Priest jailed by Chinese for three years


Father Aedan McGrath, who died on December 25th aged 94, had been a Columban priest for 71 years and was imprisoned by the Chinese for nearly three years in 1951. He was born on January 22nd, 1906, in Drumcondra and had one sister and four brothers. His father, William, a King's Counsel and County Court judge, was shot dead, reputedly by the Black and Tans, outside his home in 1920. His mother, Gertrude, was born in Downpatrick and came to Dublin when her father, Stephen Fitzpatrick, took up a post as professor at St Patrick's Training College, Drumcondra.

Aedan McGrath's early education was at home with a governess and then Belvedere College. In 1923, his family moved to England, and he continued his studies at King's College, London.

He joined the Columban Fathers and was ordained in 1929. Six months later he was sent to Hanyang in China. "I was there just in time for the flood. The Yangtze and the Han rivers met and overflowed. Millions of people drowned. For six months, there was 16 feet of water in the house where I was staying. We had to live upstairs."

Following a couple of years around Hanyang, he was sent to T'sien Kiang, where he lived with a Buddhist family. "There were three generations: a grandfather, three sons and 20 grandchildren. They had a pickle factory. Life was simple." He had 24 missions spread out over a wide area: "I spent three days in each mission, staying in a straw hut. I brought my own blanket. There were no roads or buses. I walked."

When he asked for another priest to assist him he was sent a copy of the handbook of the Legion of Mary.

"I called in six men with no particular qualifications. I did not think it would work, I intended to give the book back to the bishop when it failed. To my utter amazement, those men were able to do many things that I could not do."

In 1939, during "the rape of Nanjing", 4,000 Japanese soldiers arrived: "The women ran to me looking for protection. I was supposed to keep the Japanese army out. God directed me to one particular soldier. We started talking about movies. He asked me if I liked Loretta Young, and I said `She's a personal friend of mine'. I had met her in Hollywood. He was very excited to learn that I knew his love in Hollywood. He wrote something and sealed it and put it on the door. The soldiers all saluted and stayed away. The women stayed with me for six months. They were all baptised in that time."

He was expelled for two years because Eamon de Valera - then President of the League of Nations - accused the Japanese of trespassing when they went into Manchuria. "When I was allowed back, I expected to find nothing. Instead, the parish was working perfectly without me. The Legion of Mary had kept everything going, baptising the babies, instructing the children, performing marriages."

Following a visit to Dublin in 1946, he returned and was instructed to start the Legion all over China. "Within half-an-hour, the first praesidium was formed in what was probably the most sophisticated university in China at the time in Shanghai.

"From Shanghai, I went to central China, Hankow, and did the same. Then up to Beijing. Within two years we had 2,000 magnificent groups. "The work was not lost on Mao Zedong. He sent out people to search and find how the church was still alive . . . He called the Legion public enemy number one."

Father McGrath, whose work in China has been told in Enemies Without Guns, by James Myers, was arrested by the Chinese in September 1951 and remained in jail for two years and eight months. He was expelled in April 1954. "I was put in a tiny cell, like a dog box. It was solitary confinement for three years. There was no table, chair or bed. I could lie on the floor. I was never allowed to close my eyes, talk or sneeze."

Aedan McGrath attributed his survival to his Columban formation, which had taught him how to meditate.

On his release he returned to Dublin and a huge reception in the National Stadium attended by President Sean T. O Ceallaigh, Eamon de Valera, John A. Costello, and the Legion founder, Frank Duff.

In 1955, he worked with Irish emigrants in England and in 1966, travelled to the USA and Canada to work full-time for the Legion of Mary. He went to the Far East in 1977 to speak about the Legion, travelling through Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Shortly before his death in 1980, Duff asked Aedan McGrath to go to the Philippines. So, now in his 70s, he headed for the Philippines, where he was still working up to the time of his death. Countless Legion branches were established - in one Jesuit-run university there are 19 branches.

Small in stature, Aedan McGrath possessed extraordinary vitality. He had a tremendous capacity for friendshipE's Would You Believe and still-enjoyed a game of golf. In August 1999, a celebration for Columban jubilarians was held at Dalgan Park. The homilist was the platinum jubilarian, Aedan McGrath, who earlier had remarked to a friend: "I think you will have to call me a platinum blonde."

Father Aedan McGrath: born 1906; died, December 2000