Our Lady of China

Today the Church in Hong Kong, Macau and China celebrates the moveable Memorial of Our Lady of China, while in Taiwan it is celebrated with the rank of Feast. Since 1973, it has been celebrated annually on the day before Mothers' Day (the second Sunday in May), and takes the triple significance of Saturday (Mary's day), May (Mary's month) and the Motherhood of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This year, Mothers' Day also happily coincides with the feast of Our Lady of Fatima.

The Confucian tradition allows the Chinese faithful to readily accept the importance of devotion to the Blessed Mother, as filial piety is primary to the cultivation of virtue in the Chinese culture. The love for the Blessed Virgin is present in all nations through different artistic forms, and the Chinese people have one of their own that is particularly important, but unfortunately, little known. The importance is due to apparitions of the Virgin Mary and a famous painting in Donglu.

Parish Church of Donglu

Church of Donglu in 1904

Situated about 20 km southeast of the city of Baoding, in the Province of Hebei surrounding Beijing, the humble village of Dōnglǘ﹙東閭村﹚ has never been well known. Donglu became a Catholic village during the active missionary period, and the Vincentians erected a church dedicated to Our Lady in the nineteenth century.

The year 1900 was a bloody year in the secular and Catholic history of China. The Boxer Rebellion broke out as a result of foreign domination, and Catholics were easy targets as Catholicism was viewed as a foreign institution of domination. There were about 700 to 800 Catholics in the village. When persecution broke out, about 300 to 400 Catholics from elsewhere fled to Donglu.

In June 1900, more than 3,000 strong Boxers surrounded the village. It should have been an easy job for them to conquer the simple village. It would be absolutely impossible to lose, with the great army equipped with cannons among other weapons, as opposed to a village greatly out-manned and out-powered. However, the Boxers were unprepared for divine intervention.

The clergy summoned all the old and the children to the church and asked them to pray fervently to Our Lady of Donglu. They prayed day and night, while the young fought with the Boxers. It was reported that for several times “a woman in white” appeared above the church, shining brightly and floating in the air, witnessed within and without the village. There was also the phenomenon of “an army of white angelic figures riding on white horses”, reported not by the Donglu Catholics but by the Boxers. The army was seen marching into the village. There were other reported incidents that could not be understood by natural reason alone.

The Boxers fought daily against Donglu for several months, acquired reinforcements, but still could not conquer the village. They suffered the death of many soldiers and finally retreated.

During the Boxer Rebellion, all churches all over China suffered various degrees of damage, except two that were untouched: the Cathedral of the Holy Saviour in Beijing and the Church of the Blessed Virgin in Donglu.

After the Rebellion, the villagers of Donglu, in thanksgiving to God, replaced the old church with a new twin-towered Gothic-styled church in Donglu.

The Painting of Our Lady of Donglu

Original Painting of Our Lady of Donglu
After the construction of the church in 1904, the pastor commissioned a virgin to paint an image of the Blessed Virgin. The picture was placed above the altar but soon deemed not solemn enough for veneration. The new pastor, Fr. Flament, C.M., came in 1908, and immediately hired a French artist residing in Shanghai and commissioned another painting. This new painting replaced the original one above the altar immediately.

Basing on a painting of the Empress Dowager Cixi﹙慈禧太后﹚, the artist drew a portrait of Mary that is royal in appearance and high in prestige, holding a sceptre in her right hand. He also drew the baby Jesus dressed royally standing upright supported by his Mother, unlike the usual Western style of holding the baby Jesus in Mary's arm. At the top of the painting, these words were written: “Mother of God, Queen of Donglu, pray for us.”

Several miracles of healing attributed to the image were reported in the 1920s and 1930s.

Official Portrait of Our Lady of China

The first and only plenary meeting of the bishops in China took place in 1924 in Shanghai, presided by Archbishop Celso Constantini (later Cardinal), the great Apostolic Delegate to China. During the Synod, the bishops felt that an official portrait of Our Lady was needed prior to consecrating China to the Mother of God. Archbishop Constantini saw a replica of the image of Our Lady of Donglu that was kept in Shanghai, and decided with the bishops that it would become the official image of Our Lady of China. Pope Pius XI granted the request and promulgated the image as Our Lady of China ﹙中華聖母﹚in 1928.

Because of the official promulgation, it is the only image that can be legitimately called “Our Lady of China”. The painting and the village that enshrines it have had a long and prominent history, although unfortunately few Catholics in China and in the world know about it. In 2002, the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., dedicated a mosaic of Our Lady depicted in Chinese style on the left side of the nave, but incorrectly labelled it as Our Lady of China.

National Shrine of Our Lady of China

Because of the decision at the plenary meeting, a small shrine under the patronage of Our Lady of China was built and dedicated in 1926 right next to the church in Donglu. Shrine activities were promoted and became very popular, especially in May, the month of Mary, when a great number of pilgrims travelled to Donglu from afar to pay tribute to Our Lady of China.

With the petition of the local bishop and the report submitted by the apostolic delegate Archbishop Maro Zanin, Pope Pius XI bestowed the title of national shrine﹙國家朝聖地﹚on the church in 1937. The only other national shrine canonically approved in mainland China is the well-known Basilica of Our Lady Help of Christians in Sheshan﹙佘山進教之佑大殿﹚near Shanghai.

Destruction and Rebuilding

Unfortunately, war broke out with Japan in the same year, and in 1940 the government used the church for storage purpose. One day an armed soldier came in the church and shot at the painting, leaving a hole in the top. Knowing that the painting must not stay there, two young parishioners broke into the church on one night and hid the painting, and later courageously brought it to the bishop at the Baoding chancery office. In 1941, the church was destroyed. In 1948, when Baoding was liberated, the painting was returned to Donglu and kept safely at a parishioner's home.

The Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966. Catholic were ordered to hand out all religious items. The portrait of Our Lady of Donglu was also given to the authority and was stored in an elementary school. The painting was carelessly destroyed in 1969 when it was used a mat to place wheat on.

The faithful in Donglu did not have a church until 1989 when they obtained the authorization to build a new one. In 1990, Pope John Paul II bestowed on them an apostolic blessing, which greatly encouraged the faithful in Donglu. Construction lasted 3 years and involved help from many strangers who offered help. The new church was dedicated on 1 May 1992. A faithful but inexact replica of the original image was again placed on top of the high altar.

Recent Activities and Persecutions

Because of the formal papal recognition of the shrine, underground Catholic pilgrims have always considered Donglu as a sign of fidelity to Rome, despite the fact that the shrine is officially administered by the Chinese Patriotic Church and “patriotic” churches are in general detested by underground Catholics. The Office of Religion of the Chinese Communist Party has always feared any symbolic sign of unity of the underground Catholic Church its possible influence on a great mass of people. After the reconstruction of the church, the religious authority has forbidden religious pilgrimages to the destination. Despite warnings, Chinese pilgrims still flocked to the shrine.

During the Marian month in 1995, over 100,000 underground Catholics came and prayed at the shrine. It was reported that a spectacular apparition took place on May 23 that year and was later certified by the local bishop. In 1996, the government wanted to stop pilgrims once and for all, and mobilized 5,000 troops, about 30 armoured cars and some helicopters to seal off the village and destroy the shrine. Since then, persecution on the underground Church, as well as restriction and surveillance of the patriotic Church in the region, has increased significantly. Ever year, especially when May is approaching, the inhabitants in the village are warned not to conduct formal public ceremonies and banned from hosting Christian pilgrims travelling there from outside the village.

Presently there are about 2,500 residents in the village, and a great majority of them are Catholic. Priests and bishops who have resided in the parish have constantly been jailed or even “disappeared”. Although daily Mass is celebrated, outsiders are not allowed to participate.

My Pilgrimage to Donglu

I have personally visited thousands of shrines and churches around the world, but I must admit that my visit to the National Shrine of Our Lady of China﹙中華聖母國家朝聖地﹚in Donglu is certainly the most memorable. I had read so much about Donglu but had no idea how to commute to the village, but I trusted in divine providence.

I was in Beijing for a work trip in 2004. On the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, I travelled alone to Baoding, the major city that is closest to Donglu, via a slow train from Beijing. From Baoding, I flagged down several taxis, but they had no idea where Donglu is, at a time when Google Maps did not yet exist. Finally, I found a taxi driver who knew Donglu only because he grew up nearby the village, and I thankfully jumped into the taxi. After more than half an hour's ride, I could see the spires of the church from far away as the taxi was approaching the tiny village.

The taxi driver let me off near the church, and I begged the driver to wait for me there so that he could take me back to Baoding. Fortunately he agreed. The next major hurdle came when I found the gate to the church locked. I rang the bell, and a priest came out to meet me. To my disrupted joy, he said he could not let me in. I begged him to let me visit the church for I had come from a long distance. He then explained to me that visitors were not allowed by the government and I would be in great danger if the police would found out about my visit. I again begged him, and his heart softened. He looked around from behind the gate, and hurried me in.

I was extremely thankful! Standing in front of the colourful façade of the shrine with such a rich history, I rejoiced and praised the Lord. As I did to each church that I had visited, I took out my camera and tried to take some pictures. The priest stopped me from doing so! He again warned me that, for my good, I should not take any pictures. If I were caught with photos of the church banned from the public, I would be in deep trouble! As the Hongkongese saying goes, you have not visited the place if you do not take a photo. I again begged the priest that I would take the risk. He looked around, and told me to snap the shots quickly. And quickly I did.

The priest then took me into the church. I again had to beg the poor priest to let me record the memory in pictures, and he told me to take one or two only. Needless to say, I took many.

The church, built in the form of a cruciform, features 4 lines of pews in a single aisle, separated from the sanctuary by an altar rail. As in the Chinese custom, two banners were hung from the two columns. On the left is written “Adoring the Blessed Sacrament with a hidden body who humbled and lowered himself onto the altar”, and on the right “Praising the Blessed Mother who is crowned with pearls and ascending onto the throne”. Such a beautiful poem in the form of couplet with parallelism!

The interior of the church is not richly decorated, but the jewel—the painting of Our Lady of China—is found on top of the high altar. Words alone cannot explain the beauty of the image adequately. Pay special attention to the gowns worn by the Virgin and the Infant Jesus.

Present image of Our Lady of China in the National Shrine in Donglu
After admiring the portrait and praying there for a short time, I thanked the priest gratefully. As much as I love taking pictures, I did not dare asking for a picture with him for fear of his safety. The father escorted me out of the shrine, after ensuring there were no plainclothes policemen or officials in sight. I found the taxi-driver waiting for me, and happily returned to Baoding and then to Beijing, feeling as if I had come back from heaven.

Looking back to that day visiting Donglu, I still feel immensely thankful. With my very limited Mandarin at that time, without any prior knowledge on how to go to the remote village, I was able to see Our Lady of China with my own eyes. I could have been caught by police and even possibly put to jail. If I had to choose again, I would still do it. What else is better than finding yourselves in a church blessed with a priceless treasure and a blessed history?

Please pray for the Catholics in China belonging to either the patriotic or underground Churches, that they may freely worship Christ and venerate her Heavenly Mother.

Our Lady of Donglu, pray for us.
Our Lady of China, pray for us.
Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, pray for us.

1 comment:

  1. Fr. Raymond So13/5/18 06:25

    Gabriel, thank you for sharing this important story. I am embarrassed to say that I too was rather uninformed about this Marian devotion until recently. Having been ordained on this feast day, I will forever treasure this particular Marian devotion in my heart. I encourage all Chinese Catholics, and indeed any Christians concerned with the plight of Christianity in China, to pray this devotion to Our Lady of China as well.