The Chinese Martyrs

The Chinese Martyrs is the name given to a large number of Christians, specifically Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, who were killed in China during the 19th and early 20th centuries. They are celebrated as martyrs by their respective churches. Most were Chinese laypeople, but others were missionaries from various countries. Many of them died during the Boxer Rebellion.

The Roman Catholic Church recognizes 120 Catholics who died between 1648 and 1930 as its “Martyrs in China”. Of the group, 87 were Chinese laypeople and 33 were missionaries; 86 died during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.

The ‘Boxer’ movement to persecute Catholics and expel foreigners from China began after the coup d’état of 1898 when the Dowager Empress Ci Xi imprisoned her nephew, the young Emperor Guangxu. China had signed a treaty with France in 1858 that allowed Catholic missionaries to re-enter China and the Church steadily flourished. Some people were hostile to Catholics because they did not take part in the public festivals honouring China’s deities. The anti-Catholic and anti-foreign bias boiled over at the end of the century when a quasi-religious movement known as Yihe tuan began a systematic movement to destroy the Church. The English gave them the name by which they are best known, the Boxers, because strenuous gung fu training was part of their preparation. During the violence of the Boxer Rebellion approximately 30,000 Catholics were put to death.

Four of the martyrs were Jesuit priests: Leon Mangin, Paul Denn, Rémy Isoré, Modeste Andlauer. Modeste Andlauer and Rémy Isoré were the first Jesuits to die in the rebellion. They died together when Boxers attacked the mission at Wuyi.

Remi Isoré was born in Bambecque in the diocese of Lille on 22 July, 1852. He began studies for the diocesan priesthood, but decided to join the Jesuits before he was ordained. He entered the novitiate at Saint-Acheul in 1875 and was sent to China in 1882. After four more years of training, he was ordained a priest.

Modeste Andlauer was born in Rosheim, in the diocese of Strasbourg, in 1847. He entered the Jesuits in 1872 and was ordained priest in France before setting out for China in 1882.

When the Boxer Rebellion began, Isoré was stationed in Weixian, in the Zhili district of Tianjin. He had left his mission for a rest break at another Jesuit community when news arrived that Boxers were present near Weixian. Isoré did not want to leave his people alone in this moment of danger, so he attempted to return to his own mission. When he got to the village of Wuyi, where Andlaeur was stationed, Isoré noticed the Boxer insignia on the village gate, indicating that they were inside. The Boxers had come to free some companions who had been captured and imprisoned there since the previous winter.

Isoré decided to stay with his brother Jesuit. The next afternoon the two Jesuits heard swords pounding on the door of their residence. They went into an adjoining chapel and locked the door behind them, but the Boxers easily broke through the outer door and then the chapel door. They found the two priests kneeling on the floor in prayer and attacked them with lances, killing them immediately. Then they beheaded them and displayed their heads on the village gates as a brutal warning of what awaited Christians who did not return to their ancestral religion.

Leon Mangin was born in Verny, in the diocese of Metz, on 31 July, 1857. He entered the Jesuits in 1875 and arrived in China in 1882. He studied theology and the Chinese language and was ordained in 1886. He arrived in Zhujiahe in 1900, when the Boxer Rebellion was already under way. When he arrived, the number of inhabitants in the area swelled from 400 to almost 3,000 because of the threat of attacks. The French Jesuit fortified the town as well as he could and stockpiled supplies. He also asked Paul Denn, another French Jesuit, to leave a nearby village and join him. Denn had worked as a bank clerk before entering the Jesuits to become a missionary. He was ordained in China in 1880.

The Boxers attacked the fortified village on 15 July, 1900, but the villagers were able to drive them back. Another attack the following day was also unsuccessful, but then 2,000 soldiers of the imperial army interrupted their journey to Beijing to reinforce the Boxers. When Mangin saw the size of the attacking group, he knew the village was doomed. Some people were able to slip away at night, but the two Jesuits chose to remain with their flock.

The attackers constructed towers that enabled them to scale the barricades, and on the morning of July 20 they fought their way into the village. The two Jesuit pastors gathered women and children into the church and led them in prayer, preparing them for what was to come. The few men left alive staggered into the chapel shortly before the Boxers broke down the church doors and confronted the assembled Catholics. They gave people one last chance to renounce their faith, but only a few did so. Then the shooting began. Denn intoned the Confiteor and Mangin pronounced the words of absolution. They were among the first to be killed, and then the attackers fired into the congregation and slashed at people with swords, before setting fire to the church roof. Their bones remained in place until 1901 when they were collected and placed in coffins, and then buried in the new church erected on the same site.

Along with their fellow martyrs, all four priests were canonized as saints by Pope John Paul II on 1 October 2000.

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