of how popular this location is for people who visit the area to pray for their own needs. The remains of many candles at the side of the grave are also testament to how Fr Buttimer’s final resting place has a special place in the hearts of Catholics in this part of China.

Fr Paddy Dermody ministered in this area of China until the early 1950s. Following nearly 30 years as a missionary in China, he eventually took up an appointment in the US and later ministered in Ireland.

Chinese people have a deep appreciation of history, whether it be the history of the nation, a district or the history of a family. Many people can point out that their family has written records that stretch back a few hundred years. In their own efforts to record history, the Catholics at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Nanfeng were keen to include the images of three of its priests in new windows in a way that highlights their treasured history.

These windows provide the Catholics of the area and many visitors with a clear reminder that the story of the Church in this part of China is linked to the sincere efforts made by Columban missionaries in olden times that were both unpredictable and challenging.

For the families of Frs Leonard, Buttimer and Dermody, the new stained-glass windows at the Church of the Sacred Heart are a reminder that the faith-filled commitment made by these three Columban priests is still remembered so many years after their passing.

In February of this year, I had the opportunity to bring two members of the international leadership team of the Columbans to Nanfeng. Fr Tim Mulroy and Fr Alvaro Martinez were visiting mainland China for the first time.

Our visits to the graves of Frs Leonard and Buttimer were an opportunity for them to see how the graves of two Columban missionaries continue to stand as a witness to one part of the Church’s missionary history in central China.

We also celebrated Mass in the Church of the Sacred Heart. With the images of three Columban priests gazing over us from the newly installed stained-glass windows, the gentle echoes of history seemed to unite us in a way that affirmed how God can faithfully link the unfolding story of the Church in China across the generations.

Columban Fr Dan Troy lives and works in Wuhan, China.

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Comments (1)

  1. Br Peter SHELDON:
    May 21, 2024 at 11:46 AM

    As a Christan Brother in training,my Novice Master,Patrick Harty,who led the 1st C.Bs.to minister in China, familiarised me with the story.This included mention of the work of the Columbans there.I rejoice at the updating of their story

    I rejoice at this good news for the Columbans and the Church- I have been acquainted with them personally since 1949-so Deo Gratias all round.


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