Bishop Walsh’s Ministry

The missionary endured treks across mountains, plus malaria and dengue fever - Part 2

James Walsh was ordained just three-plus years after joining Maryknoll at age 24 on December 7, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, 1915. The initials after his name were initially A.F.M. for American Foreign Missioner. They later became M.M. for Maryknoll Missioner. Walsh’s first assignment, for two years, was headmaster of Maryknoll’s junior seminary, “The Venard,” in Clark’s Summit, Pennsylvania, with 28 high school students, founded two years earlier in 1913.

1918-1936: In China

Maryknoll obtained its first mission territory after Fr. James A. Walsh had gone “shopping” in Korea, Japan, and China. The first mission band, consisting of Fathers Price, James E. Walsh, Bernard Meyer, and Francis X. Ford, left on September 8, 1918, for San Francisco and China. This was during World War I.[1] (A few years later, my father, then a young boy, joined the Maryknoll Juniors, a club for boys, in San Francisco where he met Maryknoll Fr. James Keller (1900-1977), founder of the Christophers.[2])

Let’s stop here for a moment to note that before September 8, 1918, Fr. Walsh had never traveled beyond the stretch between Maryland and New York. He certainly hadn’t been to China. He hadn’t studied, much less become fluent in, Chinese. But he ventured forth for the sake of the Gospel.

Upon arrival in Yeungkong (now called Yangjiang) in Kwantung, or Canton (now called Guandong) Province [3], the men began full-time study of the Chinese language. While Fr. James E. Walsh was tone deaf and was not able to sing the Latin Mass, he became fluent, over much, much time, in Cantonese with its eight tones. (Mandarin has four tones.)

Walsh lived in South China’s heat, humidity, torrential rain, and mold. He slept on wood beds because mattresses wouldn’t survive such conditions. There was no air-conditioning (not in the U.S. either), no cars, no paved roads. He walked, rode horses, and used various sizes of boats. He even used a “sedan chair.”

Fifty percent of the women and children had tuberculosis or a skin disease. Smallpox was as common as the common cold. When Fr. Walsh visited homes, the family’s pigs were under the table as he ate.

Assigned in May 1919 to Loting (now Luodong), Fr. Walsh and Fr. Meyer traveled together to Fr. Meyer’s mission in Tungchen (perhaps the town now called Zhushazhen), 70 miles as the crow flies but 160 miles by both Chinese junk and on foot. After that hike, Fr. Walsh continued on his way. It was a four-day, 60-mile, trek in June: “He climbed, staggered and stumbled over one mountain after another. One brute stretched three thousand feet into the sky.” (I see this as similar to Saint Damien’s trip to a mission in Hawaii that left him unconscious. See my blog series on Father Damien, Sept. 22, 27, and Oct. 4, 2022, Walsh later wrote: “I’ve tramped over mountains and through woods all day long while hunting and camping, just for fun. There’s no reason why I can’t do as much for souls.”

When Fr. Walsh arrived at Loting (now Luodong), he was greeted with this flowery speech from people who had not yet met him:[4]

A speech delivered, and afterwards presented on vermillion paper, to Father J.E. Walsh, by the catechumens of Loting, on the occasion of his first visit.


            In the Year of Our Lord, 1919, and the eighth year of the Chinese Republic, on an auspicious day (June 22) in the summer season, the Christians of Loting welcome Father Walsh.

On this beautiful day, when…the summer season is opening out as a flower and scattering abroad the fragrance of the lotus…, there comes to our regions a great man. Despite wind and wave, over the great waters, and over the mountains for hundreds of miles, without fearing the danger, and counting the trouble as nothing, there comes one to us for the purpose of saving our souls…[We] welcome him with the following song written by us in his honor.

We thank God He has sent him to us
This Father of great ability
To come to the Church of Kwangtung…
To preach the Gospel
With zeal and fervor…
We hope Father will convert souls
More and more every day
May he be as peaceful as the bamboo
May his exalted life flourish as the banyan tree…

Fr. Walsh’s superior in China, Fr. Price, died in September 1919 (a short time after Fr. Walsh’s arrival in Loting) from acute appendicitis. Seventeen years later, in 1936, Father Price’s remains were reinterred at the cemetery in Maryknoll, New York. By that time, Fr. Walsh was a bishop and Superior General of Maryknoll and he delivered the sermon at the Mass.[5]

Fr. Walsh, at age 28, was appointed Fr. Price’s successor. A few months later, a second band of three Maryknoll priests arrived and the mission territory assigned to Maryknoll was expanded. Fr. Walsh chose to relocate to the new territory, to a city called Kochow (now Gaozhou), population 20,000. He opened a residential school, starting with 14 Catholic boys whose parents lived outside the city. On Christmas Day, 40 adult catechumens asked to be baptized but he refused baptism because, although they knew the Faith, they had not let their wives be instructed. In Gaozhou, Fr. Walsh escaped bubonic plague and cholera, but he got hit with malaria and dengue fever which struck him again and again.

In 1920 Fr. Walsh added six priests under his authority, and also the city of Wuchow (now Wuzhou), a city of 250,000, in the Province of Kwangsi (now Guangxi). He decided that he, aided by one of the new priests, would reside in Wuzhou, which was in an area of civil war. During a 10-day siege of the city, a hundred citizens received shelter in his rectory. While only a dozen showed interest in the Catholic Faith, all became friends. Fr. Walsh consistently advised his men to make friends. Fr. Walsh’s care for the townspeople bore fruit under a later pastor who saw 1,200 converts annually.

There was tremendous generosity, and a great spirit of mission, among Catholic Americans for decades after the founding of Maryknoll. In September 1921, 21 women took their first vows as the first Maryknoll Sisters, a separate but affiliated Order from the Maryknoll Fathers. At the time, there were 94 in the community: professed, novices, and postulants. By 1922, when Maryknoll was just over a decade old, there were 17 Maryknoll priests in China. Jump ahead 35 years to 1957 and see a report that 32 men were ordained in June 1957, so that there were now 1,540 Maryknoll priests and 1,233 Maryknoll Sisters.[6]

In Part 3, Fr. Walsh will become headquartered in Kongmoon (Jiangmen) and named a monsignor.


[Note: Link to Part 1 is here]


[1] For more about this trip, see “Maryknoll Goes to Asia 1918,” Maryknoll Mission Archives,

[2] “Father James G. Keller, M.M.,” Maryknoll Mission Archives,

[3] Maryknoll Mission Archives has a map for their travels from Japan to China. “Maryknoll Goes to Asia, 1918,”

[4] Extract from a letter (undated, June/July 1919) by Father Walsh, Maryknoll Mission Letters – China, vol. 1. , pp. 137-38 (1923),

[5] The full text was published, “Maryknoll Sees Body of Fr. Price Reinterred Dec. 8,” Catholic Transcript [Hartford CT], Dec. 17, 1936, p. 1, col 8, The Catholic Transcript 17 December 1936 — The Catholic News Archive

[6] “Great Growth of Maryknoll Described; 1,540 Priests, 1,233 Sisters Listed,” Catholic Standard and Times [Philadelphia], July 5, 1957, p. 12, col. 2,——195-en-20–141–txt-txIN-%22james+e+walsh%22——-


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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