Catholics in Lancang River Valley, China memorialize missionaries

  • At Xiaoweixi village, Pope Francis has a place of honor in the parish house and museum, as does one of the martyred French priests who helped found the community.
  • The well-preserved missionaries' graves in the mountain cemetery above Cigu church, Yunnan, China. In an important way, these are the saints who locals hold in esteem.
  • Wedding photos and sacred images in the living room of a family home in Cizhong, Yunnan.
  • The living, dining and kitchen space of a home in Cizhong. The top reads, "Everything has its true origin, or reason for being." The sides read, "All powerful, Absolute perfection, All knowing, All capable. Ultimate justice, fairness, benevolence."
  • China's two most ubiquitous saints, the Virgin Mary (here as the Immaculate Conception) and Saint Joseph in Cizhong, Yunnan, China. The Lourdes image recalls the early French missionary influence here.
  • Stations of the cross at the Cizhong Catholic church, Yunnan Province, China.
  • The interior of Cigu Catholic Church. Photo by Liu Haiming.
  • St. Joseph, one of the Patrons of China, at Cigu church, Yunnan Province, China.
  • The Virgin Mary's image, adorned in silk as a sign of devotion, at Cigu Catholic Church, Yunnan province. The original site of the larger mission to the region, it was rebuilt by local villagers in the 1980s.
  • At Niuren Catholic Church, the top line says, "God is love." The left banner proclaims, "Spread (or Propagate) love, Spread loyalty, Overflowing salvation, Grand design." Right banner reads, "Overseer of all, God's wisdom, Right order under heaven."
  • At Cizhong Catholic Church, parishioners have brought religious images to be blessed for their homes at Easter.
  • Easter Mass at Cizhong Catholic Church, Yunnan, China, 2015.
  • A statue of the Immaculate Conception at the front, and an image of the Immaculate Heart of Mary at right, mark this as the women's side of the church at Cizhong.
  • Xiaoweixi Catholic Church, which serves mostly minority Lisu people in Tong Wei Village, Yunnan China. The words above the altar are "Altar Sacrifice" and "Mercy and Forgiveness."
  • Mary altar at the Xiaoweixi church, Yunnan.
  • Stations of the Cross in Xiaoweixi church, Tong Wei Village, Yunnan, China.
  • The living, dining and kitchen space of a home in Cizhong. The top reads, "Everything has its true origin, or reason for being." The sides read, "All powerful, Absolute perfection, All knowing, All capable. Ultimate justice, fairness, benevolence."

As is true elsewhere in China, the constellation of saints in the Lancang River area among Tibetan, Naxi and Lisu people is quite small. Aside from the crucifix and the Sacred Heart, stations of the Cross and occasional symbols of God the Father or the Holy Spirit, the only other Catholic religious personages one encounters are Mary and Joseph, who are found to the left and right side of altars. These devotions make sense in light of the French, and later Swiss missionaries who led the communities and surely fostered them.

Other saints are absent.  Asked about that, one priest in Yunnan replied, “That’s true.  I don’t know why,” and confirmed that the saints were largely absent not only visually, but in terms of devotion.

In another sense, some local saints are extremely significant to the Catholic communities there. The churches at Cizhong and Xiaoweixi go to great lengths to memorialize, in little museums next to the churches, the French and Swiss missionaries who led these churches for so long. The images in the museums focus on the lives of the missionaries, but do not emphasize that one of their number, Maurice Tornay, had been beatified by Pope John Paul II. The Catholic cemetery at Cigu has very carefully restored the tombs of the priests who were martyred there in 1905, and has an altar to them. Francis Lim, who spent considerable time in these communities, describes Tibetan Catholics as being very eager to describe and remember the tortuous murders committed by Buddhist monks against the priests.1 Local lay people who suffered persecutions are apparently remembered as well, though this is too politically sensitive a subject to discuss in any depth with outsiders.

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Footnotes