St. John Gabriel Perboyre • Missionary to China, and Martyr
Childhood • Following the French Revolution, Napoleon in 1801 brought religious peace to France. The country was still Catholic, especially rural France. • Pierre Perboyre and his wife Marie on a small farm in Puech near Cahors typified the French peasant’s faith. God blessed them with eight children. Three sons became priests in the Congregation of the Mission (Vincentians), and two daughters entered the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul.
Childhood • John Gabriel was born on January 6, 1802. • At 6 years of age, he was given charge of a small flock of sheep. According to the custom at that time, all children worked at home or on farms for 6 months of the year in summer. For the other 6 colder months, they went to the parish church, where the pastor taught them catechism and usually had a small school to teach other subjects. Perboyre home
Childhood • Meanwhile, his piety was noticed by the pastor and all the people. He loved to visit the Blessed Sacrament and pray. They called him the little saint and said that when he was praying "you could walk over him and he wouldn't notice it". • He loved the poor and often saved his bread from meals to give to wandering beggars, of whom there were many because of the French Revolution.
Vocation • John Gabriel’s older brother, Louis, had expressed his desire to become a priest. His parents decided to send him to Montauban, where his uncle, Rev. Jacques Perboyre, C.M., was conducting his own seminary. Since Louis was only 13 and quite sickly, the parents sent John Gabriel, then 15, with him, to look after Louis' health for a few months and help him in his studies. It was winter and there was little farm work. When it was time for John Gabriel to come home, he refused, saying that it was God's will that he become a priest as well.
Director of Novices, 1832-1835 • John Gabriel wished to be a Vincentian and also go to China to preach the Gospel. However, his superiors appointed him a novice director in the Vincentian Motherhouse. He still had his missionary longings but poor health stood in the way. His doctor said after examining him that the ocean voyage alone would kill him. That night, the doctor became agitated and could not sleep-- the next day he changed his mind, saying that he saw the voyage to the Orient as a possible cure. John Gabriel’s superiors took this as a sign of God’s will.
To China: March 1835 • Five months at sea brought John Gabriel to Macao where he studied Chinese. At that time, Macao was a Portugese colony and was considered the main gate to China. Here the Vincentians had 2 houses. • In December, along with several missionaries, he set sail from Macao in a junk. Since the Chinese law forbade the entry of Christian missionaries, the captain and crew disguised themselves as merchants and smuggled John Gabriel on to the mainland of China.
Trip to the Interior: 1835 • Fr. John Gabriel was appointed to the Honan mission in Hu-psi, which meant a long trip to the interior of China in disguise. In February 1836, he left Macao with a Chinese guide. They had a 9-week boat trip along the coast of South China to Tou-gan, then up the river to Fokien. Then 20 days on foot through Kien-chang-fou in Kiang-si Province. Next in a small boat by river thru Nan-chang-fou, the capital of Kiang-si. Another 18 days by small boat up the Yang-tze River brought them to Wu-chang, the place of St. Francis Clet's martyrdom.
Arrival at His New Home • By June they had arrived at Honan where they rested 20 days. The final walk brought them to Nan-yang in August. This was Fr. Perboyre's assignment-- the same house in which St. Francis Regis Clet had been taken prisoner. • He was finally in his new home-- his mission-- after 17 months of traveling over some 24,000 miles by every type of ship, boat and by foot.
Daunting Mission • Fr, Perboyre himself in his letters supplied these interesting statistics for all of China: about 220,000 Catholics out of a population of 300 million or less than one tenth of 1 percent Catholic. For them, about 80 Chinese priests and 40 foreign missionaries.
Life in China • Father Perboyre suffered a severe attack of fever that forced him to rest for three months. He lived with 2 Chinese Vincentian priests who helped him to continue to learn Chinese. They took turns guiding him on short mission trips of from 1 to 2 weeks, introducing him to the Catholics, showing him the safest back roads and lanes and how to conduct these missions. He spent the years 1837 and 1838 reanimating the faith in Catholic villages by preaching, catechizing and administering the sacraments.
Life in China • According to Fr. Perboyre’s letters, most of the people were poor and lived in straw houses with dirt floors, as did the missionaries. The churches were the same. These mission trips were usually very difficult and quite dangerous. There was always the chance of being recognized or being betrayed, depending on the good or bad will of the local officials. • Usually there were 1,000 Catholics for Mass, inside and outside the church, even in rain and snow.
Model of Vincentian Virtues • Fr. Perboyre wrote of many miracles among the devout Catholics, especially in connection with the use of the Miraculous Medal of Mary, which had just been manifested 25 or so years earlier in 1830 to St. Catherine Laboure. • Fr. Perboyre wore an iron chain around his waist for mortification. To prepare his people for persecution, which might break out at any time, he constantly preached on suffering and persecution and the glory of martyrdom.
Persecution Breaks Out • In 1839, a persecution broke out in Hu-pei. A young Christian of Nan-kiang had informed on the Christians and missionaries. The officials sent troops to round them up. On Sept 15, 1839, four Vincentian priests had just finished Mass, when they were informed that the persecution had broken out. Fr. Perboyre made sure that everyone else was safe, before he too escaped to a nearby bamboo forest. The soldiers were angry on seeing that all had gone and completely plundered the mission and burned it down.
Betrayed and Captured • At night he would leave the forest and go to a Christian's home where he had a little food, had his beard cut off and slept. But here he was betrayed when soldiers threatened a man who then led them to the exact spot where Fr. Perboyre and 3 Christians were hiding. • When they saw they were surrounded, his companions wanted to fight their way out with knives, but Fr. Perboyre refused to let them use any violence.
As a Prisoner: Sept. 1839 - Sept. 1840 • They took Fr. Perboyre to the top of the mountain, stripped off his clothes and put rags on him; they beat him and marched him to the market place at Koang-yin-tang. • Frequently tortured in prison, Fr. Perboyre refused to betray his faith and his associates. The guards would tread on the cross and beat him with bamboo rods. He was questioned, hung by the thumbs and made to kneel on chains for 4 hours at a time. He lost a finger and part of one foot from putrefaction.
As a Prisoner: Sept. 1839 - Sept. 1840 • There were other tortures too numerous and cruel to mention but Fr. Perboyre never once cried out. Usually, he had to carried back and forth to these trials because he could no longer walk a step. • One time, when they asked him to step on the crucifix, though he could barely move, he leaned over, picked up the crucifix, kissed it and embraced it. The soldiers in anger tore it from him, smashed it, and gave him 110 blows with a bamboo rod.
Condemned to Death • In April, 1840 Fr. Perboyre was condemned to death by strangulation for teaching a false religion. This sentence had to be approved by the emperor. By this point Fr. Perboyre was unable to speak or walk, stand up or even sit up. • After his condemnation, Fr. Yang, C.M. was able to visit him. When he first saw Fr. Perboyre's condition, he couldn't say a word but just stood there weeping at the horrible sight. Finally he was able to hear his confession.
Death of St. John Gabriel Perboyre • John Gabriel Perboyre was executed on September 11, 1840, in the Chinese custom of being tied to a stake and triple strangled. Andrew Fong, a generous and valiant catechist who had aided Father Perboyre in his imprisonment, retrieved his body and buried it in the Christian cemetery where St. Francis Regis Clet, C.M., was buried. Both their remains now repose in the chapel of the Vincentian Motherhouse in Paris, France.
Canonization • The heroic suffering and death of John Gabriel led to his beatification in 1889. And in recent times, Pope John Paul II canonized him as Saint John Gabriel Perboyre, C.M., on June 2nd 1996.
Miracles • After a year of the most barbarous tortures, Fr. Perboyre's body on the cross looked beautiful, fresh and young with no marks or scars. Many pagans were converted by this fact alone. • At his death, a large, distinct, bright, luminous cross appeared in heaven. This was seen by many people, near and far, pagans and Christians, living in different communities. That same luminous cross appeared again months later over his tomb.
Miracles • In France, there was in 1847 a girl in the Daughters of Charity hospital, dying of typhoid fever. She was annointed, and the doctors gave her up as a hopeless case. This was in the neighborhood of Fr. Perboyre's birth and childhood, so there was great devotion to him. The family and Daughters of Charity started a novena to Fr. Perboyre and she was suddenly completely cured.
Miracles • In 1841 in another part of France, there was a Daughter of Charity who over several months was dying of pleuro-pneumonia; the doctors too gave her case up. She could do nothing-- eat, talk or move. The Sisters began a novena to the new martyr and the Sister was immediately cured, sat up and ate the equivalent of several meals. • These are only a few of the hundreds of miracles reported from all over the world.
The Prayer of St. John Gabriel Perboyre • O my Divine Savior, transform me into Yourself. May my hands be the hands of Jesus. May my tongue be the tongue of Jesus. Grant that every faculty of my body may serve only to glorify You. Above all, transform my soul and all its powers so that my memory, will and affections may be the memory, will and affections of Jesus. • I pray You to destroy in me all that is not of You. Grant that I may live but in You, by You and for You, so that I may truly say, with St. Paul, "I live-- now not I-- but Christ lives in me."
Sources:http://jgperboyre.blogspot.comJohn Gabriel Perboyre, the Vincentian Center for Church and Society at St. John’s University (http://vincenter.org/node/125)For further reading, try:John Gabriel Perboyre by Thomas Davitt, CM(http://via.library.depaul.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1041&context=vhj)