Martyrs of China 1897

Author: Dariusz Stanislaw Pielak
Subject: Martyrdom, Colonialism
Language: English, Spanish
Franz K. Nies, Richard Henle, martyrs China 1897
Franz K. Nies, Richard Henle, martyrs China 1897

When we speak of the SVD martyrs, we refer first of all to the blessed martyrs of the Second World War. In this article I would like to tell you about the first two SVD martyrs who died in China in 1897: Father Franz K. Nies and Father Richard Henle.
On All Saints’ Day 1897, these two confreres went to visit Fr. Georg Stenz at the mission station in Juye, South Shantong. That same night, a group of armed Chinese raided the mission station and killed the two guests of Father Stenz. The host was saved by pure chance, because he kindly gave up his room to the guests and went to sleep in another part of the station.
It is hard to imagine how great the impact of what happened must have been for the young Divine Word congregation, and especially for Father Arnold. In his life he often saw the words of the Gospel fulfilled. This time, however, he experienced the fulfilment of the most difficult words: those about the persecution and martyrdom of Christ’s disciples. I have not yet found an account of St. Arnold’s personal reaction to this martyrdom, but I would not be surprised if he had said, “I would rather have been in his place.

This event had, surprisingly, far-reaching consequences not only for the Divine Word Congregation, but also for world history. It is considered one of the key moments that led to the famous “Boxer Uprising”. The massacre of our confreres passed into historiography under the name of the “Juye Incident”.
At the time, the Chinese state was showing signs of weakness, so the Western powers seized Chinese ports and imposed preferential conditions for trade. The nation felt humiliated. Missionary activity was also salt in the eyes of local society. Many Chinese did not like the rejection of ancestor worship and the new ethical standards resulting from Christianity. This led to the creation of secret organisations that sought to overthrow foreign influence. Eventually, these organisations joined the armed conflict.

However, foreign influence did not diminish. On the contrary. Germany wanted to join the traditional powers. The Second Reich had already completed the process of land consolidation and wanted to participate in the sharing of the “colonial cake”, which other empires had been enjoying for a long time. From 1895 onwards, the German fleet explored the Chinese coast and chose the Jiaozhou Bay region on the Shandong Peninsula as the ideal location for its naval base. But they could not simply take it away. The death of two German citizens proved to be a pretext for armed intervention and forced China to cede the region on terms that suited the Reich. In this way, the Verbites were unwittingly drawn into big politics and became the “casus belli”, the cause of the war.
In discussing these events, the question arises: to what extent were the SVD part of the colonial structure? It is worth noting that from the very beginning of its creation, the Society of the Divine Word, despite its German origin, was not a work desired by the government of its country. As is well known, St. Arnold founded the congregation not in Germany but in the Netherlands, because he would not have been allowed to do so in his own country. The first house in Germany, i.e. the house in Nysa, was built only as the third house of the congregation. The first SVD missionaries often had to renounce their German citizenship in order to be able to go to the missions and, as people “without nationality”, they received French missionary passports. Even when the first signs began to appear from the Prussian government that it wanted to take German missionaries under its protection, there was little enthusiasm on the part of the congregation, because the confreres felt safer under the protection of Catholic France than in Protestant-dominated Prussian Germany.

Arnold describes in a frank and painful way in a draft letter to the German government: “I would like to know whether the German government still ignores the fact that German citizens, who are engaged in the noble task of conveying the benefits of Christian civilisation to heathen nations, are forced to seek the freedom which they did not find in their German homeland outside Germany, in foreign countries.
In the light of these facts, it is comforting to know that at the beginning of the existence of the work of the Divine Word there were pure intentions flowing directly from the Gospel, from the missionary mandate of Jesus Christ, intentions untainted by political or material interest. Thus, the blood of these first martyrs becomes the true seed of new Christians; let us pray that their blood will be fruitful and that the Holy Spirit will abundantly pour out the gift of faith on modern China!


Dariusz Pielak, SVD
Dariusz Pielak, SVD

Dariusz Pielak born on 30.03.1965 in Poland. In 1985 he joined the Society of the Divine Word. During the seminary he did the experience of OTP in Argentina in a community of life inserted in popular environments of Greater Buenos Aires. After finishing the seminary he worked in Spain and did a licentiate in biblical theology there. Since 2003 he has been working in Russia teaching at the seminary and attending the parish of St. Olga in Moscow. He also devotes himself to deepen the themes related to the spiritual history of Arnold Janssen.

One Response

  1. Gracias Padre por haberme ayudado a conocer un poco más la espiritualidad de nuestro Fundador y la historia de nuestra Congregación.

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