After five months of Chinese studies in Peking, I left by train for Hongdong in Shansi. The journey was made easier for me by a companion, a fellow Christian from Shichiachuan. The trip should have taken three days, but for various reasons, it took a month. Trains did not run at night during the Japanese occupation and there were sporadic attacks made on the railway by the communist eighth army. Also, it was the rainy season , which brought flooding.. (I believe I have recounted this before, so I will go directly to my arrival in Hanonien .)
Hanonien was a small village clinging to a mountain , fifteen kilometres from Hongdong. The Bishop, with several of his priests and seminarians had taken refuge there; in what one could describe as a sort of no man’s land. This place was not ideal , since it had been built for a one priest. It was overwhelmed by the influx of refugees from the city; fifty people in all.
Like all the mission stations built by the Dutch , who were the first missionaries in the area, each compound was enclosed by a wall which provided some protection; from the Japanese who appeared during the days, and members of the communist eighth army who arrived at night.
A hamlet close to Hongdong
One morning, a man came to the door, bringing his wagon with him. He was to be my guide. We secured my luggage onto the wagon; this consisted of two trunks and a suitcase. There was just enough room in the front for us.
The road was made of hardened earth, and while the land was flat , we rolled along, that is to say, we maintained a speed of ten kilometres an hour; but once we began the climb upwards, the winding track became narrower and narrower, ending in a small circular compound which contained the mission station. Most people here were Christians.
The only buildings to be seen were carved entrances into the soft sides of the mountain . The people who lived in them were called cave dwellers, or troglodytes. These dwellings were easily built; with pointed roofs and an interior space of fifteen to twenty metres. The facade had a front door and a window of slatted wood lined on the inside with rice paper.
The first item in the house was a large
cast iron cauldron which was used for cooking as well as heating the family
bed, called the”kang’. The bed was sixty centimetres high and covered
with bricks. Beneath this layer, was a space, which was connected to the chimney,
so that those who slept on the kang would be comfortable during the winter months.,
They all slept side by side, wrapped in their featherbeds.
The mission consisted of single storey buildings around the sides of the courtyard. The first was for the priests, the second for the staff and the mules. The seminarians lived behind in a cave, with a flat roof. They slept on kangs on either side of the centre hall. For our morning ablutions, we used small enamel bowls. Two porters made the trip down to the stream for water, morning and evening.
My room s were opposite the Bishop’s on the other side of the courtyard. I was allotted two small rooms: one for my study, and a smaller one for my bedroom. The latter was sparsely furnished with a bed, a chair, and shelves built into the far wall . The window looked out on the courtyard, it was papered over like all the others.
In my study, there was a square table and a wooden armchair, also two side– boards with carved doors which served as cupboards. I placed my trunks along the walls, and covered them with spreads. This meant that there were more places to sit, and made the room more welcoming. I now had all the comforts of a scout camp.
We ate together in the main hall called the k’oting in Chinese. This was in the middle of the building, next to the Bishop’s rooms. Usually, there were five or six of us including the parish priest, and two or three priest who were professors.
We were served simple Chinese food: in
the morning we had ‘Mantows’(Steamed white bread) and we drank hot
water. From time to time, we had pickled vegetables as well.. At noon, we went
to church, to pray in the manner of the Franciscans, that is to recite five
Our Fathers and five Hail Marys with outstretched arms in the shape of a cross.
This took fifteen minutes, then we had lunch which consisted of a bowl or two
of noodles with carrots ,spinach, or turnips. At the end of the meal, we had
bouillon with vegetables and sometimes, a pear, or other fruit for dessert.
It is high summer. We all wear Chinese gowns in white or grey the clothes worn by the middle classes. From the time I arrived , I was made to feel welcome by Monseigneur Petrus Ch’eng, who was about sixty years old . He was a small old man, with a friendly expression. I sensed th at we would get on. In fact, I was invited to work in his diocese as his secretary. (At the time it was an apostolic prefecture.) With a base of Chinese, I would be able to help him with French and English .His Latin was better than mine; he spoke elegant Latin, and he knew the formalities of style when beginning and ending official letters. This was useful since all communications with the Vatican was in Latin.
After several interviews with the Bishop, it was decided that I should take up my studies again with Father Martin Yang. He was a professor at the seminary, and the most highly educated of my Chinese confreres . For more than a year, I spent an hour with him each day, learning Chinese. Though he was only a little older than I, he was very focussed on studying. Martin insisted that I practice brush strokes each day, copying characters on to lined paper. He became a real friend, and I often mentioned him in my letters to the Sam in Bruxelles, to the point that the Vicar General felt obliged to warn me of the dangers of having a special friend. (Different times required different ways of behaviour.)
On the advice of the papal Nuncio, Martin came to France with another confrere called Barnabas Lou, in about 1949 or 1950, to escape the Communists.
At the time ,I was resident priest at the Dominican convent of Saulchoir near Paris, so I was able to meet up with them again. (Incidentally, it was during my return to Bruxelles from Paris that I met Madame Marteaux and her son in law. She was the widow of the retired Minister of Health, and she was a Communist. I had the opportunity of dining with her several times, in her superb apartment on Beliard Road in Bruxelles.)
If I had time after lunch, I went to the courtyard frequented by the Seminarians to practice my Chinese and compete in a game of volleyball. They were excellent players, and were happy to have me join one of their teams.
In 1941 I led the older seminarians to the regional seminary at Suanhua. Since its foundation it had been run by Nicholas Wenders. Michel Keymolen taught there as well. This was an opportunity for me to have a brief holiday with my confreres.
It took three days for us to reach Peking, and after a short stop at Paul Gilson’s, another day, to arrive in Suanhua, close to the border with Mongolia.
The country had been at war ever since 1937, and the Japanese controlled all means of communication in the north of the country. They, the Japanese, were reputed to be less than tenderhearted towards the Chinese. That is why the superior of the seminary had asked me to accompany these young Chinese men. (Many years later when I made my second return visit to Hongdong, I met some of them. They were now much older, and promoted to important positions in the diocese.)
I was accompanied by a servant, who knew Chinese ways. He looked after my mule and my luggage; most important of all ,he knew the way. I forget the name of the village, but I remember that as we came around the slope of a little valley, we suddenly found that the road was cut in two by a recent rainstorm, and my mule leaped from one side to the other, depositing me in the stream. I ended up in a hip bath, but otherwise unscathed.
When we arrived at the village, the leader of the Christian community took me in hand. He had organised everything for my stay in the village.
There was a small chapel with a sacristy . This room became the lodging for visiting priests. It was sparsely furnished. There was a cupboard for the sacred vessels, a bed, a table and a chair. I brought my bedding with me. My helper made contact with the members of the Christian community who provided meals and water. At that time, and in that part of China, it was unthinkable to have running water; it was even less likely to have tap water. The amenities were those of the Middle Ages.. Water was drawn from wells or from the river, and it had to be boiled for drinking.
The Christians came in turn to greet the priest, bringing their children with them. I really enjoyed this time. It gave me the opportunity to get to know the people and to improve my Chinese. The catechist and I prepared for the next day’s liturgy, including a baptism. There were times for confessions and I entrusted to the Saviour any sins which I had not understood.
The welcome of these country people had been magnificent. They put themselves out to provide a good reception, and that evening by the light of oil lamps, the elders returned to chat with the missionary from so far away.
During 1941, I was sent to the same villages several times which allowed me to become familiar with the people.
During the summer the bishop called me to tell me that there had been an attempt to set fire to properties belonging to the church in town The buildings were left in the charge of two elderly watchmen. He asked me to accept the appointment as parish priest in town. He thought that a foreigner might carry more weight in dealing with the Japanese and so avoid a repetition of these incidents. Being a loyal Samiste, I accepted the position.
So here I was, on the move again, going between the seminary and these old buildings close to town, where the bishop and some priests would reinstall themselves, then moving on into town whee the presbytery was an old building with a pointed roof, like the ones seen in the countryside This presbytery was big enough and boasted a balcony, which overlooked a double room. The study was opposite, and a bedroom was on the left, separated by a partition of wood and paper.
I kept an office in the seminary next to the bishop as well. He had asked me to be the procurator and oversee the finances of the diocese . I was responsible for the accounts of each parish, Mass offerings, and other subsidies. I was also in charge relationships between the bishop and the priests. I rode my bicycle almost daily ,travelling between the town and the seminary.
In the province of Shansi there were two kinds of currency in circulation: the yuan which was legal tender in the territory administered by the Japanese, and the fapi in the area occupied by the guerillas.
We received an annual subsidy from the office of Pontifical Charities. This was sent every summer, and was transmitted via the Franciscan Procurator in Tientsin. Since there were few trustworthy banks in the region, financial transactions were made with the help of merchants who travelled to Tientsin to buy merchandise. Thus I was in touch with two or three shops. I gave them a signed cheque, and they gave me the money equivalent in the local currency
With the backing of the Franciscans, the cheque was honoured . In this way, the merchant could travel in safety, having nothing more in his pocket than a note signed by me.
I had a book of cheques numbered between one and fifty which I kept in a drawer in my desk. Since the servants were trustworthy, nothing was locked, although my room was padlocked if I was away.
One day I received a three monthly statement from the Procurator in Tientsin. I calculated that they had honoured two cheques more than the numbered ones.(I am telling this story to illustrate that even in the middle of a war, commerce still functions well.) In fact, the two stolen cheques had been used at five or six shops in succession, and each shop had stamped the back of the cheques. By retracing the chain of stamps back to the first one, the thief was self evident. With sadness, I discovered that the thief was none other than a fellow priest, who had betrayed my trust and had entered my study during my absence.
Life in town was not busy and quite dull. Since the arrival of the Japanese, ten percent fewer people lived there. The only shops open were on the main road. On the other hand, I had to protect numerous buildings all along the north wall of the town In the centre of them was a church built by the Franciscans at the beginning of the twentieth century. On the right side was a courtyard, flanked by buildings on all sides. This was the residence of the Bishop and some priests
On the other side of the church was a vegetable garden, which was surprisingly large for a town; beside it was a shed. One day, when I was compiling an inventory of what was on the shelves of the shed and I found kilos of coffee hidden in a wicker basket.. In the kitchen garden, there was a well which contained water to a depth of ten metres. This served as my refrigerator during the summer months when I let down several bottles of bottled water to keep them cool. Beyond this garden, there was anther courtyard, and a building used as a girl’s school. If you retraced your steps, to the south of the church, there were two courtyards, flanked with buildings on both sides which formed the boys college of Saint Peter. The Principal was Father Yang.
When I had the time, I inspected different places, removing the dust which had accumulated over several years. I found bundles of clothes without any identification labels. Among them was a long navy blue coat which I appropriated as a spoil of war since I was sure that the owner would never come back to claim it. This was before the onset of long hard winter.
Among other things, I discovered instruments from a physics laboratory, which probably came from the Protestant school at the east end of town. Our secondary school never did have a lab, and anyway it was now closed. So I paid a visit to the authorities at the Protestant school to return their equipment.