1930: Luigi Versiglia and Callistus Caravario, missionary martyrs

2 comments February 25th, 2018 Headsman

From Butler’s Lives of the Saints: February:


Bishop Versaglia (left) and Father Caravario.

BB Aloysius Versaglia, Bishop and Martyr (1873-1930), and Callistus Caravario, Martyr (1903-1930)

These two martyrs in China are the first two martyrs of the Salesians of Don Bosco (St. John Bosco; 31 Jan.). They belong to a later period than the Martyrs of China considered on 17 February, above, and though they inherited much of the same history, merit separate consideration here. They died in a period marked by continued feuding between local warlords, the rise of the Kuomintang government of Sun-Yat-Sen and then Chiang-Kai-Shek, the birth of the Chinese Communist party, its initial alliance and then break with the Nationalists, and the continued “imperialist” protection of foreign interests and nationals in China.

Aloysius (Luigi) Versaglia was born in Olivia Gessi, near Pavia in the Lombardy region of Italy, on 5 June 1873. Don Bosco sent him to study at his Valdocco “Oratory” in Turin when he was twelve. At that stage his great passions were mathematics and horses, and he told his parents that he was going to study there not to become a priest but to be a veterinary surgeon. He had counted without the extraordinary charism of Don Bosco, however; he changed his mind and joined the Salesians four years later, making his simple profession on 11 October 1889. He studied for a doctorate in philosophy from 1890 to 1893, was ordained in 1895, and spent ten years as superior and novice-master of the new Salesian seminary at Genzano, near Rome. In 1905 the bishop of Macao appealed to the Salesians for missionaries. Aloysius had always longed for a missionary summons; he was appointed leader of the first Salesian missionary expedition to China, setting sail on 7 January 1906 and based initially in Macao. There he was put in charge of a small orphanage, which he transformed into a highly respected school with two hundred pupils and a spiritual centre for the whole town.

A secularizing revolution in Portugal in 1910 deprived the religious of their school, at least for a time, and the bishop sent him into China, on the Heung-Shan mission, between Macao and Canton. This was also the year of the downfall of the Chinese “Heavenly Empire,” which gave way to a republic plunged into civil turmoil. Aloysius organized residences, schools, and hospitals; he trained catechists and dreamed of a wider mission entrusted to the Salesians alone. This was to come about in 1918, when the superior of the College of Foreign Missions in Paris persuaded the pope to split the apostolic vicariate of Kwangtung (Canton and surrounding area) into two, entrusting the northern portion, with its centre at Shiu-Chow (where Matteo Ricci had landed in 1589), to the Salesians. New missionaries were sent from Turin: their leader brought Aloysius a fine chalice as a presence from the superior general of the Salesians in Turin; he took it in his hands and recalled a dream Don Bosco had had — that the Salesian mission in China would grow when a chalice was filled with blood: “It is that chalice you have brought me; it is my task to fill it,” he said. In 1920 the area was constituted an “autonomous apostolic vicariate,” and Aloysius was the obvious person to take charge of this. He was consecrated bishop on 9 January 1920 in the cathedral of Canton.

He took charge at a dangerous time, which made his presentiment of a martyr’s death entirely probable of fulfilment. The Kuomintang government of Sun-Yat-Sen had not succeeded in unifying the country, and local warlords still ruled in the north. The apostolic vacariate [sic] straddled the north-south divide. Sun-Yat-Sen appealed to the newly-formed Communist party for help; its ideology had inherited violent anti-foreign feeling from the Boxers. In such conditions, nevertheless, Aloysius over the next nine years built elementary, secondary, and tertiary schools and colleges, a cathedral, orphanages, and a seminary for Chinese candidates to the priesthood. The continued development of a native clergy was the outstanding missionary achievment [sic] of the 1920s, and Aloysius played a leading part in it. The bishop undertook endless and exhausting pastoral visitations throughout his territory, and the number of Christians trebled. Monsignor, later Cardinal, Constantini, then representative of the Holy See in China, was to say of him:

He was the best type of missionary bishop: simple, courageous, inspired by the apostolic fervour stemming from a deep communion with God and seeking nothing other than God’s reign and glory. Father and brother rather than commander, and so deeply loved and obeyed by missionaries and faithful, from whom he asked no more than he himself had done or was prepared to do.

Callistus (Callisto) Caravario was born into a working-class family in Cuorgne oin Piedmont on 8 June 1903, was educated by the Salesians, and joined the Order, taking his first vows on 19 September 1919. In 1922 he met Bishop Versaglia when the latter made a visit to Turin and promised him that he would rejoin him in China. He was sent on the China mission in October 1924. His first appointment was in Shanghai, where the Salesians had opened a school for orphans; there he learned English, French, and Chinese, began to study theology, and prepared children for baptism. The city was attacked by Nationalist-Communist militia in 1926, and his superior sent him away for safety to the island of Timor in the Indonesian archipelago, then a Portuguese colony. The Nationalists broke with the Communists in 1927, taking charge of Shanghai. After spending two years teaching and studying on Timor, Callistus returned to China, saying that he would die a martyr’s death there; he was ordained by Aloysius Versaglia in Shanghai on 18 May 1829 as a priest for the vicariate of Shiu-Chow. Thereafter the bishop and priest worked in close collaboration for what were to prove the last eight months of Callistus’ life. He was sent to join another priest in the distant mission station of Lin-Chow in a ministry caring for 150 converts and two schools, one for boys and one for girls. He was back in Shiu-Chow on 13 February 1930, when Bishop Aloysius asked him to accompany him on a pastoral visit to Lin-Chow. They were never to get there; Aloysius knew the risks but declared that if they were to wait until the passage was safe, they would never leave.

On 24 February the bishop and priest with others, including two male Chinese teachers, a sister of each of these, and a young woman catechist destined for the Lin-Chow mission, embarked by boat on the Pak-Kong Rier. The three young women were Mary Tong Su-lien, aged twenty-one, returning home to inform her parents of her decision to become a nun; Pauline Ng Yu-che, aged sixteen; and the catechist, Clare Tzen Tz-yung. The presence of these attractive young women on the boat was to play a decisive part in the subsequent course of events.

The previous year, Chiang-Kai-Shek had defeated a Communist force under General Chang-Fat-Kwai, whose soldiers were roaming the countryside living by brigandage. The bishop’s junk, after a day’s journey, happened on a band of river pirates, who regularly operated on the river and generally let missionaries pass unharmed. But this group had been joined by some soldiers from the defeated Communist army, who had been indoctrinated with anti-foreign and anti-Christian attitudes. They demanded $500 to allow the boat to proceed, threatening to shoot its occupants if this was not paid. Aloysius and Callistus protested that they were missionaries, who had usually been treated with respect, but the soldiers called them “European devils” and boarded the junk. there they found the young women and tried to drag them off to rape them. (It is possible that one of them may have been a rejected suitor of Mary Tong.) The bishop and priest stood in the doorway of their cabin to prevent this but were knocked to the ground with rifle-butts and bamboo canes.

They were all dragged on to the river bank, where Aloysius and Callistus were bound and shoved into a clump of bamboo. The women were asked why they wanted to follow the missionaries to their death; they were told that the Communists were going to destroy the Catholic Church and that they should follow them instead. Callistus made a last attempt to save them, offering to send money, but the soldiers replied that they no longer wanted the money, only to kill them because they belonged to the hated foreign religion. Aloysius begged them to kill him only, as he was old, and to spare the young, but to no avail. The brigands shot him and Callistus, battering in their skulls and putting out their eyes after they were dead. The two teachers were sent on their way on the junk. Their sisters and the catechists were taken off into the mountains. They were freed three days later by soldiers of the Nationalist army and told the whole story, declaring that Aloysius and Callistus had given their lives for them. The soldiers had paid some local villagers to bury the two bodies, which were recovered two days later. They were given an honourable burial in Shiu-Chow on 13 March. The two martyrs were regarded locally as heroes by both Christians and non-Christians because they had died to defend the women. The evidence of the specifically anti-Christian motives of the soldiers was sufficient for the Vatican to decide that they had died for the Faith; both were beatified by Pope John Paul II on 15 May 1983.

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1799: Andrea Serrao, Bishop of Potenza

1 comment February 24th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1799, the Bishop of Potenza was lynched by the faithful.

Andrea Serrao English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was a late disciple of the reformist Jansenist movement which tended among many other things to such Enlightenment-friendly notions as liberty of conscience, the reduction of the papal authority, and “regalism” — the doctrine of secular supremacy over ecclesiastical.

According to Owen Chadwick’s The Popes and European Revolution, Serrao as Bishop of the southern Italian city of Potenza

found a cathedral in disrepair, a seminary closed for the last eleven years. He raised the money for a rebuilding of the cathedral, reopened the seminary, of which the products were suspect for their ideas of liberty. He was as strong a reformer as [fellow Jansenist Bishop Scipione de’]Ricci,* and with many of the same ideas. He held a diocesan synod which is unknown because the acts were afterwards destroyed by government; but evidently its conclusions resembled those of Ricci’s Synod of Pistoia. He may have been more radical than Ricci, for he wanted clergy to be allowed to marry.

In December of 1798, Bourbon authority collapsed in the Kingdom of Naples — which ruled all of southern Italy, including Potenza — leading to the formation of the Parthenopean Republic. Serrao fully embraced it, “and urged them to obey the new government; and at the end of his address the people cried ‘Long live the French government. Long live liberty!’ and rushed out into the piazza to plant a tree of liberty. Bishop Serrao then accepted the office of civil commissioner of Potenza.” (Chadwick again)

But this Republic was destined for an imminent and bloody conclusion.

The most immediate reaction, and the one that led to Serrao’s abrupt death, was the summons of Fabrizio Cardinal Ruffo to a popular anti-Republican movement, called Sanfedismo (“Holy Faith”). In early February, a bare two weeks after the Parthenopean Republic’s establishment, Ruffo ventured from the royal refuge on Sicily and landed at his native Calabria like Che Guevara, with nothing but a handful of companions.

“Brave and courageous Calabrians, unite now under the standard of the Holy Cross and of our beloved sovereign,” Ruffo’s summons to a resistance implored. “Do not wait for the enemy to come and contaminate our home neighbourhoods. Let us march to confront him, to repel him, to hunt him out of our kingdom and out of Italy and to break the barbarous chains of our holy Pontiff. May the banner of the Holy Cross secure you total victory.”

Ruffo’s message was a winner and almost instantly began attracting holy guerrillas by the hundreds; in a few months’ time, Ruffo secured the surrender of the Republicans in Naples itself, by which time his army is reputed to have numbered 17,000.

And even in its earliest promulgation, it attained — seemingly to Andrea Serrao’s surprise — strength enough to overwhelm that tree of liberty stuff in Potenza within days of Ruffo’s landing. Back to Chadwick:

When Ruffo’s bands drew near to Potenza, many peasants and some priests regarded Bishop Serrao as ‘the enemy of the Pope, the king, and God’. Warned to escape, he said that he trusted his fellow-citizens. When the professors and students at the seminary wanted to make a bodyguard, he forbade them to arm.

Very early on 24 February 1799 soldiers of the Potenza guard smashed the tree of liberty, and raided the bishop’s palace. They came upon Serrao still in bed, and killed him with two shots of a pistol. Bleeding to death, he uttered the words ‘Long live the faith of Jesus Christ! Long live the Republic!’ The guards broke into the seminary next door, and murdered the rector as his students fled. After sacking palace and seminary they cut off the heads of bishop and rector and carried them in triumph round the city on pikes.

* There’s an interesting public domain biography of Ricci which, without any direct reference to Serrao, delves into the theological and political conflicts of the age that would have been of interest to our principal.

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Feast Day of St. Cassian of Tangier

Add comment December 3rd, 2017 Headsman

December 3 is the feast date of the minor and perhaps fictional martyr Cassian of Tangier.

Not to be confused with the later Julian the Apostate-era martyr Cassian of Imola, our African Cassian was a court scribe who wound up riding sidecar to the legend of pacifistic centurion Marcellus of Tangier.

The latter is described in a Passion as having incurred the Roman governor’s wrath by adhering to Christ’s pacifistic teachings.

Agricolanus said, “What madness possessed you to cast aside aside your oath and say such things?”

Marcellus said, “No madness possesses him who fears God.” …

Agricolanus said, “Did you hurl down your weapons?”

Marcellus said, “I did. It is not proper for a Christian man, one who fears the Lord Christ, to engage in earthly military service.”

Agricolanus said, “Marcellus’ actions are such that they ought to be disciplined.” And so he stated, “It pleases (the court) that Marcellus, who defiled the office of centurion which he held by his public rejection of the oath and, furthermore, according to the praeses’ records, gave in testimony words full of madness, should be executed by the sword.”

So that’s Marcellus’s martyrdom. (His feast date is October 30.)

Cassian gets in on the act by allegedly refusing to fulfill his judicial duty to record the verdict, out of sympathy for the godly ex-warrior, a professional dereliction of his own that has paradoxically made him the patron saint of stenographers. There’s a very good chance that his is a legendary just-so story.

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Feast Day of St. Barlaam

Add comment November 19th, 2017 Headsman

November 19 is the feast date of Diocletian martyr Saint Barlaam of Antioch.*

A Cappadocian peasant, Barlaam defeated through righteous willpower a Roman judge’s diabolical attempt to go easy on him.

Barlaam was doing the old refusal to pay homage to the pagan gods thing and the judge’s plan was a masterpiece of practical jurisprudence: he had the refusenik stationed before the censer, with the offering in his hand. Then hot coals were plopped into the hand, in the expectation that Barlaam would flinch at the pain and involuntarily drop the herb, coals, and all into the fire — and everyone go home with his own honor satisfied.

But Barlaam had for honor “hardened brass, more than iron in mightiness, firmer than a statue” and instead withstood the coal until either it burned out, or his hand did, refusing to permit fire to touch incense under the eyes of the old gods. That earned him his martyrdom from an exasperated magistrate and, let us say, an extremely specific patronage of stoicism under prolonged hand torture, making him the forerunner of figures as diverse as Thomas Cranmer and Paul Muad’dib.

Here’s a laudatio in Latin for our holy militant from John Chrysostom who notes that the expected flinch-and-drop reaction wouldn’t have even counted as a sin.

* Not to be confused with the Russian hermit and painter Barlaam of Khutyn, nor with Barlaam and Josaphat, legendary India Christians who were adopted from Buddhist mythology.

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1417: Catherine Saube, retroactive Anabaptist?

Add comment October 2nd, 2017 Thieleman Janszoon van Braght

(Thanks to 17th century Dutch Anabaptist Thieleman Janszoon van Braght for the guest post. It was originally an entry in his Anabaptist martyrology Martyrs Mirror, but although this doctrine did not emerge until the 1520s, van Braght was keen to deploy his hagiographies to connect his movement to a longer tradition of pre-Lutheran dissidents, and thus claims post facto for proto-anabaptism such figures as Waldensians, Albigensians, and Gerard Segarelli. -ed.)

CATHARINE OF THOU, IN LORRAINE, BURNT FOR THE FAITH, AT MONTPELLIER, IN FRANCE, A. D. 1417

On the second of October, about two o’clock in the afternoon, it occurred at Montpellier, in France, that a certain sentence of death was pronounced, and executed the same day, upon an upright and God-fearing woman of Thou, in Lorraine, named Catharine Saube, who, loving the Lord her Saviour more than her own life, steadfastly fought through death, and, pressing her way through the strait gate into the spacious mansions of heaven, left flesh and blood on the post, in the burning flames, on the place of execution, at Montpellier.

The history of Catharine Saube is, as old writers testify, faithfully extracted from the town-book of Montpellier, commonly called Talamus; which word, Chassanion thinks, has been corrupted by passing from one language into the other; and that by the Jews, who at that time resided in great numbers in France, especially at Montpellier, it was called Talmud, which among the Hebrews or Jews, signifies a very large book or roll containing many and various things. Hence it may very easily have been the case, that the French, after the manner of the Jewish Maranes, who lived among them, erroneously called the word Talmud, Talamus, meaning to designate thereby the large book containing the civil records of the burgomasters of Montpellier. From this town-book the following acts were faithfully translated, from the ancient language of Montpellier into the French tongue, by a trustworthy person of Languedoc, and in English [the phrase was “in our Dutch” as van Braght published it -ed.] read as follows, “On the 15th day of November, A. D. 1416, after mass had been read in the parish church of St. Fermin, at Montpellier, Catharine Saube, a native of Thou, Lorraine, came into that church, to present herself. About fifteen or sixteen days previously, she had asked the lords and burgomasters of that city, for permission to be shut in with the other recluses in the nunnery on the Lates road.

The aforesaid lords and burgomasters, and all manner of tradespeople, together with over 1500 townspeople, men as well as women, came to the church, in this general procession. Said burgomasters, as patrons, that is, fathers and protectors of the recluse nuns, conducted said Catharine, as a bride, to the abovementioned cloister, where they let her remain, shut up in a cell, after which they all returned home together.

See, these are the identical words of the extract or copy taken from the town-book; we let the reader judge, as to what was her reason in applying for admittance into the nunnery. Certainly, some did not presume so badly, who have maintained, that experiencing in her heart the beginnings of true godliness proceeding from an ardent faith, she was impelled by a holy desire to reveal to the other recluse nuns the true knowledge of Christ Jesus; finding herself sufficiently gifted by the Lord, to do this. This is very probable; since credible witnesses have declared that in said book Talamus it was also recorded, that some time after the death of Catharine Saube, the whole convent in which said Catharine had been confined was burnt, together with all the nuns; doubtless on account of their religion.

The same public records state, that the year following, A. D. 1417, on the second of October, about two o’clock in the afternoon, when M. Raymond Cabasse, D.D., of the order of Jacobine or Dominican monks, vicar of the inquisitor, sat in the judgment seat, under the chapter which is beside the portal of the city hall at Montpellier, in the presence of the Bishop of Maguelonne, the Lieutenant governor, the four orders, yea, of all the people, who filled the whole city hall square, he declared by definite sentence, that the aforesaid Catharine Saube, of Thou, in Lorraine, who, at her request, had been put into the cloister of the recluses, was a heretic, and that she had disseminated, taught and believed divers damnable heresies against the Catholic faith, namely, “That the Catholic (or true) church is composed only of men and women who follow and observe the life of the apostles.” Again, “That it is better to die, than to anger, or sin against God.” Again, “That she did not worship the host or wafer consecrated by the priest; because she did not believe that the body of Christ was present in it.” Again, “That it is not necessary to confess one’s self to the priest; because it is sufficient to confess one’s sins to God; and that it counts just as much to confess one’s sins to a discreet, pious layman, as to any chaplain or priest.” Again, “That there will be no purgatory after this life.”

Said town-book Talamus contained also four other articles with which Catharine was charged, or at least which she professed; from which it can be inferred that she rejected not only many papal institutions, but among these also infant baptism. The extract from the aforesaid town-book, concerning these four articles, reads literally as follows

  1. That there never has been a true pope, cardinal, bishop, or priest, after the election of the pope (or bishop) ceased to be done through miracles of faith or verity.
  2. “That wicked priests or chaplains neither can nor may consecrate the body of Christ, though they pronounce the sacramental words over it.
  3. “That the baptism which is administered by wicked priests, is of no avail to salvation.
  4. “That infants which die after baptism, before they have faith, are not saved; for they do not believe but through the faith of their godfathers, godmothers, parents, or friends.”

These are the last four articles found in the town-book of Montpellier; from which it certainly is clearly evident, how very bold, ardent, and penetrating the faith of this woman was; so that she did not stop short of attacking even the pope, the priests, and the superstitions practiced by them, and convincing them with God’s truth. For, when she says, in the first article, that “there never has been a true pope,” etc., what else did she indicate, than that there never has been a true pope, cardinal, bishop, or priest in the Roman church, seeing the election of the pope was never done through miracles of faith or verity?

Secondly, when she says, that, “Wicked priests or chaplains neither can nor may,” what else does she mean to say than that wicked priests, who are not holy themselves, need not imagine at all (which is nevertheless believed in popery), that by uttering a few words they can consecrate a piece of bread, yea, transform it into their God and Saviour? which, Catharine had declared before, could not even be done by priests of upright life; for therefore she would not, as she said, worship the wafer consecrated by the priest, because she did not believe that the body of Christ was present in it.

Thirdly, when she says, that https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+16%3A16&version=KJV”The baptism which is administered by wicked priests is,” etc., what else does this indicate than that the shameful life of the priests destroys the ministry itself, and that as little as the words which they pronounce over the host, tend to consecrate it, just as little tends the baptism practiced by them to salvation?

Fourthly, when she says, that “Infants which die after baptism,” etc., what is this but to say that infant baptism is not necessary to salvation, yea, conduces in no wise to it? because infants themselves do not believe, only their godfathers, godmothers, parents or friends, in their stead; but that to be saved, one must believe himself, and be baptized upon this belief, as the Lord says, Mark 16:16; for the faith of another cannot help any one in the world, and consequently, cannot help infants to salvation.

Now; when this pious heroine of God would in no wise depart from her faith, sentence of death was finally pronounced upon her; and having been led to the place of execution, she was burnt, at Montpellier, in the afternoon of October 2, 1417.

Concerning her sentence and death, the town book of Montpellier contains the following words, as translated from the original into the Dutch (now into the English), “Having pronounced this sentence upon her, the vicar of the inquisitor, M. Ray mond, delivered her into the hands of the bailiff, who was provost or criminal judge of the city. The people entreated him much in her behalf, that he would deal mercifully with her; but he executed the sentence the same day, causing her to be brought to the place of execution, and there burnt as a heretic, according to law.”

These are the words of the aforesaid Talamus, or town book, which also contains this further addition, “That the bishop of Maguelonne, after singing a common mass, also preached a sermon before the members of the council, concerning Catharine Saube, against many who said that the sentence of death had unjustly been passed upon her; and rebuked the indignation of those who spoke against this sentence, with very vehement and severe words.”

This is briefly the extract concerning the martyrdom of this God-fearing woman, by which many ignorant, plain people were prompted in their hearts to examine the truth a little nearer, and to apprehend the light of the Gospel in the midst of these dark times, which God blessed, as shall be seen hereafter.

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1815: St. Peter the Aleut, the martyr of San Francisco

Add comment September 24th, 2017 Headsman

September 24 is the feast date in the Orthodox Christian tradition of Peter the Aleut.

As one might infer from his sobriquet, Peter the Aleut* — Chukagnak, to call him by the name of his birth — was a North American indigene whose canonization story features cultural collision all the way down.

Originally from Kodiak Island, Peter’s soul was won for Christ via the Russian Empire’s eastward expansion across the Bering Strait to Alaska.

Come the early 19th century the Russian-American Company that was Moscow’s chartered vehicle in the colonization game had pressed south seeking more favorable climes** with a fort in northern California supplying a network of outposts that stretched far south as Bodega Bay,† near the present-day San Francisco area.

Russia’s southerly excursions would collide with Spanish exploration pressing north: in their intersection lies the context for Peter the Aleut’s martyrdom.

The story in a nutshell is that a party of Alaskan natives in California under Russian colors was caught out hunting seals or otters by Spanish soldiers who took them captive. Peter and another Alaskan native convert called Ivan Kiglay were eventually left imprisoned together in a Spanish mission and ordered to convert to Catholicism on pain of death. When they refused, Peter was indeed slain — horribly tortured to death by having his extremities cut away while living, before finally being disemboweled.

Ivan Kiglay is the eyewitness source of this information, spared from sharing Peter’s chalice for unclear reasons. The blog OrthodoxHistory.org has done yeoman coverage of this controversial event or “event” and its overview post “Is the St. Peter the Aleut Story True?” is well worth exploring.‡ In 2011, the same site posted a rare English translation of the original Russian-language Ivan Kiglay deposition, excerpted (lightly tidied) below:

Missioners and the leader of the named above mission (whose name he does not remember) made a request to all the Kodiak dwellers to convert to the Catholic religion, to which they replied that they have already converted to a Christian religion on Kodiak, and they do not want to convert to any other religion. In a short time, Tarasov and other Kodiak dwellers [i.e., all the other Alaskans] were transferred to Saint Barbara. Though he (Kiglay Ivan) and wounded Chukagnak, were left in the mentioned mission, were kept with Indian criminals in the prison for several days, without food and water.

[One night] the chief of the mission brought the order to convert but they did not comply, despite the critical situation that they faced. On the sunrise of the next day a religious clerk came to the prison, accompanied by betrayed Indians, and called them out of the prison; Indians surrounded them, and by order started to cut (chop) Chukagnak’s fingers by articulations, from both hands and [after that] arms, and in the end cut his stomach (abdomen), by that time, he was already dead. That should have happened also to Kiglay, but at that time to the priest was brought a paper (he does not know from where and from whom). After reading that, [the priest] ordered to bury the body of the dead Chukagnak from Kasguiatskovo in the same place, and he [Kiglay] was sent back to prison.

Ivan Kiglay himself only delivered this information in 1819, four years after the alleged events, because he had ultimately to escape from a period of Spanish enslavement. In 1820 the Russian-American Company official Symeon Ivanovich Yanovsky forwarded the same report to a monastery in the motherland along with his endorsement of Ivan’s credibility (“He is not the type who could think up things”).

Unless you’re cocking an eyebrow at the convenient and mysterious last-second reprieve, there’s no particular reason to doubt the sincerity of the original deposition or of Yanovsky as interlocutor. However, there’s also no apparent corroboration of the incident known from Catholic records and the forced conversion backed by such an outlandish murder seems at odds with Spanish behavior on this particular frontier. A much later sentimental embroidery by Yanovsky from 1865 blurs the Peter story into outright hagiography. The documentary trail is so thin and questionable that everything about Peter the Aleut down to his actual existence has been hotly debated since.

Russia’s probes of California came to naught, of course — and Spain’s too for that matter, considering the Mexican War of Independence already in progress in this decade. All this land, and Alaska too, were marked for a different empire rising on the far side of the continent … and Russia’s Alaskan evangels would not in the end extend the Third Rome into the New World, but instead form the germ of the Orthodox Church in America. Today, St. Peter the Aleut is honored by Orthodox communities throughout the United States as the “martyr of San Francisco” (although this proximity for the martyrdom is also uncertain).


Shrine to Peter the Aleut in Kodiak, Alaska. (cc) image by Jesuit anthropologist Raymond Bucko, SJ.

* The descriptor “Aleut” was applied indiscriminately here, but by now it has the blessing of tradition. A more discriminating ethnography would reckon Peter and his Kodiak origins not an Aleut (from the Aleutian Islands) but an Alutiiq.

** Apart from the events narrated in this post, the Russian-American Company also dropped a fortress on Hawaii and even attempted an ill-considered takeover.

† Arriving there long before Alfred Hitchcock.

Our grim site does not pretend an opinion on whether and how religions ought to enshrine their saints … but for those curious about how St. Peter’s questionable historicity plays vis-a-vis his canonization, OrthodoxHistory.org has you covered.

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1795: Sayat-Nova

1 comment September 22nd, 2017 Headsman

The Armenian poet Sayat-Nova (“King of Songs”) was martyred on this date in 1795 by the invading Qajar army.

Poet, singer, and legendary wielder of the kamancheh in the court of the Georgian king,* Sayat-Nova was also an ordained priest in the Armenian Church.

This last point would figure crucially upon the invasion of the Qajar Shah seized the Caucasus in a 1795 bloodbath:** trapped in a monastery, Sayat-Nova faced the ritual Islamic offer of conversion or death. He chose immortality.

His legendary name and likeness adorn many public places in Armenia (not to mention an Armenian cognac), as well as places touched by the Armenian diaspora like a Boston dance company.

YouTube searches on the man’s name yield a rich trove of songs and movies about the man, but the best commemoration for these pages is surely his own music.

* Until he got ejected for scandalously falling in love with the king’s sister and became a wandering bard. Poets!

** The Shah was assassinated two years later, and the Qajars lost their grip on the Caucasus as a result.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Armenia,Artists,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Execution,Famous,God,History,Iran,Martyrs,Myths,Occupation and Colonialism,Put to the Sword,Religious Figures,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1569: Gaspard de Coligny, in effigy

Add comment September 13th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1569, the intrepid Huguenot leader Gaspard de Coligny was hanged in Paris and gibbeted at Montfaucon. Luckily for him, Coligny as these events unfolded was miles away from the executioner, at the head of a large armed host.

One of the towering figures of France’s bloody Wars of Religion, Coligny (English Wikipedia entry | French) hailed from one of the most illustrious families of the realm; his father was a Marshal of France; as a young man at court in the 1540s he had been fast friends with the Duke of Guise, the staunch Catholic who was eventually the target of the botched Huguenot kidnapping in 1560 that set spark to tinder for sectarian civil war.

An admired battlefield commander, Coligny’s conversion to Protestant put a high card in the Huguenot party’s hand, one whom Catholic ultras increasingly yearned to eliminate.

Coligny frustrated that aspiration over and over. Just in 1569, he had escaped from a Catholic battlefield victory that saw the capture and murder of Protestant France’s other great leader; then, he routed the Catholics at La Roche-l’Abeille; and, just days before the events in this post, repelled the Siege of Poitiers.

With sectarian hatred running high that season in Paris — and the dwindling treasury in need of the capital infusions only forfeiture can supply — the Parlement summoned Coligny to a trial it knew he would not attend, and there condemned him a traitor in absentia.

The sentence was declared, barbarously ignoring every principle of justice. It denounced him as an outlaw. It forbade him “all defence against the charges and conclusions.” It branded him as a traitor, a conspirator, the disturber of peace, the violator of treaties, the author of rebellion and the like hard names. “Therefore, the said Coligny is deprived of all honours, estates and dignities, and sentenced to be strangled upon the Place de Greve, either in person or effigy, and his body to be hung upon a gibbet at Montfaucon. His arms and effigies to be dragged at the tail of a horse through the towns and fauxbourgs, and then to be broken and destroyed by the public executioner, in token of everlasting infamy. His feudal possessions to revert to the crown, and all his property to be confiscated to the king. His children are declared ignoble villains, plebeians, detestable, infamous, incapable of holding estates, offices and goods in this kingdom … No one shall give to the said Coligny shelter, aid, comfort, food, water, fuel or fire.” And, lastly, a reward of fifty thousand crowns was put upon his head. This was offered to “any person who should deliver the admiral, live or dead, into the hands of justice, with a full pardon if he was concerned in the rebellion.”

This sentence of Tuesday the thirteenth of September was enforced immediately. Nor was the violence confined to Coligny’s escutcheons for a troop was dispatched to the Coligny estates to sack his mansion, root up his vineyard, and put the adjoining town to the torch “so effectually that hardly a trace of it was left.”

Coligny himself fought on … but the ridiculous sentence foreshadowed his real fate, right down to the horrible gibbet.


The gibbet of Montfaucon, from the Grandes Chronique de France by Jean Fouquet (c. 1460).

With both Catholics and Huguenots gathered in Paris for the tense celebration of an intersectarian royal wedding, a Catholic assassin unsuccessfully attempted the life of Coligny on August 22, 1572 — placing the entire city on edge. Fearing the prospect of the now-vigilant Huguenots achieving either escape or revenge, Catholics unleashed on the night of August 23-24 a general massacre of Protestants that will blacken the feast of St. Bartholomew to the ends of recorded history. The injured Coligny was this butchery’s first and signal casualty, as we find from the historian Jacques Auguste de Thou, a witness to events as a young man in Paris —

The duke of Guise, who was put in full command of the enterprise, summoned by night several captains of the Catholic Swiss mercenaries from the five little cantons, and some commanders of French companies, and told them that it was the will of the king that, according to God’s will, they should take vengeance on the band of rebels while they had the beasts in the toils. Victory was easy and the booty great and to be obtained without danger. The signal to commence the massacre should be given by the bell of the palace, and the marks by which they should recognize each other in the darkness were a bit of white linen tied around the left arm and a white cross on the hat.

Meanwhile Coligny awoke and recognized from the noise that a riot was taking place. Nevertheless he remained assured of the king’s good will, being persuaded thereof either by his credulity or by Teligny, his son-in-law: he believed the populace had been stirred up by the Guises, and that quiet would be restored as soon as it was seen that soldiers of the guard, under the command of Cosseins, had been detailed to protect him and guard his property.

But when he perceived that the noise increased and that some one had fired an arquebus in the courtyard of his dwelling, then at length, conjecturing what it might be, but too late, he arose from his bed and having put on his dressing gown he said his prayers, leaning against the wall. Labonne held the key of the house, and when Cosseins commanded him, in the king’s name, to open the door he obeyed at once without fear and apprehending nothing. But scarcely had Cosseins entered when Labonne, who stood in his way, was killed with a dagger thrust. The Swiss who were in the courtyard, when they saw this, fled into the house and closed the door, piling against it tables and all the furniture they could find. It was in the first scrimmage that a Swiss was killed with a ball from an arquebus fired by one of Cosseins’ people. But finally the conspirators broke through the door and mounted the stairway, Cosseins, Attin, Corberan de Cordillac, Seigneur de Sarlabous, first captains of the regiment of the guards, Achilles Petrucci of Siena, all armed with cuirasses, and Besme the German, who had been brought up as a page in the house of Guise; for the duke of Guise was lodged at court, together with the great nobles and others who accompanied him.

After Coligny had said his prayers with Merlin the minister, he said, without any appearance of alarm, to those who were present (and almost all were surgeons, for few of them were of his retinue): “I see clearly that which they seek, and I am ready steadfastly to suffer that death which I have never feared and which for a long time past I have pictured to myself. I consider myself happy in feeling the approach of death and in being ready to die in God, by whose grace I hope for the life everlasting. I have no further need of human succor. Go then from this place, my friends, as quickly as you may, for fear lest you shall be involved in my misfortune, and that some day your wives shall curse me as the author of your loss. For me it is enough that God is here, to whose goodness I commend my soul, which is so soon to issue from my body.” After these words they ascended to an upper room, whence they sought safety in flight here and there over the roofs.

Meanwhile the conspirators, having burst through the door of the chamber, entered, and when Besme, sword in hand, had demanded of Coligny, who stood near the door, “Are you Coligny?” Coligny replied, “Yes, I am he,” with fearless countenance. “But you, young man, respect these white hairs. What is it you would do? You cannot shorten by many days this life of mine.” As he spoke, Besme gave him a sword thrust through the body, and having withdrawn his sword, another thrust in the mouth, by which his face was disfigured. So Coligny fell, killed with many thrusts. Others have written that Coligny in dying pronounced as though in anger these words: “Would that I might at least die at the hands of a soldier and not of a valet.” But Attin, one of the murderers, has reported as I have written, and added that he never saw any one less afraid in so great a peril, nor die more steadfastly.

Then the duke of Guise inquired of Besme from the courtyard if the thing were done, and when Besme answered him that it was, the duke replied that the Chevalier d’Angouleme was unable to believe it unless he saw it; and at the same time that he made the inquiry they threw the body through the window into the courtyard, disfigured as it was with blood. When the Chevalier d’Angouleme, who could scarcely believe his eyes, had wiped away with a cloth the blood which overran the face and finally had recognized him, some say that he spurned the body with his foot. However this may be, when he left the house with his followers he said: “Cheer up, my friends! Let us do thoroughly that which we have begun. The king commands it.” He frequently repeated these words, and as soon as they had caused the bell of the palace clock to ring, on every side arose the cry, “To arms!” and the people ran to the house of Coligny. After his body had been treated to all sorts of insults, they threw it into a neighboring stable, and finally cut off his head, which they sent to Rome. They also shamefully mutilated him, and dragged his body through the streets to the bank of the Seine, a thing which he had formerly almost prophesied, although he did not think of anything like this.

As some children were in the act of throwing the body into the river, it was dragged out and placed upon the gibbet of Montfaucon, where it hung by the feet in chains of iron; and then they built a fire beneath, by which he was burned without being consumed; so that he was, so to speak, tortured with all the elements, since he was killed upon the earth, thrown into the water, placed upon the fire, and finally put to hang in the air. After he had served for several days as a spectacle to gratify the hate of many and arouse the just indignation of many others, who reckoned that this fury of the people would cost the king and France many a sorrowful day, Francois de Montmorency, who was nearly related to the dead man, and still more his friend, and who moreover had escaped the danger in time, had him taken by night from the gibbet by trusty men and carried to Chantilly, where he was buried in the chapel.


Print by Flemish-German artist Frans Hogenberg depicts on the lower left the assassination attempt on Coligny of August 22, 1573, and on the right the next night’s bedroom attack upon the wounded man, with the murderers spilling his body out the window. (Click for a larger image)

(Belatedly) part of the Themed Set: Executions in Effigy.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Disfavored Minorities,Executed in Effigy,Execution,France,God,Hanged,History,Nobility,Not Executed,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1622: Charles Spinola, martyr in Japan

Add comment September 10th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1622, Jesuit Charles Spinola was martyred in Nagasaki.

He was the son of both Spanish noble stock and the spirit of missionary martyrdom that swelled in Europe’s Age of Discovery. As a young man, Spinola thrilled to reports of evangelists suffering for the faith in the New World, for “to die for the faith, to shed his blood for Jesus Christ, seemed to him supreme happiness. Thenceforward all his thoughts tended to the means of attaining this end.” Indeed, his very decision to enter the Jesuit order was “impelled by his ardor for martyrdom.”*

And he would need the ardor, because merely to attain the scene of this hoped-for Calvary in distant Japan would require a Homeric six-year odyssey featuring a shipwreck, a pestilence, a stint in an English prison, nearly drowning in the Caribbean, nearly dying of fever in Goa, and outmaneuvering the attempted interpositions of his powerful family who aspired to a more comfortable and proximate appointment for their kin.

Finally alighting in Nagasaki in 1602, Spinola enjoyed or endured (as the mathematically disposed reader will infer) a twenty-year chase for the palm of martyrdom. He passed most of those years in the small and unglamorous labors of religious and managerial constancy necessary to tend the growing flame of Christianity in Japan.

Around 1612 Japan’s tenuous toleration of Christian proselytizing began taking a turn very much for the worse. The only recently coalesced state had long feared that the Catholic priests dispatched by Spain and Portugal portended the imperial domination visited elsewhere in Asia. Were these Christians, now perhaps two million strong, being prepared as a fifth column?

Spinola went underground, going by the foreshadowing alias “Joseph of the Cross”, a haunt of the shadows who was obliged to conceal himself from daylight because his foreign features were instantly recognizable. With the help of Nagasaki’s ample Christian community he eluded capture for an amazingly long time.

For nearly two years and a half I have devoted myself to encourage and support the Christians of this country, not without great difficulty. Having no home, I pass secretly from house to house, to hear confessions and celebrate our holy mysteries by night. Most of my time I spend in utter solitude, deprived of all human converse and consolation, having only that which God gives to those who suffer for his love … However I am tolerably well, and, though destitute of almost everything and taking but one scanty meal a day, I do not fall away. Does not this prove that “man liveth not by bread alone?”

-Letter of Spinola dated March 20, 1617

He wouldn’t be caught for almost two more years yet after that letter, in December 1618 — whereupon, “seeing that he was discovered, he raised his eyes and hands towards heaven, and in a burst of unutterable joy, humbly thanked God.” God was still going to make Charles Spinola wait another four years for martyrdom, time mostly spent in the “tedium” (Spinola’s word) of prison with some other Christians, on a diet of meager rice portions and regular penitential self-flagellation.

Spinola burned when the time finally came with twenty-one other holy martyrs … plus three Japanese converts who attempted to apostatize to escape the flame, but were put to the stake just the same.

* These quotes, and a good deal of this post’s narrative, come from the public domain hagiography Life of the Blessed Charles Spinola, of the Society of Jesus.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,History,Japan,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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Feast Day of Pope Pontian and Antipope Hippolytus

1 comment August 13th, 2017 Headsman

August 13 is the shared feast date* of third century saint and antipope — two adjectives rarely held in common — Hippolytus of Rome, and the official pope to whom he reconciled in the end, Pontian.

His legend, including his feast date, has been muddled with another ancient martyr of the same name, and even with the mythological son of Theseus — from which also derives the etymologically apt fancy that St. Hippolytus met his end by the straining of horses.**


The central panel (click for the full image) of the St. Hippolyte Triptych, from the Sint-Salvator Cathedral in Bruges, Belgium. (via the blog of Canadian Archbishop Terrence Prendergast) Attributed to Dieric Bouts and Hugo van der Goes, this image was commissioned by a courtier of Charles the Bold, Hippolyte de Berthoz — who also underwrote other depictions of his namesake’s martyrdom.

But Hippolytus the theologian and cleric was no fable.

Zealous after the correct doctrine in an age of heretical pitfalls like modalism and alogianism, Hippolytus clashed with Pope Zephyrinus and his successor Callixtus over their leniency — not only for heterodoxy but also for sinful conduct like adultery.

This timeless horn-locking between purists and pragmatists led Hippolytus to take his flock out of the Roman communion in opposition to Callixtus, and apparently to maintain himself as antipope for the best part of a generation — the very first recorded antipope, in fact.

Ironically it was the schismatic’s perspicacious quill that would bear to posterity much of our understanding of Christianity in the early third century. Apostolic Tradition, whose attribution to Hippolytus is contested, is a rare source on the early liturgy; Refutation of All Heresies helpfully catalogues dozens of beliefs disfavored of its author among pagan and Christian sects. He wrote a chronicle of the world since its creation, a compendium of ecclesiastical law, and numerous Biblical commentaries.

While world-shaping controversies gripped the sacerdotal space, the temporal world spiraled toward Rome’s Third Century Crisis, a periodization commonly dated to the rise of the cruel barracks-emperor Maximinus in the very year of our rival pontiffs’ martyrdoms, 235.

Maximinus’s years in the purple were short and sanguinary, harbinger of many like decades to come. “Italy and the whole empire were infested with innumerable spies and informers,” Gibbon wrote.

On the slightest accusation, the first of the Roman nobles, who had governed provinces, commanded armies, and been adorned with the consular and triumphal ornaments, were chained on the public carriages, and hurried away to the emperor’s presence. Confiscation, exile, or simple death, were esteemed uncommon instances of his lenity. Some of the unfortunate sufferers he ordered to be sewed up in the hides of slaughtered animals, others to be exposed to wild beasts, others again to be beaten to death with clubs.

Both Pontian and Hippolytus were arrested at Maximinus’s order, which was scarcely an act of pagan reverence on the latter’s part since he was also noted for stripping the traditional temples of valuables that could be melted into currency.

Banished to Sardinia for rough handling that was tantamount to a death sentence, the two men reconciled before attaining the crown of martyrdom.

Numerous cities in France (and one in Quebec) are named for St. Hippolytus.

* It’s the feast date in the Roman church. The Orthodox world honors Hippolytus on January 30.

** He’s the patron saint of horses, too.

† A reading of On Christ and the Antichrist is available free from Librivox.

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