Wuhan’s Saints

China’s first saint was martyred on a cross in Wuhan

By Courtney Mares

April 9, 2020

Catholic News Agency

An image of St. Jean-Gabriel Perboyre from Wuhan, China. (Courtesy of Dr. Anthony Clark)

Vatican City, Apr 9, 2020

China’s first canonized saint was martyred by suffocation on a cross in Wuhan, the epicenter of today’s coronavirus pandemic.

St. Jean-Gabriel Perboyre, a Vincentian missionary priest from France, was betrayed by

one of his catechumens for money, bound in chains, tortured, tied to a wooden cross and

strangled to death in Wuhan in 1840.

Dr. Anthony Clark, a professor of Chinese history, spent time in Wuhan researching the

life of Perboyre and St. Francis Regis Clet, another 19th-century Vincentian priest

martyred in Wuhan.

Clark told CNA that Wuhan’s martyr saints are particularly suitable intercessors for those

suffering from COVID-19 today.

“Sts. Perboyre and Clet were both killed by strangulation; they died because they could

not breathe,” he said. “How could they not be appropriate intercessors for this particular


“Among the torments against Perboyre were continued beatings on his lower back and he

was forced to kneel on broken glass. He certainly knew the agonies of physical suffering,

and would be a good comfort for those who now suffer from this virus.”

Wuhan, now infamous as the origin of the coronavirus, was once an outpost for Catholic

missionaries who founded Catholic hospitals in the city.

Outside of Wuhan Central Hospital, where coronavirus whistle-blower Dr. Li Wenliang

died, is a statue of Italian missionary, Msgr. Eustachius Zanoli.

The plaque beneath the bust reads in Chinese and English: “Monsignor Eustachius Zanoli,

from Italy, was the first Bishop of Roman Catholic Church in Eastern Hubei. In 1886 he

invited the Canossian Daughters of Charity to Wuhan to provide social service and in 1880

established the Hankou Catholic Hospital, which laid the foundation for the development

of the Wuhan No. 2 Hospital (1955) and subsequently the Central Hospital of Wuhan


Another nearby coronavirus facility, Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital, can trace its roots back to

an infectious diseases hospital founded by Franciscan missionaries in 1926, the Father

Mei Memorial Catholic Hospital of Hankou.

It was named for Fr. Pascal Angelicus Melotto (1864-1923), a Franciscan missionary friar

from Italy martyred in Wuhan, who took Fr. Mei Zhanchun as his Chinese name. He was

kidnapped for ransom and then shot in the stomach with a poisoned bullet in 1923.

“I am happy to die for the Chinese,” the missionary priest said at his death, according to

the Franciscan Order’s website. “I lived in China for the Chinese and now I am happy to

die for them.”

The Father Mei Memorial Catholic Hospital of Hankou was staffed by Franciscan Sisters of

Christian Doctrine until missionaries were expelled from China in 1952 after the Chinese

Communist Revolution.

“The Catholic community of Wuhan has suffered greatly during the era of Chairman Mao

and the Cultural Revolution, and through that time they hid the tombstones of Saints

Perboyre and Clet to protect them, because of their deep devotion to those martyrs,”

Clark said.

“While I was there I visited the seminary where the two tombstones are now displayed for

veneration; the Catholics of Wuhan have a great devotion to the Eucharist and to the

Vincentians, such as Perboyre and Clet, who died for them, and shed their blood on the

soil of that city,” he added.

Many missionaries left for China in the 19th century with the knowledge that they would

never return.

“I don’t know what awaits me on the path that opens before me: without a doubt the

cross, which is the daily bread of the missionary. What can we hope for better, going to

preach a crucified God?” St. Perboyre wrote in a letter during his journey to China.

Perboyre’s remains were eventually moved to Paris to the Vincentian motherhouse.

Today his tomb is located in a side chapel in the same church where St. Vincent de Paul’s

incorrupt body is located. He was beatified in 1889 by Pope Leo XIII.

“St. Thérèse of Lisieux had a special devotion to Perboyre and kept a holy card dedicated

to him in her personal prayerbook,” Dr. Clark pointed out.

At Perboyre’s canonization in 1996, St. John Paul II said: “Along the streets where he had

been sent he found the Cross of Christ. Through the daily imitation of his Lord, with

humility and gentleness, he fully identified with him. … After being tortured and

condemned, reproducing the Passion of Jesus with extraordinary similarity, he came like

him to death and death on a cross.”

St. John Paul II canonized St. Francis Regis Clet in October 2000, along with 33 other

missionaries and 87 Chinese Catholics martyred under the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Michael Fu Tieshan, a bishop of China’s state-run church, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic

Association, called the canonization a “public humiliation” in an interview with state-run

television, AP reported at the time.

The first “patriotic bishop” named by the Communist government in China in 1958 was

from Wuhan. Dong Guangqing, who died in 2007, was president of Patriotic Catholic

Association of Wuhan and vice president of the National Administrative Committee of the

Chinese Catholic Church.

Today, Catholics in Wuhan have a particular devotion to St. Francis and the Sacrament of

Penance, Clark observed.

Catholics in Wuhan are “known to make long lines near the confessionals of priests who

are most faithful to the authentic teachings of the Church; they are a beautiful witness,”

he said.

“It is rare to find a church without a statue of St. Francis, and sometimes a devotion to St.

Vincent de Paul. The faith there is strong, and has even flourished especially during times

of persecution,” Clark added.

“I have indeed heard from some Catholics during this time, and they are, like all of us,

turning to the Lord and his mercy as we all confront our own frailty,” he said. “I recently

heard from a Wuhan Protestant who remarked on the sadness of witnessing elderly

members of their church passing away. The trauma within Wuhan’s Christian community

has been greatly aided through the powerful faith of Christians in that area.”

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