The Courage of Mary Zhu-Wu
A martyr saint of China
Zhujiahe is a small village situated in the vast gray plain at the border of the northern Chinese Provinces Zhili and Shandong. Its name translates to the “River of the Zhu Family.” Several members of that family had converted to Catholicism during the 18th century, when the Jesuits from Beijing progressed deeper into Zhili Province. In the early 10th century, the Zhu family had settled near the river and given it its name. In 1900, the village had some 300 inhabitants living in low cottages built of clay, nestled among sprawling sorghum fields and was dominated by a simple church with a flat roof and high façade; its cross towered over the countryside. The French Jesuit Léon Ignace Mangin, 42 years old and a missionary in China since 1882, was the pastor of the Catholic community of Zhujiahe. He was helped by a middle-aged village elder, Zhu Dianxuan, an able administrator who also happened to be skilled in the art of warfare. His 50-year-old wife, Mary Zhu-Wu, was much esteemed by the villagers: a gentle woman of great faith, she gave priority to helping the poor in her service of God. Never looking for notoriety or glory, these three people would become the centre of the most violent massacre of Christians during the Boxer Rebellion.
The history of the uprising itself, the political machinations and warfare that ignited it, need not be explained here. They mattered little to the people of Zhujiahe, when in the summer of 1900 they took in thousands of Catholic refugees from the neighbouring villages. This increased the population to 3,000, ten times its usual size, when on 17 July they were attacked by 4,500 heavily armed men, the combined forces of the Boxers and the imperial army. A few days earlier, the villagers, protected behind the ramparts that Zhu Dianxuan had constructed, had still been able to ward off the attacks and even seized a cannon from the enemy. Fr Mangin and his fellow-Jesuit, Paul Denn, who had also fled to Zhujiahe, had offered Mass each morning and heard confessions throughout the day; during the evenings, they relieved the night watchmen on the ramparts. The next day, Zhu Dianxuan, the only experienced leader among the 1,000 odd men who were able to defend the village, climbed the ramparts to train the cannon on the enemy forces. But that same evening, when already more than half of his men had died in battle, the cannon back-fired onto Zhu Dianxuan’s chest. Mangin, who was standing nearby, ran towards the dying man and gave him Extreme Unction. By the third day, as the situation seemed hopeless, those who could escape did so, leaving behind those who were too weak to flee, especially women and children. When on the early morning of 20 July the soldiers took the village, the first people they killed were a group of parish virgins and women catechists. Eighty-five other women and children fled in panic to the orphanage and jumped into its well, where they drowned or suffocated. Their cries and screams for help continued for two days.
Most of the villagers, around 1,000 of them, had taken refuge in the church, spiritually assisted by the two Jesuit priests. Too pressed to offer a final Mass, Mangin and Denn sat on the steps before the altar and heard confessions, while most of the people knelt in prayer or simply waited. Mary Zhu-Wu, presumably grieving for her husband, nevertheless remained calm, exhorting everyone to trust God and to pray to our Heavenly Mother. Around nine o’clock in the morning, the attackers broke though the door and began firing at random into the church, until it was filled with smoke. Panic ensued, while people were being killed, but the priests managed to unite them in prayer, reciting together the Confiteor and the Act of Contrition, and then gave them general absolution as the guns continued to fire on the people. Here, Mary Zhu-Wu, rose to singular greatness: she stood up and positioned herself with outstretched arms in front of Fr Mangin to shield him with her body. Not long afterwards, a bullet struck her and she fell at the altar railing. Mangin, praying the rosary with one hand and grasping a crucifix in the other, soon fell victim to the gunmen, too. Then the Boxers barricaded the church and set it on fire. Most of the refugees inside died from smoke inhalation, the last ones — with Mangin and Denn — burning to death as the church roof finally collapsed. A mere 500 Catholics managed to survive the massacre by fleeing or apostatizing; a few others, women especially, were sold as slaves or led away as captives to Beijing, where they may have ended up in a brothel. But Mary Zhu-Wu continues to live on at Zhujiahe, the “River of the Zhu family”, now turned into a river of blood. While her husband defended the village against the external enemy, she strengthened the interior faith and courage of the people, even giving up her life to save their pastor. In 1955, Pope Pius XII declared her Blessed, together with the two Jesuits and 53 other martyrs; they were all canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000.
*Assistant of the Postulator General of the Society of Jesus
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4 September 2015, page 11
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