John Gabriel Perboyre, Martyr

(A.D. 1840)

Though John Gabriel Perboyre was the first Christian in China to be beatified (in 1889) he was very far from being the first martyr in that country. After the re-establishment of the missions there in the beginning of the 17th century, there were only relatively short periods during which Christians were free from danger. At the end of the 18th century fierce persecution was carried on, and was continued sporadically till after the death of Father Perboyre in 1840, thousands of Christians gladly giving up their lives. Perboyre was born in 1802, and when he was 15 he was fired by a sermon with the ambition to be a missionary to the heathen; he joined the Congregation of the Mission (Lazarists, Vincentians), and was ordained in 1826. At first his desire to carry the gospel to foreign parts had to give way before the requirements of religious obedience. His theological course had been a brilliant one, and so after his ordination he was appointed professor in the seminary of Saint-Flour, and two years later rector of the petit séminaire in the same place. His own personal goodness was very apparent in these employments, and in 1832 he was sent to Paris to be assistant-director of the general novitiate of his congregation. At intervals since the taking of his vows 12 years before he had asked to be sent to China, from whence reports of the sufferings and heroic deaths of the local Christians continued to come in, but it was not till 1835 that the permission was given.

In that year he arrived at Macao, and at once was set to learn Chinese, for which he showed such aptitude that at the end of four months he was appointed to the mission of Honan. On the eve of setting out he wrote to his brethren in Paris: "If you could see me now in my Chinese 'get-up' you would see a very curious sight: my head shaved, a long pig-tail and moustaches, stammering my new language, eating with chop-sticks. They tell me that I don't make a bad Chinaman. That is the only way to begin making oneself all things to all men: may we be able thus to win all to Jesus Christ!"

The Lazarists had elaborated a system of rescuing abandoned children, who are so numerous in China, and bringing them up in the faith. In this work Father Perboyre was especially active, and he devoted much of his time to instructing these children, illustrating his lessons by apt stories to which his very colloquial Chinese gave an added flavor. After two years at Honan, he was moved to Hupeh, and here in September 1839 there was a sudden and unexplained renewal of persecution.

The missionaries went into hiding, but a neophyte betrayed Father Perboyre (with a horrid fitness, for 30 taels—about 9 pounds), and he was dragged in chains from functionary to functionary, each of whom questioned him and sent him on to someone else. Finally he came into the hands of the governor and mandarins of Wuchangfu. These required him to betray the hiding-places of his confreres and to trample on the cross. The sufferings endured by Father Perboyre were incredible, in the literal sense of the word. 20 times he was dragged before his judges to be bullied into compliance, and more than 20 times he was tortured because he refused. The ingenuity of the Chinese in inflicting physical pain is notorious, and Father Perboyre underwent torments beside which those invented by hagiographers for some of the martyrs of the Ten Persecutions are crude. He was branded on the face with four characters, which stood for "teacher of a false religion," and a Chinese priest who bribed his way into his prison described him as a mass of open wounds, his very bones in places exposed. On September 11, 1840, almost a year after his capture, Bd. John Gabriel, with bare feet and only a pair of drawers under the red robe of the condemned, was strangled with five common criminals. He was buried beside another Lazarist martyr, Francis Regis Clet, who was also to be beatified. In China the feast of Bd. John Gabriel is kept on Nov. 7, the nearest convenient date to that of his beatification in 1889.

The murder of John Gabriel Perboyre was the occasion of the British government insisting on a clause in the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 which provided that any foreign missionary who was arrested should not be dealt with by the Chinese authorities but handed over to the nearest consul of his nation.

Note: This article was written by Donald Attwater in the Butler's Lives of the Saints. It did not mention the fact that the Chinese method of crucifixion was tying one to a cross and strangling him, and at the moment of John Gabriel's death a luminous cross appeared in the sky, seen by many witnesses, and that afterwards there were many conversions.