Bishop Walsh Leaves Jail

He was the last Western Christian missioner to leave China after the Communists took power - Part 8

I call the imprisoned portion of Bishop Walsh’s life his contemplative ministry because of how he later described his activities in prison. He could not celebrate Mass and had neither breviary (the Church’s prayerbook) nor Bible, rosary, crucifix, or any image of Jesus or one of His saints. After he was released, he wrote a bishop, in a letter included in Bishop Walsh’s 1976 anthology Zeal for Your House, that during his 12-year confinement from 1958-1970 he prayed 18 rosaries on his fingers daily. When Jacques Matiatos, a layman who had served seven years in the same prison as Bishop Walsh, was expelled in 1964, he reported that he saw the bishop on June 3, and “they say he always looks as though he is praying.”[1]

While he was in prison, several buildings were named after Bishop Walsh. In 1963, the Maryknoll Fathers named Bishop Walsh Primary School, Kowloon, after him. In 1966, a former colleague of Bishop Walsh’s in China, Msgr. Martin T. Gilligan, a priest of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati who served as Secretary to Archbishop Riberi from 1946-1953, named a newly-built parish hall of St. Charles Borromeo, Kettering, Ohio, “Walsh Hall.”[2] Also in 1966, Bishop Walsh School, consolidating five small high schools, opened in Cumberland, Maryland. Middle and elementary grades were later added.[3]

To continue with Bishop Walsh’s story:

A Catholic news archive report on Walsh, imprisoned since 1958, reads as follows: “On July 8 [1970], a doctor entered Shanghai’s Ward Road prison, examined the bishop and told him to pack. Two hours later, the bishop, a doctor, a photographer, two interpreters and a handful of policemen were on their way to Canton. On July 10, the 79-year-old bishop walked through the bamboo curtain into Hong Kong.[4]

Bishop Walsh had served just over 10 years of his sentence when he was transported 750 miles over three days to the Lo Wu Bridge to Hong Kong where, on July 10, 1970, the Communist authorities expelled him from China. He walked alone across the bridge. He arrived in freedom with no advance notice given to anyone. He was the last of the 5,000 Western Christian missioners to leave China after the Communists took power in 1949.

For several weeks, Bishop Walsh stayed in Our Lady of Maryknoll Hospital to regain his strength. On July 12, he celebrated his first Mass in twelve years in his hospital room with only Father John Sullivan,[5] Maryknoll regional superior, present. During imprisonment, he would recite the prayers of Mass as best he could, but of course he had no wine. On July 13, he concelebrated a Mass (a rite new since Vatican II) with Bishop Francis Hsu of Hong Kong, Archbishop Luigi Accogli, apostolic pro-nuncio, and Father John J. McCormack, Maryknoll superior general, who had flown in from New York.[6]

Just after the concelebrated Mass concluded, William McBain, also age 79, a former resident of Shanghai, who had been released from prison in February 1970 after having been arrested four months earlier, arrived at the hospital to keep a 1958 luncheon date. Bishop Walsh had been on his way to the residence of McBain, a retired British businessman, for lunch when he was arrested.[7]

A few days after the concelebrated Mass, Bishop Walsh gave a 30-minute press interview. Because of his fatigue, he sat in a wheelchair and the questions were submitted in writing in advance. He described the conversations he had that led the Communists to think he was a spy. He reported that, during the 18 months between his arrest and trial, he had no bed. His love for the Chinese grew stronger even during his imprisonment.[8] He was interrogated during the 18 months “morning, noon, and night” but was never beaten or physically maltreated.[9]

In an August report, Bishop Walsh said he felt like Rip Van Winkle. Chinese prison guards had told him of the assassination of President Kennedy, but he didn’t know what “LBJ” referenced. (“LBJ” was President Lyndon B. Johnson.) Chinese guards had boasted of Chinese satellites but had not told him of American moon landings. With respect to the changes in the Church after Vatican II, he insisted on using the Latin language breviary. He noticed Communion distributed in the hand and that laypeople received consecrated wine. He saw nuns in modern habits. He learned of the laicization of priests and the omission of “the Last Gospel” (the Prologue to the Gospel of St. John recited at the end of Mass).[10] (Three years later, Bishop Walsh would participate in the 1973 General Chapter of Maryknoll which changed Maryknoll. It featured liberation theology, the notion that missioners learned more than they taught, and Maryknoll had a large role in the United States as well as abroad. There had been a significant decline in members. Maryknoll was down to 1,048 priests, brothers, and seminarians from 1,212 six years earlier.[11])

After about six weeks recuperating, he took a 21-hour flight from Hong Kong to Rome, arriving August 24, and visited with Pope St. Paul VI at Castelgandolfo, on August 25. The pope did not wait for the bishop to be moved in his wheelchair to the study, but went into the room where the bishop was. The bishop stood and the two embraced. The press reported that it was a “dramatic encounter…that left both men on the verge of tears.”[12] The Pope told him, “You have been a witness, authentic and simple, in joy and in sorrow, then in suffering and humiliation and finally in separation from the people you loved so much. For all of this, we thank you on behalf of the entire Church of Christ.”[13]


In Part 9, we describe Bishop Walsh’s activities through 1972.


[NOTE: A link to Part 7 is here]


[1] Germaine Swain, “Layman Expelled from China Tells of Church Under Reds,” Catholic Standard and Times [Philadelphia], Oct. 16, 1964, p. 20, col. 5, The Catholic Standard and Times 16 October 1964 — The Catholic News Archive

[2] “St. Charles Borromeo Parish History Highlights,”

[3] “History and Traditions,” Bishop Walsh School,

[4] “Coming Home to Cumberland,” NC News Service, July 13, 1970,——197-en-20–61–txt-txIN-%22james+e+walsh%22——-

[5] “Father John J. Sullivan, M.M.,”

[6] Germaine Swain, “Last Man Out,” The Voice [Miami], July 17, 1970, p. 1, col 3,——197-en-20–1–txt-txIN-%22james+e+walsh%22——-

[7] “Bp. Walsh Keeps Lunch Date – 12 Years Later,” St. Louis Review, July 31, 1970, p. 3, col. 5, The St. Louis Review 31 July 1970 — The Catholic News Archive; “Briton, 78, and Ill, Is Freed by Peking,” N.Y. Times, Feb. 15, 1970, p. 66, col. 1. Mr. McBain died on April 22, 1971. “William McBain, 81, Native of Shanghai,” Washington Post, April 24, 1971, p. B6.

[8] Germaine Swaine, “Bishop Tells of Love for Chinese,” Catholic Transcript [Hartford CT], July 24, 1970, p. 11, col. 3,——197-en-20–81–txt-txIN-%22james+e+walsh%22——-

[9] “Offers Mass,” Caption to NC Photo, July 17, 1970,

[10] Marcel Poirier, “Changing Church Leaves Freed Bishop Bewildered,” Catholic Advocate [Newark], Aug. 20, 1970, p. 1, col. 1, The Catholic Advocate 20 August 1970 — The Catholic News Archive

[11] Gary MacEoin, “Maryknoll Adopts New Mission Concept,” Nat’l Cath. Reporter, April 6, 1973, p. 1, col. 1, National Catholic Reporter 6 April 1973 — The Catholic News Archive

By 2008, Maryknoll had 475 priests and brothers. “Maryknoll Facts for Kids,” Maryknoll Facts for Kids (  By 2020, there were 165 active Maryknoll priests; 123 were retired. “At Least 15 Dead from Coronavirus in NY Religious Orders,” Catholic News Agency, April 28, 2020, At least 15 dead from coronavirus in NY religious orders | Catholic News Agency. Here is a 1987 critique of the changes made by Maryknoll: Charlotte Hays, “Lost Horizons at Maryknoll,” Crisis Magazine, April 1, 1987,

[12] “Pope Greets Bishop Walsh,” Catholic Advocate [Newark], Aug. 27, 1970, p. 1, col. 7,——197-en-20–121–txt-txIN-%22james+e+walsh%22——-

[13] The full text of the pope’s remarks are here:


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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