November 2023 Print

The Paris Foreign Missions Society and Catholic Evangelization in Southeast Asia

By Angeline Tan

Located in the chic 7th arrondissement of Paris, near the Boulevard Saint-Germain and the River Seine, Rue du Bac is a fascinating and quaint street that appeals to French residents and foreign visitors alike.

The many antique shops, boutiques, delectable pastry and cheese shops, as well as the famous Grande Epicerie de Paris that dot the street attract locals and secular tourists amidst their errands or flânerie.

Of particular interest to many Roman Catholic pilgrims would be the chapel of the Motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity, now known as Notre Dame de la Médaille-Miraculeuse, located at Number 140 Rue du Bac. It was at this humble chapel where the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to St. Catherine Labouré, a religious of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, unveiled the Miraculous Medal to the saintly nun, and instructed her to propagate it.

Yet perhaps not many people are aware of the significance of the buildings numbered 118, 120 and 128 along the same street. The unassuming quality of these buildings belies the fact that they have served as the headquarters and seminary of the Société des Missions étrangères de Paris or MEP (Paris Foreign Missions) for hundreds of years.

Building of the Missions étrangères de Paris, Rue du Bac, Paris (MEP).

Origins of the MEP

Founded in response to the atmosphere of general reform of the Church after the Council of Trent, as well as to the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, the MEP was one group whose only apostolate would be the foreign missions.

Rather than being a religious order, the MEP was and still is a congregation of secular priests who abide by a rule approved by the Holy See as well as the Foreign Missions seminary. After joining the congregation, all missionaries promise to dedicate their entire lives to the service of the missions. On its end, the MEP would provide spiritual and temporal support to its missionaries. Appointed by the Pope, vicars apostolic acting as bishops in their assigned territories would have jurisdiction independent of royal patronage. In other words, the MEP did not have to rely on the control of the erstwhile missionary colonial powers of Portugal and Spain.

Notably, MEP missionaries labored for the salvation of souls in many parts of the Far East and in Canada. The congregation contributed immensely to the Catholic evangelization of huge parts of East and Southeast Asia and hence enjoys a prominent role in the missionary history of the Church.

1856 departures of MEP missionaries.

First Missions in Siam

In 1662, Siam (present-day Thailand) was the first destination evangelized by zealous missionaries led by Bishop Pierre Lambert de la Motte, a founding member of the MEP. In 1674, under Pope Clement IX, Bishop de la Motte consecrated Louis Laneau as the first bishop to Siam. King Narai, monarch of the Siamese kingdom at that time, welcomed the missionaries amid his desire to establish cordial ties with France. Under Narai’s reign, ties between Siam and the Vatican were established.

Notwithstanding political chaos in Siam that ultimately resulted in the expulsion of the French missionaries and their converts, the seeds of Catholicism had already taken root. In 1851, King Rama IV sent a diplomatic message to Blessed Pope Pius IX, restarting past ties. In 1897, Pope Leo XIII had an audience with King Rama V, the first Siamese monarch to visit the Vatican. Years later in 1983, Pope John Paul II appointed Cardinal Michael Michai Kitbunchu as Thailand’s first cardinal, with the country hosting its inaugural papal visit the following year.

St. Laurent Imbert and His Singapore Connection

In 1821, Bishop Esprit Marie Joseph Florens as Apostolic Vicar of Siam asked Rev. Fr. Laurent Marie Joseph Imbert to visit the then newly established trading post of Singapore to evaluate the situation there. Fr. Imbert recommended that Bishop Florens should at least send a visiting priest who could occasionally minister to Catholics there. In his report dated December 15, 1821 to the bishop, Fr. Imbert wrote:

“I have reached Singapore on the 11th instant, and have visited according to your Lordship’s request the Catholics of this new settlement. There are only 12 or 13 in number and seem to lead a wretched life.”

Fortunately, a Papal Decree in 1827 had granted the Apostolic Vicar of Siam jurisdiction over Singapore, the Malaya Peninsula, and Martaban (Burma). Eventually, the first resident MEP missionaries established the Singapore mission base in 1832 and started their work of spreading the True Faith among the immigrant population there. A new church to accommodate the growing number of Catholics in Singapore was set up as the Good Shepherd, and known colloquially as Greja Franchis (French Church). For the next three decades or so, the work of the MEP missionaries bore fruit, as evidenced in the rising Catholic congregation in Singapore that made it necessary to build more churches.

Martyrdom of Saint Pierre Borie, November 24, 1838, in Tonkin, Vietnam. Vietnamese painting.

Singapore’s first resident MEP priest, Fr. Etienne Albrand, who had arrived in May 1833, welcomed his first Chinese converts among immigrants from China, especially from Chao Chou region in Kwangtung. By September of that same year, Fr. Albrand already had a hundred Chinese converts in his mission field.

But the MEP’s mission in Singapore was fraught with challenges. Both Fr. Albrand and his converts were threatened daily by members of a local Chinese secret society as the latter were unhappy that their fellow Chinese were listening to French evangelists like Fr. Albrand and converting to a “foreign” religion. To complicate matters, rival Protestant groups also attempted to hinder the efforts of French Catholic missionaries in Singapore’s early years. As Fr. Albrand could not speak Chinese, he cooperated with a Chinese catechist who had been converted in the Penang mission in 1829. Through the instrumentality of this catechist, Catholic converts in Singapore continued to grow.

St. Laurent-Joseph-Marius Imbert, martyred in Korea (September 21, 1839) (MEP).

Fr. Imbert’s missionary work did not stop with Singapore. The priest would toil for the Faith as Bishop in Korea. With the hostile Korean authorities demanding that all Christians be killed in 1839, Bishop Imbert courageously continued to preach and administer the Sacraments to the persecuted faithful. Despite being betrayed on August 10, 1839, Bishop Imbert continued celebrating Mass before surrendering himself to his persecutors.

Desiring to save his flock, Bishop Imbert thought that if he and the other priests gave their lives up and remained silent as to the identity of their Korean converts, the latter would be spared from the wrath of the authorities. The saintly bishop wrote to Fathers Chastan and Maubant, declaring:

“In desperate circumstances, the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”

Later, all three prelates were imprisoned, interrogated and tortured to force them to disclose converts’ names and whereabouts. Nonetheless, the three missionaries remained steadfast till they were decapitated and received the crown of martyrdom on September 21, 1839. They were beatified in 1925 and canonized by Pope John Paul II in Seoul on May 6, 1984, along with 100 martyrs.

Today, St. Imbert’s relics can be venerated in the Good Shepherd Cathedral in Singapore, a bustling Asian city-state that celebrated 200 years since the Catholic Faith arrived at its shores in 2021, and currently with a Catholic population of over 300,000.

St. Théophane Vénard, Martyr in Tonkin

A Modern Martyr, The Life of St. Theophane Venard is available from Angelus Press.

Another MEP missionary, Jean-Théophane Vénard, was martyred for the Faith in Tonkin (present-day Việt Nam). After reading The Propagation of the Faith Review, a magazine that extolled the deeds of Catholic missionaries and about the life of Fr. Cornay, a native of the diocese of Poitiers who was beheaded for the faith in Tonkin in 1837, a young Vénard declared that “I want to go to Tonkin, too! I want to die a martyr, too!”

After his ordination as a priest at age 22, Fr. Vénard received a travel order for Tonkin in 1854, a piece of news which he received with jubilation:

“I’m not losing out!” he exclaimed, writing humorously to one of his friends: “Tell my friend Paziot that I am going to Tonkin and that he should prepare a shrine for my future relics.”

“I have received my travel order for Tonkin… I am going to a part they call West Tonkin. It is there that Venerable Charles Cornay was martyred…”

True enough, whenever MEP missionaries like Fr. Vénard were dispatched, they sang a “Song of Departure” which exclaimed:

“Death: this is the magnificent future that our God reserves for his soldiers.”

Meanwhile, over in Tonkin, anti-Catholic persecutions under Emperor Minh Mạng forced Catholic priests to hide in caves and in forests, ministering to the faithful only at night.

Catholics did not fare better under Emperor Tự Đức’s reign either. Owing to fears for his safety, the faithful who were sheltering Fr. Vénard from the authorities did not inform him that a dying man was asking for him. When the priest came to know about the dying man’s desire, the normally meek Fr. Vénard was riled: “I would rather die than let my Christians die without my assistance!”

Not too long after, Fr. Vénard was betrayed and exposed as a Catholic priest, but only after he had consecrated himself as a slave to the Blessed Virgin Mary, according to the method prescribed by St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Monfort. When asked by an unbelieving viceroy to trample on a crucifix in exchange for saving his life, Fr. Vénard responded:

“What! I have preached the faith of the Cross till this day, and now you want me to renounce it? I do not value life in this world so much that I wish to preserve it at the cost of an apostasy!”

Remains of Théophane Vénard at the MEP (PHGCOM).

Refusing to deny his Faith, a resolute Fr. Vénard spent the remaining weeks of his life incarcerated in a tiny bamboo cage, writing letters to family and confreres. One of his more famous lines were:

“If I obtain the grace of martyrdom, I will remember you especially. Let us meet in Heaven! We will see each other above!”

Eventually, Fr. Vénard received the news that he was to be beheaded on February 2, 1861, the feast of the Purification of Our Lady.

“Father, the Kingdom of God is very close to you…” a Catholic soldier told him. The priest then requested for new white clothes, to go to his “eternal wedding.”

When his executioner demanded money to kill him without extra suffering, Fr. Vénard replied: “The longer it lasts, the better it will be.”

His decapitated head was later recovered and preserved as a relic in Việt Nam, while the remainder of his body is buried in the crypt of the Missions Etrangères in Paris. Pope John Paul II canonized Fr. Vénard in 1988.

Inspiration for the “Little Flower”

The Story of a Soul is available from Angelus Press.

Little wonder then, that St. Théophane Vénard’s missionary and sacrificial spirit later inspired St. Thérèse of Lisieux, declared posthumously by Holy Mother Church as Patroness of the Missions. Thérèse notably singled out the priest-martyr as someone who had lived out the meanings of “martyr” and “missionary.” St. Théophane Vénard’s letters inspired the Little Flower as she pursued her “Little Way” and yearned to be a missionary, even if her Carmelite superiors were to send her to a Carmel in Việt Nam. In a letter addressed to a priest, Thérèse stated:

“This will perhaps surprise you; is it not a dream that a Carmelite thinks of leaving for Tonkin? Well, no, it is not a dream, and I can assure you that if Jesus does not soon come looking for me for the Carmel of heaven, I shall one day leave for that of Hà Nội, for now there is a Carmel in that city, the Sài Gòn Carmel recently founded it.”

Even in the throes of illness, as mentioned in her autobiography, “The Story of a Soul,” Thérèse prayed that she would be healed and be free to travel to Sài Gòn:

“Let me tell you, dear Mother, why, if Our Lady cures me, I wish to respond to the call from our Mothers of Hà Nội. It appears that to live in foreign Carmels, a very special vocation is needed, and many souls think they are called without being so in reality. You have told me that I have this vocation, and that my health alone stands in the way. But if I am destined one day to leave this Carmel, it will not be without a pang.”

However, Divine Providence willed that Thérèse’s earthly “mission work” was to be within the cloister of her convent in Lisieux, with the fruits of her sacrifices and missionary self-oblation showering forth from heaven after her death and canonization, leading to the conversions of thousands.

The Blood of the Martyrs is the Seed of the Church

The aforementioned accounts of Saints Laurent Imbert and Théophane Vénard bear testament as to why Tertullian, one of the early Church Fathers of the second century, coined the phrase “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church,” in his Apologeticus to the Roman persecutors at that time:

“We are not a new philosophy but a divine revelation. That’s why you can’t just exterminate us; the more you kill the more we are. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. You praise those who endured pain and death—so long as they aren’t Christians! Your cruelties merely prove our innocence of the crimes you charge against us…”

Undeniably, Tertullian was cognizant that the intended outcome that the Roman persecutors had hoped to witness from their Christian persecutions did not materialize. According to pagan Roman reasoning, cruelly persecuting and executing Christians who refused to offer sacrifices to their idols would deter others from becoming Christian or remaining steadfast in their Faith. On the contrary, as Tertullian noted, the number of Christians only soared. This was because the martyrs’ witness to their Faith made others marvel as to how Christians could give up their lives, all for not offering a waft of incense to false Roman gods.

Catholicism Continues to Spread

Martyrdom of Jean-Charles Cornay, 1837.

Likewise, the spread of Catholicism did not cease in Southeast Asia with the heroic deaths of Saints Laurent Imbert, Théophane Vénard, and other missionary martyrs. Instead, conversions persisted and even increased, much to the chagrin of their critics and persecutors.

For example, with the defeat of the Nguyễn dynasty of Việt Nam by France, Nguyễn rulers had to permit Catholics to carry out missionary work freely in the kingdom. Item 2 of the Treaty of Sài Gòn (1862) stipulated: “French and Spanish missionaries are permitted to evangelize in Annam. The Annamese are free to become Catholic followers if they wish. No one has the right to impose any religion on the people if they do not want it.”

Similarly, Item 10 of the Giáp Tuất Peace Treaty (1874) elaborated: “Catholicism teaches people about good things. Therefore, the Vietnamese Emperor shall abolish all prohibiting decrees on Catholicism and give his permission for everyone to freely follow any religion as they wish… The Emperor shall order the destruction of all documents that keep a record of the names of Catholic followers… Bishops and priests have the right to rent and purchase land and houses, as well as build churches, hospitals, schools, and other buildings of worship; the Emperor has to return all the properties that were unfairly seized from the Catholics.”

The French colonial government granted the MEP various privileges, financially supporting Vietnamese and foreign priests and preachers. Allowances for missionary work skyrocketed from 40,000 francs in 1864 to 145,000 francs in 1879. In 1867, the colonial government granted 4,000 francs to the Sài Gòn Bishops’ Office. A mere five years later, the amount rose to 170,000 francs.

The Holy Rosary Church in Sapa town, frequently known as Stone Church, was built by the French in 1930 (Dansapa).

The number of Catholic converts in Việt Nam escalated significantly as well. In 1890, the Catholic community comprised 708,000 parishioners, 9 bishops, 575 priests and 930 churches. In 1910, the number of parishioners climbed to 900,000. In 1939, the demographics of the Catholic Church in the country rose to 1,544,765 parishioners, 1,662 priests (including 1,343 Vietnamese) and 979 parishes.

In 2022, Vietnamese Catholics at the Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Sapa town in Việt Nam gathered to commemorate the 74th anniversary of Fr. Jean Pierre Idiart Alhor Thinh, a French MEP missionary who sacrificed his life for them. Amidst intense fighting between French and communist forces in the 1940s, Fr. Thinh offered spiritual support for the Sapa parish.

Fr. Peter Pham Thanh Binh, the priest who was assigned to the Sapa parish in 2007, stated:

“It was in this stone church that our beloved Fr. Jean Thinh was beheaded while he was kneeling to pray and prepare to celebrate a Mass in the early morning of May 18, 1948. Until now, the identities of those who killed him have not been found.”

The priest added that the number of Catholics in the town alone had risen from 1,000 in 2007 to 4,200, most of them of Hmong descent. “We have been attempting to preserve the rich heritage of faith built in the early 20th century. What we have today is thanks to the heroic sacrifices made by foreign missionaries,” he proclaimed.

The Chapel at the Paris Foreign Missions Society, established in 1691 (PHGCOM).

A Modern-Day Irony

Fast forward to 2021 when a report prepared by Fides News Services and highlighted by the Vatican that the number of Roman Catholics in Asia continued to grow in 2019, amid dwindling figures in an increasingly secularized and Islamicized Europe.

With plummeting church attendance in European countries like France, home to the MEP, Asian priests and religious, particularly from countries like the Philippines and Việt Nam, are being dispatched to serve the Catholic Church in France, which sorely lacks native pastors and religious.

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, remarked in 2021 that “these past years, we have seen in Asia, in terms of proportion, percentage, an increase in the number of baptisms, and also in entry to seminaries and religious life.”

“In terms of numbers, [it is] still small, but in terms of percentage proportion, [it] is large,” he said. “And we, of course, thank the Lord.”

“Now we have many Filipinos serving as missionaries,” the cardinal declared, emphasizing that these missionaries are now not only priests and religious, but also laity, some of whom have moved to other parts of the world and who are spreading the Catholic faith.

The words of St. Luke’s Gospel state that “the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, which is indeed the least of all seeds, but grows to become a mighty tree,” (Lk. 13:19). Likewise, just as the Catholic Church in Asia was very tiny like the mustard-seed in the beginning, the sacrifices of Catholic missionaries and martyrs, such as those from the MEP, offered to God for the salvation of souls, undoubtedly merited an increase in Catholic converts in Southeast Asia, as well as on the broader continent and beyond.

Saints Laurent Imbert and Théophane Vénard, as well as all saints from the MEP, ora pro nobis!

TITLE IMAGE: Le départ des missionnaires vers l’Asie, Charles-Louis de Frédy de Coubertin, 1868. Departure ceremony at the Paris Foreign Missions Society.

Filipino Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle with the icon of St. Caesarius of Terracina by Giovanni Guida, Baptistery of Saint John the Baptist, Manila Cathedral, 2016 (Perrant).