Fr. Gilligan’s Daring

How the priest-diplomat saved Chinese lives -- Part 3


Faith History

Readers will recall that in Part 1 of this series I quoted from Msgr. Breslin’s funeral eulogy for Father Gilligan, telling two short stories about this wily priest-diplomat. His first story concerned foreign missionaries, as related in Part 2. His second story concerned native Chinese.

During the Communist takeover of China, many Chinese priests and religious were imprisoned or executed.[1] Some escaped to Hong Kong. During the “Great Escape to Hong Kong” (known as dataogang), which extended into the 1970s, 700,000 mainlanders arrived in Hong Kong.[2] In fact, the Chinese authorities “sent the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to the Shenzhen-Hong Kong frontier to stop people from leaving.”[3] “Many escapees drowned or were shot dead while trying to cross into Hong Kong.”[4] The Chinese priests and religious who had taken refuge in Hong Kong expected to be forcibly returned to the mainland, persecuted and executed.

According to Msgr. Breslin, there were about a thousand Chinese “religious[,] priests and seminarians” in Hong Kong during Father Gilligan’s time there who wanted to escape. They could not obtain passports to leave the country from the Communists in power. Gilligan “manufactured his own passports which these people used to travel the world and escape persecution. He took expensive leather and vellum to make the passports look official and made these people citizens of Vatican City.”

To help demonstrate Father Gilligan’s daring, I report to you the following: In 2018, there were 764 citizens of Vatican City. About half of them (300 or so) were members of the Vatican diplomatic corps and resided abroad in 190 or so countries. The other half, which included over 100 members of the Swiss Guard, were residents of Vatican City.[5]

In 1949, when the Communists took over mainland China, the number of Vatican City citizens was not much different: 900.[6] Father Gilligan made at least 1,000 (if the number wasn’t higher) people, all of Chinese ethnicity, appear to be Vatican citizens, thereby more than doubling the number of Vatican citizens worldwide. Moreover, he did so between as early as October 15, 1949, and no later than December, 1952 — over 112 weeks — at the rate of nine per week![7]

Father Gilligan not only made false passports, he made a large number of them, all for ethnic Chinese, and all in short order. It is worthwhile to point out that Father Gilligan could not have done all of this work without the aid of co-conspirators.

We can favorably compare this activity to that of the forged Paraguayan passports which saved Jews during World War II, a story recounted in a new book by Roger Moorhouse, The Forgers: The Forgotten Story of the Holocaust’s Most Audacious Rescue Operation. In under four years, 1940-1943, 800 to 3,000 Polish Jews were issued forged Paraguayan passports by a team associated with the offices of the Polish government-in-exile located in Switzerland.[8]

As previously mentioned in Parts 1 and 2 of this series (links below), Bibiani Yee-Ying Wong, (writing in U.S. Catholic Historian, Spring 2021) makes several assertions to deny the truth of Msgr. Breslin’s story. Admittedly, neither Ms. Wong nor I found any mention of this activity in the papers that Father Gilligan saved and which were donated to the archives of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. This includes correspondence during and after his time in Hong Kong, including that with his personal secretary, Beatrice Chan. If Wong had found any documentation in her review of the archives of the Diocese of Hong Kong, she would have said. Let me add that neither Wong nor I reviewed the papers of Cincinnati Archbishop McNicholas, and neither of us would have had access to the archival materials of the pontificate of Pope Pius XII prior to March 2, 2020,[9] and neither of us availed ourselves of them. If there were any documentation, neither Father Gilligan nor his correspondents would have included this information except by diplomatic pouch.

Ms. Wong made three assertions:

  • Breslin mistakenly referred to false passports rather than legitimate travel documents
  • Only a “small percentage” of Chinese clergy and religious left the mainland for Hong Kong and only some of them fled, not the “thousand” said by Msgr. Breslin to have been helped by Father Gilligan out of the country
  • Father Gilligan wanted Chinese priests and religious to stay at their posts in mainland China, implying that he would not have wanted to help, and did not help, Chinese priests and religious escape Hong Kong but would encourage them to return.

I respond to each of these in the series conclusion, Part 4.


[Link to Part 1: click here; link to Part 2: click here]


[1] Headlines in American newspapers from 1949 to 1951 include: “Reds Killed Priests,” Catholic World in Pictures, Feb. 25, 1949, 1, col. 4 (all six Chinese priests in Mukden, Manchuria, have been killed),——194-en-20–21-byDA.rev-txt-txIN-chinese+killed——-; “96 Catholic Missionaries Listed Killed by China Reds,” N.Y. Times, March 29, 1949; “China Tragedy Threatens World,” Catholic Standard and Times,  May 27, 1949, 2, col. 6 (100 priests and thousands of Chinese laity have been killed since V-J Day),——194-en-20–1-byDA.rev-txt-txIN-chinese+killed——-; “3 Planning to Rebuild Society with 40 Martyrs Killed by Chinese Reds,” Catholic Standard and Times [Philadelphia], June 24, 1949, col. 6 (Little Brothers of St. John the Baptist, Chinese and foreign, killed in 1940),——-en-20–1–txt-txIN——– ; “Long Martyrology in China Is Listed for 1945-1950,” St. Louis Review, Jan. 12, 1951,  1, col. 7 (66 killed),——195-en-20–21-byDA-txt-txIN-chinese+killed——- ; “Two [Chinese] Priests Killed by China Reds,” Catholic News Service – Newsfeeds, March 5, 1951, p. 5 [p. 141 of webpage],——195-en-20–41-byDA-txt-txIN-chinese+killed——-

Secondary sources for 1949-1952 include: Wong, 70 (Sister Yao Lianqing executed in 1951); Wong, 75, n. 58 (citing James T. Myers, Enemies Without Guns: The Catholic Church in China (New York Academy, 1991); Wong, 75, n. 59 (citing Gretta Palmer, God’s Underground in Asia (New York, 1953); Gerolamo Fazzini, The Red Book of Chinese Martyrs (San Francisco, 2006),; Theresa Marie Moreau, Blood of the Martyrs: Trappist Monks in Communist China (Los Angeles, 2012); Anthony E. Clark, “Chinese Catholics Who Changed China and the World,” Catholic World Report, Jan. 16, 2018,

[2] Lili Song, “China and the International Refugee Protection Regime: Past, Present, and Potentials,” Refugee Survey Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 2, June 2018, 139–161, n. 12 (hereafter Song) (citing G. Loescher, A. Betts & J. Milner, UNHCR: The Politics and Practice of Refugee Protection into the 21st Century, 2008, p. 23),

[3] Song, n. 15 (citing H.X. Liu, “zhenjing zhongyang de ‘dataogang’ fengchao [‘The Great Escape to Hong Kong’ that Shocked the Chinese Central Government],” People’s Daily Online, Aug. 1, 2010, (last visited 18 Feb. 2018)),

[4] Song, n. 16 (citing H.F. He, “Forgotten Stories of the Great Escape to Hong Kong,” South China Morning Post, Jan. 13, 2013, (last visited 18 Feb. 2018)),

[5] “Population,” Stato della citta dellà vaticano, July 3, 2018 (updated June 26, 2023),

[6] “Vatican City Population,”

The number in 2018 was actually lower than in 1949 because there had been a change under Pope Benedict XVI such that not all residents received Vatican citizenship. As of 2013 only 249 of the 455 the residents had citizenship. In 2013, there were a total of 619 citizens. Rome Report, 2013,

[7] We do not know the precise numbers and we do not know the precise range of time. It would not have been earlier than when Father Gilligan arrived in Hong Kong, about Oct. 15, 1949, and not later than when he departed in early January, 1953. After Father Gilligan departed from Hong Kong, he had no successor. There was no longer a representative in Hong Kong of the Papal Internuncio to China.

[8] From 1936-1938, over 10,000 Poles had emigrated to Paraguay. Gabriela Galecka and Cezary Obracht-Prondzyński,Polish Community in Paraguay: Maintaining National Identity in Everyday Life and Festivity, Revista del CESLA, no. 20, 2017, pp. 123-150,

[9] Edward Pentin, “Pius XII Archives Offer More Than the Pontificate’s War Record,” Nat’l Cath. Reg., March 2, 2020,


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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