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Archive Visit 12: The Letter from the Martyr

Cassie Bendel

Posted on January 17 2021

Archive Visit 12: The Letter from the Martyr

A newspaper article. A portion of a letter that looks like it could still be brand new. These are the kinds of items humans sometimes leave behind without always knowing their impact. One of my favorite musicals, Hamilton, uses the words “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” as one of it’s refrains. That feels appropriate for the story of Fr. Charles D. Simons, a Jesuit priest killed in China who had a connection to the Mount.

A clipping from the January 17, 1941, edition of The Catholic Advance of the Diocese of Wichita, Kansas, found in the archives gives a glimpse of his life and death…

San Jose, Calif. – The Rev. Charles D. Simons, S.J, who was shot to death about January 1 in Shuyang, Kiangsu province, China, apparently by Chinese bandits, held several distinctions. He was a member of the first American Jesuit mission band sent to China in 1928, was the first Jesuit of the California province to be ordained in China, and was probably the first Jesuit to be martyred in the fifth century of the existence of his society. Making this record more unusual is the news from Utah that he was a convert from a non-Catholic family.

Fr. Simons’ family wasn’t entirely non-Catholic, though. He had a cousin serving the Church as a Sister at Mount de Chantal. In 1936, he was carrying on correspondence with Sister Mary Magdalene. Here’s a look at one of their letters:

Return Soon

Catholic Mission

Shuyang, KU-China

Mar 15, 1936

Sr. M. Magdalene,

Mt. de Chantal

My Dear Cousin,

                It was a thrill of deep joy to receive your letter last evening, forwarded from Shanghai. Often I have thought of you and frequently proudly mentioned that a relative of mine was a member of the Visitation Order, but for some reason or other never imagined that I should have the happiness of entering into communication with her.

                Indeed, I do remember the visit to Evanston, in 1905, I believe, though the concepts of a child not yet five years old were not over clear.

                I shall certainly offer Holy Mass on June 14th for Sr. Mary of the Sacred Heart, and still more certainly on March 24th for your own good self…

 The 1930’s and 1940’s were a crucial time in Chinese religious history. As the Japanese were occupying the country during WWII, civil conflict was also stirring among nationalists and communists, who greatly discouraged religious affiliation. By the time the Chinese Community Party came to power in 1949, most of the Jesuit priests living on the Chinese mainland had fled.

 Though Fr. Simons had lived in Shuyang for more than a decade at the time of his murder, The Catholic Advance article describes conflicts with bandits as being frequent.

                “He was taken by them several times but was released each time previous to the capture that resulted in his death,” the article reads. “In one of his last reports to the United States Father Simons wrote: “Life is frightfully jittery now…orders to close my school…my Christians are being arrested by the Communists… so if some of us find a lazy way to heaven, do not be surprised.”

 While the article here refers to Fr. Simon as a martyr, I couldn’t find anything that specifically states he is regarded that way within the Catholic Church, where martyrdom is sometimes a stepping-stone on the way to eventual sainthood. Oddly enough, Fr. Simons’ nickname was one point was reportedly Sancte (Saint). What cannot be disputed, is the inspiring nature of Fr. Simons’ sacrifice and commitment to his faith, even 80 years later.

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