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.
On this day..
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- 1663: William Dillon, anatomized and diarized - 2019
- 1984: Ten members of the Tudeh party - 2017
- 1881: Edwin C. Hayden, Vermonster - 2016
- 1601: Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex - 2015
- 1920: Albert Fournier - 2014
- 1969: The peasants of Thanh Phong (allegedly) - 2013
- 1897: Henri-Osime Basset - 2012
- 1716: Four Jacobite rebels at Liverpool - 2011
- 1922: Henri Landru, French Bluebeard - 2010
- 1536: Jacob Hutter, Anabaptist leader - 2009
- 1879: Charles Peace, Victorian cat burglar - 2008