Feast of James E. Walsh (April 29)   1 comment

Above:  Father Walsh, 1918

Image in the Public Domain



Roman Catholic Missionary Bishop in China, and Political Prisoner

Also known as Wha Lee Son, Chinese for “Pillar of Truth”

Bishop James Edward Walsh spent about twelve years of a twenty-year sentence in a Chinese prison for Christ.  After a year and a half of daily interrogations, Chinese officials got Walsh to confess to being what he was not–a spy.  He was, however, guilty of being a Western missionary; that was his actual offense, in the eyes of Chinese Communist officialdom.

Walsh, born in Cumberland, Maryland, on April 30, 1891, came from a devout Roman Catholic family.  He, the second of nine children of William E. Walsh and Mary Concannon Walsh, was a mischievous parochial school student who grew up to become a missionary priest.  Our saint, after spending two years working as a timekeeper in a steel mill, found spiritual fulfillment at age 21 by accepting his vocation to the priesthood.  The family supported his decision enthusiastically.

Walsh’s vocation was to be a missionary priest.  In 1912 he joined the new Maryknoll Fathers, properly the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, and began to prepare for the priesthood.  On December 7, 1915, our saint became the second Maryknoll priest.  Not quite three years later, on September 8, 1918, Walsh and a few other priests sailed for Kwong Tung, China.  There he remained until 1936.  After about a year our saint became the Maryknoll Superior in China.  On May 22, 1927, Walsh, or as many Chinese Roman Catholics called him, Wha Lee Son (“Pillar of Truth”), became a bishop, assigned to the Vicariate of Kongmoon.  He told his missioners:

I am the least among you.  Look upon me as your servant.  I am made bishop chiefly to help you.  If my help takes the form of direction, I hope you will realize it is intended to help you just the same.  But I think we understand each other; we are a happy family.

From 1936 to 1946 Walsh served as the second Superior General of the Maryknoll order.  During those years our saint, back at Maryknoll headquarters at Ossining, New York, supervised the beginning of Maryknoll missions in Africa and Latin America.

Then Walsh returned to China, where he remained until 1970.  Until 1951, when the People’s Republic (an oxymoron) closed it, he led the Catholic Central Bureau (in Shanghai), which coordinated all Roman Catholic missions in the nation-state.  Life became more complicated for all Western missionaries in China after the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949.  Communist hostility to missionaries was one issue; official Chinese hostility to Westerners (especially considering the history of China during the build up to 1949) was another factor.  The central government harassed Western missionaries and pressured them to leave.  Walsh became the last one to go, at the age of 79.  For years he refused to go, despite the harassment, including surveillance.  Before his arrest and incarceration he said:

To put up with a little inconvenience at my age is nothing.  Besides, I am a little sick and tired of being pushed around on account of my religion.

Authorities arrested Walsh on October 18, 1958.  The verdict was never is doubt.  The sentence was 20 years.  He served about 12 of those, studying a Chinese dictionary and praying the rosary.  This, our saint understood, was as much of a witness to Christ as he could make at that time.  Walsh, who was fond of the Chinese people, managed to survive his incarceration without nursing resentment; he was actually quite forgiving.  During those years his only non-Chinese visitor was a brother, William C. Walsh, the Attorney General of Maryland from 1938 to 1945.  In a diplomatic gesture building up President Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972, the People’s Republic freed Walsh on July 10, 1970.  On that day he walked into freedom and Hong Kong.

After an audience with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican, Walsh returned to Maryknoll headquarters at Ossining, New York.  There he was a revered figure and a humble and prayerful man who insisted that he had done nothing worthy of any special recognition.  Walsh stated that he had simply been a servant of Christ and a missionary priest who had done his job faithfully.  Missionaries, he said, should remain with the people to whom God had sent them as long as that is possible.  He was not the first missionary to suffer for following that ethic.  Indeed, others, including some whom Walsh knew, had died doing so.  And Walsh was not the last Christian missionary to suffer for remaining with the people to whom God had sent him.

Walsh died, aged 90 years, of natural causes on July 29, 1981.





God of grace and glory, we praise you for your servant James Edward Walsh,

who made the good news known in China, and who spent time in prison for doing so.

Raise up, we pray, in every country, heralds of the gospel,

so that the world may know the immeasurable riches of your love,

and be drawn to worship you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Isaiah 62:1-7

Psalm 48

Romans 10:11-17

Luke 24:44-53

–Adapted from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), page 59


One response to “Feast of James E. Walsh (April 29)

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  1. Pingback: Feast of James A. Walsh, Thomas Price, and Mary Josephine Rogers (October 27) | SUNDRY THOUGHTS

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