Saint Auguste Chapdelaine
Feb 26, 2016 / Written by: America Needs Fatima
Feast February 29
Auguste was born in La Rochelle, on January 6, 1814, the eighth of nine children of Nicolas Chapdelaine and Madeleine Dodeman. The ancestral cradle of the Chapdelaines was located in Lower Normandy, near Mont Saint Michael, and the family could trace their Gallo-Roman and Viking ancestry back to the mid-thirteenth century.
After grammar school, Auguste worked on the family farm. Being physically strong, it is understandable that his parents, needing him at home, would object to his desire to become a priest. But, with the sudden death of two of his brothers including the youngest, they realized that God wanted their Auguste as a priest and acquiesced to his wish. On October 1, 1834, at the age of 20, he entered the minor seminary of Mortain, studying with boys only 12 and 13 years old.
His father died the following year. Making up for lost time by arduous study, Auguste entered the Seminary of Coutances and was ordained to the priesthood on June 10, 1843. He spent the next eight months with his family in La Rochelle before being appointed as associate pastor in Boucey, on February 23, 1844.
A Missionary's Calling
Before his assignment in Boucey, Father Chapdelaine confided to his brother that he “had not become a priest for those who already know God, but for those who don’t.” He wished to enter the French Foreign Missions immediately after ordination but submitted humbly to the will of his superiors. For seven years, he would remain in Boucey, under the guidance of the elderly and infirm pastor, Father Oury. Despite his parish work, Father Auguste never wavered in his desire: to found a mission church, then die! Still, he was not getting any younger.
When Father Oury died in April, 1849, Father Chapdelaine was already 35 years old, the age limit to enter the French Foreign Missions. Yet, despite his ardent desire to enter, he would serve under the new pastor, Father Poupinet, for another two years. Then, in January, 1851, Bishop Robiou authorized him to leave the diocese for the Foreign Missions – if they would have a 37-year-old priest! Despite his age, Father Chapdelaine immediately reapplied for admission. In face of such zeal, he was accepted. Returning to La Rochelle he found his entire family assembled, not to bid him farewell but to his sister, Victoria, who had just died. After the funeral, Auguste announced his departure for Paris and let it be known he would never see his family again. Eight days later, he boarded the train for Paris. On March 15, 1851, the young man who had entered minor seminary at age 20 was now entering the French Foreign Missions two years over the age limit, not only was his a late vocation but one that would be forever delayed in the attainment of its goals.
Preparations for the Journey
The motherhouse of the French Foreign Missions on Rue du Bac had produced so many martyrs for the Faith in Indochina and China that it was termed the “Polytechnic Institute of Martyrs." Directed by veteran missionaries, the seminary would evaluate Father Chapdelaine for his zeal, devotion and stamina to withstand the rigors of missionary life. Upon the completion of his probationary year, on March 29, 1852, Father Chapdelaine met with his director. For a long time after this meeting, he knelt before the altar, lost in prayer, then he penned a letter to his mother.
“... I am being sent to China. You must make the sacrifice for God and He will reward you in eternity. You shall appear before Him in confidence, at your death, remembering your generosity, for His greatest glory, in sacrificing what is dearest to you. As a sign of your consent, please sign the letter you will send me as soon as possible, and as a sign of your forgiveness for all the sorrow I have caused you, and as sign of your blessing, please add a cross after your name.” He then wrote to his brother, Nicolas. “I thank God for the wonderful family He has given me, and for the conduct of all its members.... It has been my greatest happiness on earth to have had such an honorable family.” Still, he made a final trip to Normandy, meeting his brother, Nicolas, and sister-in-law, Marie, in Caen on April 22, to make arrangements for Masses to be offered for his parents, for himself and for all his family members. On April 29, the imposing departure ceremony was held in the chapel of Our Lady, Queen of Martyrs. The next day, accompanied by five other missionaries, Father Chapdelaine left Paris. Being the oldest, he was given charge of the group and control of its purse.
Sailing Off to Foreign Lands
After a few days in Brussels, the six apostles boarded the Dutch ship, Henri-Joseph, at Anvers on May 5, 1852. Violent storms, seasickness, and unfavorable winds dogged and delayed their voyage. They were not to set foot on dry land for four months, landing in Singapore on September 5. While in Singapore, the aspiring and zealous missionary was delayed in his quest yet again, robbed by bandits who took everything he had. He spent the next two years trying to replenish his wardrobe and the necessary supplies for his mission in China.
On October 15, a Portuguese vessel offered them passage north towards Hong-Kong. However, the torrential rains and fierce winds of the monsoon forced them to return to Borneo and then head towards the Philippines in a voyage filled with storms and hurricanes. Their vessel finally anchored in the harbor of Macao on the evening of Christmas Day, 1852. Hong-Kong lay only sixty kilometers away in the estuary of the Canton River, but it too was a dangerous undertaking, the area being infested with naval pirates. It took them another twelve hours to reach Hong-Kong, the gateway of the Celestial Empire. Received at the house of the French Foreign Missions, Father Chapdelaine and his companions were to remain with his missionary confreres in Hong-Kong for ten and a half months while perfecting their command of the Chinese language.
Journey to Guangxi
On October 12, 1853, accompanied by some Christians, he set out for the missionary territory assigned to him in the Chinese province of Guangxi. All the hardships of his journeys by sea were now replaced by those on land: fast-flowing rivers, high mountain ranges, and bandits. Encouraged by the small groups of Christians they encountered on their way, they reached the mission at Kouy-Yang in February, 1854 where they were received by three missionary confreres. While resting and awaiting the opportunity of penetrating into Guangxi, he was given the pastoral care of three villages. During this time, he adopted the dress and appearance of the Chinese: black suit, moustache and long thin beard, and his long hair bound in a queue down his back. He also wore the black hat common to Chinese scholars.
Finally, in 1854, Father Chapdelaine made the acquaintance of a young widow who was well versed in Sacred Scripture and knowledgeable of the Faith. Agnès Tsao-Kouy agreed to accompany him to Guangxi, located on the northeast border of Vietnam, and to catechize the 30-40 Christian families living there.
Persecution and Martyrdom
In 1854, the authorities still held that no evangelizing by Christians was permitted. Father Auguste celebrated his first Mass in Guangxi on December 8, 1854. Nine days later, the authorities arrested him in Su-lik-hien. He spent the next 5 months in close confinement before his release was secretly obtained in April, 1855. His apostolic endeavors during the next 8 months bore abundant fruits, but were by no means uncontested.
In December, 1855, Father Chapdelaine secretly returned to Guangxi, living in hiding among the Christian families of Su-lik-hien, ministering to their spiritual needs and converting hundreds of others. He was arrested on the night of February 25, 1856 and returned to the prison in Su-lik-hien where the Chinese magistrate had him sentenced to death. The French missionary had been denounced by Bai San, a relative of one of the new converts. He was subjected to excruciating tortures and indignities and then suspended in an iron cage outside the jail. He died from the severity of his sufferings; his head was decapitated and kept on public display for some time, his body was thrown to the dogs.
Two others accompanied him to his martyrdom: the widow-catechist, Agnès Tsao-Kouy, and another devout layman, Laurent Pe-man, an unassuming laborer. All three were beatified by Pope Leo XIII on May 27, 1900 and canonized together a century later. His feast day is February 29th.