A Successful China Mission

The story of Bishop Walsh of Maryknoll, prisoner of Communist China - Part 4

Just a few days after James Walsh’s consecration as a bishop, Father Daniel McShane, the first man ordained by Maryknoll (in November 1914) died at age 39 of smallpox contracted when he picked up a baby abandoned on the roadside. During his seven years in Loting (Luodong), he had cared for and baptized 2,483 babies.[1] When Bishop Walsh was back in the United States 20 years later, in 1947, he wrote a biography of Fr. McShane entitled The Man on Joss Stick Alley.

In 1929, Bishop Walsh was at Maryknoll, New York, for Departure Day. This is some of what he said:

When St. Francis Xavier went to the Far East, his friends looked upon him as a fool. They looked upon the glorious career that lay before him and which he was giving up, according to their view, to receive nothing in return. To his friends he was a fool, but a fool for Christ. He was ready to give up glorious prospects of a successful career in the world to take up the one thing worthwhile, and this was to preach Christ, and Him crucified. That was four hundred years ago.

Who is a fool now, St. Francis Xavier or his friends? As for his friends, who objected to this step, we do not even know their names…[I]t is not because we remember him that he is great. St. Francis Xavier is not great because he was famous…Xavier’s greatness lies in the splendid tasks which he set before himself, and the extraordinary devotion with which he pursued that task, and that task was – the extension of God’s Kingdom in the hearts of men. It is the only task worthwhile…It is not only worthwhile, but it is the only thing that is worthwhile…

Bishop Walsh knew that his mission, and the mission of his 7,000 Catholics (and 1,000 catechumens), was to evangelize the six million residents of his territory. He sent one of his priests to the United States to raise money for a woman’s novitiate and another priest to study the care and treatment of leprosy. He toured his vicariate every six months, traveling principally by foot but also by bicycle, bus, horse, boat, always talking to the people. When cars and roads became available, he used them for transportation. He marveled that, for one trip, he could do in three hours by car what he had done eight years earlier on foot in three days. He taught the Mandarins English, he taught his seminarians Latin and Hebrew, he preached in Cantonese, he “mingled with coolies down on the docks, chatted with boatmen and merchants” and visited the local jail and persons with leprosy. According to his biographer: “A good impression is made on the Chinese public by any sort of charitable work and the more miserable the object, the more striking the impression.” Surely, that is universally true.

Bishop Walsh built a 38-bed hospital in Toi Shan (now Taishan). He also oversaw a seminary and novitiate, 33 schools, five orphanages, a home for the aged and blind, and nine dispensaries.

Bishop Walsh worked closely with lay people, Chinese and American. A newly-minted doctor, Harry Blaber of Brooklyn, volunteered in 1930 to work with Maryknoll in China. Maryknoll deems him its first lay missioner.[2] During Blaber’s first five years, he had developed a one-room hut into 36-bed Sacred Heart Hospital, in Kongmoon (Jiangmen), that cared for 6,000 patients a year. His duties extended to the care of 250 persons with leprosy, which was then incurable.

Before leaving for China, Blaber had become engaged to a nurse, Constance White, whom he had met when he was an intern and she was a student nurse. He returned to marry her on November 27, 1935. The Brooklyn Eagle ran a long story the day before the wedding with the headline: “‘I Shall Expect the Worst,’ Declares Bride, Ready to Brave Perils of China Mission.”[3] She said that expecting the worst would mean “when I arrive I won’t be unpleasantly surprised.” She would work as a nurse, including with the persons with leprosy. On their honeymoon en route to China, they went to a leper colony in Louisiana and to Molokai.

Several articles about Dr. Blaber and his work appeared in the June 1937 issue of The Field Afar, including an article by Bishop Walsh. The doctor and his wife, and their child, evacuated when Japan attacked China on July 7, 1937.[4]


In Part 5, we’ll begin with Walsh’s election to a ten-year term as Superior General of Maryknoll, headquartered in New York.


[Note: A link to Part 3 is here.]


[1] “Father Daniel L. McShane, M.M.,” Maryknoll Mission Archives, http://maryknollmissionarchives.org/?deceased-fathers-bro=father-daniel-l-mcshane-mm

[2] “Maryknoll’s First Lay Missioner,” Maryknoll Magazine, Aug. 2020, https://www.maryknollmagazine.org/2020/08/maryknolls-first-lay-missioner/ . See also a compilation of articles about Dr. Blaber in The Field Afar, 1931-1937, https://mklm.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/BlaberH_FieldAfar_1931-1937.pdf

The first action Dr. Blaber saw in China was conducting physical examinations of 80 Chinese seminarians. “Doctor Joins China Maryknoll Mission,” Catholic Telegraph [Cincinnati], Oct. 30, 1930, p. 1, col. 5, https://thecatholicnewsarchive.org/?a=d&d=TCT19301030-01.2.17&srpos=5&e=——193-en-20–1–txt-txIN-%22james+e+walsh%22——- The article next to it reported that a European bishop and a Chinese priest were held captive by Mao Tse-tung and other Reds who had descended on the town of Kian and massacred 2,000 Chinese.

Another report describes how Blaber trained Chinese. “Missionary Doctor Training Chinese,” Catholic Transcript [Hartford CT] Nov. 26, 1931, p.  8, col. 3, The Catholic Transcript 26 November 1931 — The Catholic News Archive. And there is a 1932 report that he was in charge of the new Maryknoll hospital, “Maryknoll Has New Hospital in S. China,” Catholic Transcript [Hartford CT], Oct. 27, 1932, p. 1, col. 4,  https://thecatholicnewsarchive.org/?a=d&d=CTR19321027-01.2.11&srpos=33&e=——193-en-20–21–txt-txIN-%22james+e+walsh%22——-

[3] P. 3, col 1.

[4] Dr. Blaber died in 1961 at age 56. “Dr. Harry Blaber, Surgeon, 56, Dies,” New York Times, Jan. 22, 1961. https://mklm.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Blaber-obituary-NYT_1-22-1961.pdf.

James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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