Bishop Walsh, Prisoner of Communist China

The dramatic story of a Maryknoll missionary - Part 1

Most teens and young adults are in the process of deciding what to do with their lives: what education or training to pursue, what line of work to choose, who to marry — decisions that mark the way to their eternal destiny. Such should be the subject of frequent and deep conversations with God, in order to discern His call.

During contemplation of momentous life decisions, it is well to consider the life of Bishop Walsh of Maryknoll, a life filled with slow and arduous transportation, a difficult language to learn, infectious diseases, bandits, warlords, civil war, enemy occupation, Communist persecution and imprisonment. Ordinary laypersons, when feeling any burden from caring for children, any burden from caring for elderly parents, any burden from a job (or lack of a job), any burden from being Catholic, might bring to mind Bishop Walsh and pray to him for guidance, strength, and perseverance.

Although his vocation was that of a priest, and a missionary to a foreign land, and therefore unlike the vocation of 99.999% of us (one in 100,000), we all share our common vocation from baptism, as described by Saint Paul in Letter to the Romans: “How can they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach? And how can people preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:14-15)

Bishop Walsh has been deceased since 1981, 42 years now, but we should remember his name and his story. The most salient part of his story is the 12 years he spent imprisoned by the Communist Chinese. But there’s much more to commend him to you.

I first learned of Bishop Walsh when a Maryknoll priest, the late Robert V. Tobin, M.M. (1927-2013; info here), gave me, then a high school freshman, a copy of the full-length biography by Raymond Kerrison, Bishop Walsh of Maryknoll (1963). At the time, Bishop Walsh was imprisoned. His story inspired me to find funding, students, and a teacher to initiate Chinese language instruction at the University of Notre Dame. This was announced in the spring of 1971 — before it was announced that Nixon would go to China — to commence in the academic year 1971-1972.

Father Tobin gave me the inestimable gift of introducing me to Bishop Walsh in the spring of 1974 at Maryknoll, New York, and I then had a private conversation with him.

In researching this essay, I obtained a copy of Bishop Walsh’s 1976 collection of his talks and writings, Zeal for Your House. Imagine my surprise when the copy was stamped as having been in the library collection of his alma mater, Mount St. Mary’s, and my further surprise when I opened it and saw his autograph!

This blog series will cover Walsh’s life before he joined Maryknoll, his active ministry, his contemplative ministry (imprisoned 1958-1970), and his later life. There will be a detailed chronology of his life at the end, and his writings will also be listed at the end.

I: Before he joined Maryknoll

James Edward Walsh was born April 30, 1891, in Cumberland, Maryland. Cumberland is in the mountainous western part of Maryland. In 1890 its population was 13,000 (peaking at 40,000 in 1940; 18,800 in 2020). In the first half of the 19th century, it had been a staging area for settlers migrating to the Ohio River country, also known as the Northwest Territories, from which the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota were established.

Walsh was the second child of his parents. Eventually he had eight siblings who grew to adulthood. His father was a lawyer and his father and his father’s father, both named William, were graduates of Mount St. Mary’s College (now University). The grandfather had been born in Ireland and had served in the U.S. Congress from 1875-1879. He died the year after Jimmy Walsh was born.

In 1905, Walsh entered “the Mount” in its college preparatory program and then started college there in 1906, at age 15. William C. Walsh, his slightly older brother, was also in his class. The Mount is located in Emmitsburg, Maryland, one hundred miles to the east of Cumberland. It is just a few miles from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the site, of course, of the 1863 Civil War battle and of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Emmitsburg is also revered in Catholic memory as the site of the school of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821).

College studies included daily Latin and Greek, as well as religion, English literature, mathematics, history, science, and elocution. For extracurricular activities, Walsh played right field for the varsity baseball team, served as a manager of the varsity football team, was a treasurer of the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin, and was a member of the Philomathean Society, a national literary society. Brother William, but not Jimmy, was active on the stage.

The two brothers graduated together in 1910. Jimmy was 19. The class of 20 was drawn nationally. There were students from New York, Philadelphia, Lancaster, Yucatan (Mexico), Trenton, Louisville, Mobile, Massachusetts, Baltimore. His brother William would become a lawyer and Maryland’s Attorney General from 1938-1945. After graduation, Jimmy returned to Cumberland and lived with his family while he worked as a timekeeper in a foundry.

On June 29, 1911, a year after Walsh graduated and began working in the foundry, the Vatican approved the establishment of the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America. Walsh learned of the existence of the new Society in the summer of 1912. How? Through serendipity… through Providence.

The two co-founders of the Society were diocesan priests. One was Fr. James Anthony Walsh (no relation), later bishop and Servant of God, and the other was Fr. Thomas F. Price, later Servant of God. Father Price, from North Carolina, was traveling on a train to Pittsburgh when the conductor announced the upcoming stop at Cumberland. On the spur of the moment, Fr. Price decided to get off the train and contact a resident (no cellphone in those days!), William Walsh, who was one of 120,000 subscribers to Fr. Price’s magazine, Truth. This man Walsh had written him more than once with appreciation.

Fr. Price went to Walsh’s home, introduced himself, and was invited to dinner and to stay overnight. Twenty-one year old Jimmy Walsh heard everything Father Price had to say about the new Society. At the time, there were no more than 15 American priests of all dioceses or religious Orders who were serving overseas. They were principally Franciscan. Indeed, it had only been in June 1908 that Pope Pius X had declared the United States was no longer “mission territory” under the jurisdiction of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. This new Society was solely for Americans who wished to be foreign missioners. In a few weeks’ time, Walsh applied to join the new Society.

When Walsh entered the Society in the fall of 1912, he was the second young man to do so. So, any account of his life is necessarily an account of the beginnings and growth of the Society. When Walsh and the few other members of the Society moved into a building near Ossining, New York, the hill was called Mary’s Knoll and “Maryknoll” became the Society’s nickname.

In Part 2, we’ll begin looking at his time in active ministry.


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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