Fr. Martin Gilligan Saved Lives

His activity in China, 1949-1951: A Reply to Bibiani Yee-Wing Wong -- Part 2

Ms. Wong disparages the credibility of Msgr. Breslin’s accounts in his funeral eulogy for Father Gilligan since Breslin did not hear of these events from Gilligan himself when he was living with him.[1] But Msgr. Breslin stated that, for both stories, he relied on multiple sources, “a stream” of people visiting the rectory who had been missionaries to China, who had visited the rectory over a period of time in the 1960s, from when he was assigned to St. Charles in 1962 to 1968,[2] and, importantly, a Chinese seminarian confirmed to Msgr. Breslin that he had himself benefited from an unidentified American priest’s action described in the second story[3] from Part 1 (for Part 1, click here).

Let’s add details to the first story from Part 1:

After the Communist takeover of mainland China in 1949, Catholic missionaries numbering in the thousands were being expelled as criminals and foreign spies. Although Hong Kong was British territory, Hong Kong officials were fearful of invasion by the Communists. They decided it was prudent to do nothing to aggravate the Communists, as for example by helping any of these missionaries who had made it to Hong Kong. The wily Father Gilligan, then working in the Hong Kong office of the Papal Internuncio for China, sent a telegram to one of his bosses, a Monsignor Montini (the future Pope St. Paul VI) at the Vatican Secretariat of State, asking Montini to contact the London Home Office, the British office in charge of Hong Kong, and thank the Home Office for the fine treatment the missionaries were receiving in Hong Kong (which they were not). After the Home Office conveyed these thanks from the Vatican to the Hong Kong authorities, the Hong Kong authorities decided to live up to this international reputation and ensured that its police were hospitable to the missionaries.

Ms. Wong corroborated the first part of this account, the part dealing with Father Gilligan’s action. She wrote: “In late October 1949 [just days after Fr. Gilligan had arrived in Hong Kong], Gilligan informed Msgr. Domenico Tardini, Sec­retary to the Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs under the Vatican Secretariat of State (when Montini was Substitute (Sostituto) of the Secretariat of State[4]) of the Hong Kong government’s sympathetic attitude toward missionary refugees…”[5]

The second part of this account, concerning the thanks conveyed by the Vatican, is corroborated by a draft[6] December 18, 1952, report by the NCWC News Service in the archdiocesan archives. This 1952 report says a Vatican response happened in early 1951. While early 1951 would be tardy given the October 1949 date Ms. Wong gives for Father Gilligan’s action, the Vatican may well have expressed its gratitude earlier and also on more than one occasion.

The December 1952 report was driven by current events. It described the welcome accorded by Hong Kong officials to the Papal Internuncio (Archbishop Riberi, who had been expelled in September 1951), six aged Franciscan sisters, an Irish priest, Bishop Bianchi, and American priests and a sister. The arrival of the Americans just happened to occur when Cardinal Spellman of New York and Hong Kong Commissioner MacIntosh were at the border.[7] It concludes that “early in 1951 the Vatican Secretariat of State took occasion to convey to the British Government at London an expression of thanks for the many [words missing] government channels and was eventually posted on police bulletin boards throughout the Colony.”

To summarize, Father Gilligan saved the lives of Catholic missionaries who, having been expelled (or escaped) from the mainland for Hong Kong, were not forcibly returned by Hong Kong authorities. Father Gilligan went a step further and helped them leave Hong Kong.

As Msgr. Breslin related, by and large Catholic foreign missionaries expelled (or escaped) from the mainland to Hong Kong had documents, or could obtain them, from their respective countries, by which to leave Hong Kong. “By and large” because the Iron Curtain lowered after World War II prevented missionaries who had come to China from East European countries from obtaining documents to leave Hong Kong. In a two-page typewritten draft obituary for himself that Fr. Gilligan dated November 2, 1990, he said he had “signed travel documents for over five hundred stateless missionaries from Eastern Europe.”[8]

A photo on NOR’s social media shows a formal Vatican “travel” document signed by Archbishop Riberi in Nanking on December 28, 1949, for a nun who was leaving on official ecclesiastical business for her native Germany, via the Philippines, with plans to return. It’s in English.[9] Note that it specifies travel plans, so it is not a passport.[10] A stamped German word, presumably by a German authority, is the word for “invalid.” This could have been stamped after its expiration date.


[To read Part 1 in this series, click here]


[1] Wong, 78, n. 73.

[2] Obituary of Msgr. Breslin, Dayton Daily News, May 2, 2008,

[3] Msgr. Breslin did not specify during which of his two tenures in Rome he heard this, whether it was as a student before his 1957 ordination or during his 1968-74 term as vice rector of the North American College. It seems clear that Breslin and the informant spoke in the mid-1950s when both were seminarians. It does not seem likely to have occurred in 1968 or later since the informant seems to have been a seminarian at the time Breslin and the informant conversed, that is, the informant was not a priest who had been a seminarian in Hong Kong during Gilligan’s tenure in Hong Kong. If he had been, the informant would have been a seminarian both during the Communist takeover and more than 16 years later in Rome.

The Chinese seminarian referenced an “American priest.” The Chinese seminarian may not have known either Gilligan’s name or diocese. If he had named Gilligan, Breslin as a seminarian from Gilligan’s archdiocese might have recognized it. If the informant had named the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, we would assume that Breslin would have said such in the eulogy.


[5] Wong, 75 (citing a document in the Hong Kong Catholic Diocesan Archives).

[6] A final version does not seem to appear in the Catholic News Archive.

[7] “Missionaries from Red China: Cross Sino-British Border,” The Cairns Post, Jan. 11, 1952, 1, col. 7 (Spellman at border),

[8] Archives of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati (hereafter “AAC”), cited by Wong as “Biography of Monsignor Martin T. Gilligan” in Wong, p. 64, n. 1, p. 78, n.72, without indicating type of document, namely an obituary Fr. Gilligan drafted for himself.

[9] (no longer accessible). The Communists captured Nanking on April 21, 1949. The Archbishop continued to reside in Nanking, but Fr. Gilligan relocated 1,000 miles to the southeast coastal city of Canton (now “Guangzhou”). Wong, 69.

[10] It would not seem that she was stateless, since her place of birth, Hirschbrunn, north of Nuremberg, was part of West Germany which had been formed in May, 1949.


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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