Walsh as Superior General

Bishop Walsh of Maryknoll, prisoner of Communist China - Part 5

When the Maryknoll Superior General and co-founder died in 1936, the election for his successor was held in Hong Kong for the convenience of the many Maryknollers in China. Under Vatican rules, in order for a religious society of men to elect a bishop to be their superior, a supermajority was required. Bishop Walsh obtained it. After the Vatican confirmed his election, Bishop Walsh relocated to Maryknoll, New York, and he was now responsible for 546 priests, brothers, and seminarians. He told the seminarians that the virtues essential for mission were: accessibility, adaptability, affability, confidence, charity, courage, hardiness, initiative, frankness, and loyalty. With respect to charity, he quoted the late football coach for Notre Dame, Knute Rockne, who had died in a plane crash five years earlier: “We don’t want you to die for Notre Dame, but to live and fight for Notre Dame.”

In 1937, he wrote his short, 19-page, powerful Description of a Missioner. Among other things, he stated:

The task of a missioner is to go to the place where he is not wanted to sell a pearl whose value, although of great price, is not recognized, to people who are determined not to accept it, even as a gift… [The missioner] has chosen not to see the world but rather to let the world go by… He will do his praying not in the quiet of his chapel, but treading forest paths and poking into farmhouses and hobnobbing in market places… visiting villages and entertaining mandarins and jollying shopkeepers and encouraging students and curing sick people and tending lepers and teaching children and harboring abandoned babies…

Father Gerard Donovan was one of three blood brothers who became Maryknoll priests. In 1938, while Bishop Walsh was serving as Superior General in New York, Fr. Donovan was kidnapped in China by bandits from a chapel where he was praying before the Blessed Sacrament during Benediction. He was held for ransom and then left to die on a mountainside in Manchuria.[1] (Bishop Walsh’s sermon at the funeral Mass is included in his 1976 anthology, Zeal for Your House.)

During his time as Superior General, Bishop Walsh ordained Maryknoll priests each year. Three of them later became missionary bishops.[2] He also participated in the consecration of some priests as bishops.[3]

In November of 1940, Bishop Walsh traveled to Maryknoll missions in Japan because the Vatican, anticipating war, had ordered all foreign missionaries to leave and give their work to Japanese clergy. While in Japan, some Japanese officials approached the Bishop and asked him to serve as an unofficial channel, and communicate a message of peace, to the American government. After being persuaded of their sincerity, and after receiving the approval of the Vatican, Walsh agreed to become an unofficial emissary (a backdoor channel). He traveled to Washington, D.C., and met – secretly of course – with President Franklin D. Roosevelt on January 23, 1941.[4]

The online diary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt compiled from White House Usher’s Diary (USH), Stenographer’s Diary (STE), Press Conference (PC) and Tully’s Appointment Diary (TU) for the morning of Jan. 23, 1941, shows the visit with Bishop Walsh and Father James Drought, M.M.[5] One document shows a 15-minute meeting; the other nearly two hours. Tansill (see below) refers to a two-hour meeting.

In 1952, this work of Bishop Walsh came to public light in a book by Georgetown University Professor Charles C. Tansill. Tansill contended in Back Door to War: The Roosevelt Foreign Policy, 1932-1941, that the United States’ rejection of the Japanese offer was intended to provoke war.[6] (The book was republished in 2012 and 2023.)

In June, 1941, Bishop Walsh was back in Tokyo on church business. From mid-August to mid-October, however, Bishop Walsh served as an unofficial liaison in Tokyo. Midway through this period, he was advised he was in danger, dropped everything, and changed locations to a hotel 30 miles south of Tokyo. In mid-October, he flew to Canton (Guangzhou), arriving in Washington, D.C., on November 15, three weeks before Pearl Harbor.

The day after Pearl Harbor, half of the Maryknoll priests and brothers in China, Korea, Manchuria, Japan, and the Philippines had been interned. Some died, including Fr. Robert J. (“Sandy”) Cairns through drowning at sea[7] and Fr. William Cummings (who famously said, “There are no atheists in foxholes”) who survived the Bataan Death March but died of pneumonia on a prisoner transport ship.[8]

One hundred Maryknoll priests and brothers were repatriated to the United States. They needed new assignments. To scout out Latin America, Bishop Walsh traveled in mid-1942 for four months, first to Amazonian Bolivia and then to Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Guatemala, and Mexico. (The online Maryknoll Mission Archives has a webpage devoted to this trip, relying on Bishop Walsh’s diary while tracing the route.[9]) He found in Riberalta, Bolivia, 600 miles from La Paz, living and working conditions worse than anything he had seen in south China: “ramshackle, wretched.” He visited schools, hospitals, mines, churches, convents. He flew, took boats, rode horses and mules. He baptized, confirmed. He lost 20 pounds.

In Latin America he established 13 missions staffed by 100 priests. He wanted priests with special qualities: “interest in the people, ability to mix with them, unselfishness in helping them, zeal and initiative in leading and influencing them—in short, identification of his ministry wholly with service to the people as God intended.”

In Part 6, we consider Bishop Walsh’s activities during the last two years of his ten-year term as Superior General, his two years without an assignment, and then his assignment to a job in Shanghai, China.


[NOTE: Link to Part 4 is here]


[1] “Father Gerard A. Donovan, M.M.,” Maryknoll Mission Archives, http://maryknollmissionarchives.org/?deceased-fathers-bro=father-gerard-a-donovan-mm.

[2] Thomas J. Danehy, M.M. (Bolivia), Hugo M. Gerbermann, M.M. (Guatemala, later San Antonio), Carlos A. Brown, M.M. (Bolivia). https://www.catholic-hierarchy.org/bishop/bwalshje.html

[3] He was consecrator, as opposed to co-consecrator, of: Father Raymond A. Lane, M.M., in 1940 as bishop of Fushun, China; and Father Matteo Aloisio Niedhammer y Yaeckle, O.F.M. Cap., in 1943 as a bishop of Nicaragua https://www.catholic-hierarchy.org/bishop/bwalshje.html. Bishop Lane was interred by the Japanese for the duration of World War II. He succeeded Bishop Walsh as Superior General of Maryknoll. “Bishop Raymond A. Lane, M.M.,” Maryknoll Mission Archives, https://maryknollmissionarchives.org/deceased-fathers-bro/bishop-raymond-a-lane-mm/

[4] See also John H. Boyle, “The Drought-Walsh Mission to Japan,” Pacific Historical Rev., vol. 34, no. 2 (May 1965), pp. 141-61, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3636990.

[5] http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/daybyday/daylog/january-23rd-1941/

[6] “New Book Reveals 1941 Japanese Peace Offer,” St. Louis Rev., June 6, 1952, p. 9, col. 5, https://thecatholicnewsarchive.org/?a=d&d=SLR19520606-01.2.98&srpos=14&e=——195-en-20–1–txt-txIN-%22james+e+walsh%22——-

[7] “Father Robert J. Cairns, M.M.,” Maryknoll Mission Archives, https://maryknollmissionarchives.org/deceased-fathers-bro/father-robert-j-cairns-mm/  See also Richard Reid and Edward J. Moffett, Three Days to Eternity: Being the Story of Father Sandy Cairns, Maryknoll Missioner and Modern Apostle (1956).

[8] “Father William T. Cummings, M.M.,” Maryknoll Mission Archives, http://maryknollmissionarchives.org/?deceased-fathers-bro=father-william-t-cummings-mm

[9] “Maryknoll Goes to Latin America 1942,” Maryknoll Mission Archives, https://maryknollmissionarchives.org/digital-exhibits/100-years-of-mission-sending/maryknoll-goes-to-latin-america-1942/.


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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