A Wily American Priest-Diplomat

Fr. Martin T. Gilligan saved lives during the Communist takeover in China, 1949-1952

In 2017, I published online a comprehensive biographical essay of an American priest, in which I highlighted his time as a Vatican diplomat in Hong Kong, entitled “Martin T. Gilligan: An American Hero Neglected—Until Today: Saving Lives During the Communist Takeover in China, 1946-1952.” That essay is no longer accessible, and in the meantime I have reviewed Msgr. Gilligan’s papers donated in 2018 to the archives of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. More importantly, an article was published by a research fellow from Taiwan, Bibiani Yee-Ying Wong, in U.S. Catholic Historian (Spring 2021) as part of a volume commemorating the bicentenary of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Ms. Wong’s article was wholly devoted to Msgr. Gilligan’s life in China, but she dismissed a claim that he had saved lives.[1] Ms. Wong’s claim deserves this rebuttal. 

In 1976, 14-year-old Artemis Joukowsky was in 9th grade. A teacher required members of the class to interview someone who had shown moral courage. Artemis asked his mother for suggestions and she encouraged him to talk to her mother. The account the young Artemis obtained from his grandmother, Martha Sharp, later became public and resulted in Martha and her husband Waitsill being honored as “Righteous Among the Nations” at Yad Vashem in 2006. Moreover, on September 20, 2016, PBS broadcast Ken Burns’ Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War.[2] This example of making public a story of moral courage known only to a few prompted my 2017 essay after I had learned of Msgr. Gilligan’s moral courage by reading the eulogy delivered by Msgr. Lawrence K. Breslin at Msgr. Gilligan’s 1993 funeral.

Msgr. Breslin was a young priest when he served Msgr. Gilligan as parochial vicar at St. Charles Borromeo parish, Kettering, Ohio, and they lived in the parish rectory.[3] In his eulogy, Msgr. Breslin told two stories to show that Msgr. Gilligan engaged “in [] efforts to save lives.” He added that these were the stuff of legend among China missionaries at the time. Did Msgr. Gilligan save lives or not? If he did, how did he do it?

Msgr. Breslin’s Account

Because Ms. Wong’s 2021 article discredits at least the second of Msgr. Breslin’s two stories, we begin with the relevant typewritten portion of his eulogy:

…Among the China missionaries, of the time, he [Gilligan] was a legend in his efforts to save lives. He rarely spoke himself of these events, but in the 60’s our rectory had a stream of China missionaries pass through who told me stories, after Fr. Gilligan had gone to bed. Two brief stories – One missionary told me that the most significant effort to assuage the terror and fear of the missionaries was taken by Fr. Gilligan. The Hong Kong government was fearful that the communists would invade them. They would do nothing to aggravate the communists. The enemies of the communists were to be their enemies, so the missionaries were not welcome in Hong Kong. Fr. Gilligan sent a telegram to Msgr. Montini in Rome, telling him to contact the Home Office in London and thank the British for the fine treatment the missionaries were receiving in Hong Kong. The home office relayed the message to Hong Kong so that the British took it that their police should not be hostile, but hospitable to the missionaries.

As missionaries were leaving, the foreign nationals could obtain documents from their own countries, but Chinese nations [sic: nationals] had nowhere to receive documentation. There were about one thousand Chinese religious [sic: ,] priests and seminarians who were destined to be turned back into China for certain prosecution and likely death. Fr. Gilligan manufactured his own passports which these people used to travel the world and escape persecution. He took expensive leather and velum [sic: vellum] to make the passports look official and made these people citizens of Vatican City. I knew a Chinese seminarian in Rome who told me that the only way he came out of China alive was because an American priest had manufactured his own passports.

The first story Msgr. Breslin told was about the treatment of foreign missionaries by the Hong Kong authorities and the second was about passports for Chinese priests and religious.

Msgr. Breslin says Father Gilligan “rarely spoke himself of these events.” (Msgr. Breslin referred to Msgr. Gilligan as “Father” because Msgr. Gilligan insisted on that title. The humility in insisting on “Father” as his title is consistent with his rarely speaking of his moral courage in China.) Yet, Msgr. Breslin did not state that Father Gilligan never spoke of these events, but only that he “rarely” did.[4]


To be continued in Part 2.


[1] Bibiani Yee-Ying Wong, “Monsignor Martin T. Gilligan’s Diplomatic Mission and the Rise of Communism in China, 1946-1953,” U.S. Catholic Historian, vol. 29, no. 2, Spring 2021, pp. 63-87. https://muse.jhu.edu/issue/44483#info_wrap. (hereafter “Wong”).

[2] Artemis Joukowsky III, “ Defying the Nazis: Discovering the Heroic Legacy of Martha and Waitstill Sharp,” Beacon Broadside, May 5, 2016, https://www.beaconbroadside.com/broadside/2016/05/defying-the-nazis-discovering-the-heroic-legacy-of-martha-and-waitstill-sharp.html

[3] Father Breslin taught this author freshman religion, 1964-65.

[4] Father Gilligan was pastor of St. Charles Borromeo, Kettering, Ohio (outside Dayton) when this author was a parishioner from 1964-1967. On a visit to my family, a Maryknoll priest said he would be going to the rectory to pay his respects to Father Gilligan to thank him for all he had done for Maryknollers in China. I never learned any details of what he had done. In three years attending Mass, many of them celebrated by Father Gilligan, Father Gilligan never mentioned China.

In 1966, St. Charles opened an addition to its school, consisting of 23 classrooms and “Walsh Hall” (St. Charles, History and Timeline, http://stcharles-kettering.org/church/about-us/history/). It was named after Maryknoll Bishop James E. Walsh, M.M., who was then a prisoner of the Communist Chinese (Tribute by Fr. Hammerle to Fr. Gilligan, St. Charles Light, Issue #1, January 2012). While this author knew of Bishop Walsh at the time, I have no recollection of learning of the name of the school building until recently.


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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