Walsh Goes to Prison

The Chinese Communists arrest him and give him a 20-year sentence - Part 7

In May 1949, Shanghai surrendered to the Communists. By the end of that year, the Communists imprisoned and tortured Chinese bishops, priests, brothers and sisters. The Communists started a church independent of the Pope. In response, Bishop Walsh and the Bureau distributed a pamphlet explaining the difference between the Catholic Church and this Communist church.

On October 7, 1949, the papal Internuncio to China, Archbishop Antonio Riberi, consecrated — and Bishop Walsh co-consecrated — Father Ignatius Kung as bishop of Soochow. In 1950 Bishop Kung became bishop of Shanghai and was made cardinal in 1991 (in pectore in 1979).[1]

On June 8, 1951, the Communists closed the Bureau. They tapped Bishop Walsh’s phones. Periodically, they would barge in and arrest members of the staff. Bishop Walsh published a statement in 1951 as to why he and other missionaries remained in China. It was included in his 1976 anthology Zeal for Your House. St. Augustine wrote similar words when he was 75 years of age in 429 A.D. and his see was surrounded by Vandals, albeit Arian Christians. St. Augustine wrote, in Letter No. 428: “Let no one dream of holding our ship so cheaply, that the sailors, let alone the captain, should desert her in time of peril…”

In July 1953 the NCWC (National Catholic Welfare Conference) News Service reported, “Teen-Age Catholics have formed a ‘vigilantes’ group to stand guard over the priests still free in Shanghai. By their constant vigilance…they hope to forestall further arrests. The arrivals [of refugees from China] brought stories of tremendous ovations being given by Catholics to priests every time they emerge from their residences.” The report also states, “The only American missionary still free to walk outside his house in Shanghai is Bishop James E. Walsh…[2]

On October 11, 1953, Bishop Walsh led devotions at the Catholic Central Bureau honoring Our Lady of Fatima.[3]

By 1954, Bishop Walsh’s weight was down to 145 pounds. The Communists offered to allow him to leave China. He wrote his superiors, “I am a little tired of being pushed around on account of my religion. My religion is all right; I don’t see anything wrong with it. Anyhow, I don’t feel inclined to get off the earth just because some people dislike it. I don’t hold it against them. But what I say is—let them come and put me off.” As of 1955, he was living with one priest, a Chinese, at the Bureau. He was forbidden to speak with him.[4]

In 1956, the Communists took Bishop Walsh, the last remaining staff member of the Bureau, and moved him to Christ the King rectory on the other side of Shanghai where he was under “house arrest.” Nonetheless, he went to the church to celebrate Christmas Mass in 1956. Six hundred attended.[5]

The Communists arrested Bishop Walsh in October 1958. They held him secretly in Ward Road Prison, Shanghai (a/k/a Tilanqiao Prison). For the year and a half from arrest to trial, he was interrogated daily, “morning, noon and night,” for hours. Having no bed, he slept on the floor. He had by now acquired among the faithful the Chinese name of Hwa Li Sze, Pillar of Truth.

On March 19, 1960, at age 68, Bishop Walsh was tried for spying and currency exchange violations and sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment. Along with him, thirteen Chinese clergy were also tried. They were sentenced to 5 to 25 years, except Bishop Kung who was sentenced to life.[6]

A report on the saga related these anecdotes:

Once, when he was staying with a group of Chinese priests, the police arrived to arrest them. Bishop Walsh, assuming that he was included, packed his bag and went out to join the others. When the police turned him back, according to a colleague, Bishop Walsh was so angry that he threw his hat on the ground and jumped on it. […]

[H]is old friends in Hong Kong are more proud than sad at the news of his trial. Said one: ‘Bishop Walsh wanted to share the agony and the suffering of the Chinese priests. Don’t feel sorry for him. He’s where he wants to be, doing what he wants to do.’[7]

During his 12 years in prison, Bishop Walsh had no visitors, Chinese or non-Chinese, except for a visit by his brother William. His cell was in the hospital wing due to his age, not his health. He was not in solitary confinement but had a Chinese Communist employee as a cellmate. His food was okay and he had health care. They gave him Communist Chinese periodicals, a full set of Shakespeare plays, a few books by Dickens, and a Chinese-English dictionary.

His brother William’s visit occurred in August, 1960. There is a 47-second videoclip online of William arriving in Hong Kong with his wife.[8] William’s wife stayed in Hong Kong while William traveled to Shanghai. The brothers hadn’t seen each other since 1948.[9] There is a published snapshot of the two brothers in the prison courtyard.[10] William spent nine days in Shanghai during which he visited the Bishop three times for a total of 2-1/2 hours.[11] William brought the Bishop a rosary but the jailers refused to allow it. (The rosary was one of six given by Mount St. Mary’s to the surviving members of the Class of 1910 at their 50-year class reunion in 1960.) A report from the time reads:

The accounts of these visits make up one of the most moving stories of our time…The description of these meetings, the exchange of guarded information which brother gave to brother, the pathetic details of their conversations, the words spoken and unspoken, make up one of the most poignant records of our time…only family matters [were allowed] to be discussed. [12]   

During the 13th and final season of a TV program called Armstrong Circle Theatre, there was a one-hour program on Sept. 26, 1962, entitled “The Cross and the Dragon,” in which actor James Daly (1918-1978) portrayed Bishop Walsh.[13]

On the occasion of Bishop Walsh’s 50th anniversary of his priestly ordination in 1965, Pope St. Paul VI wrote a letter to him which he sent to Maryknoll headquarters. He wrote, “You have given a splendid example of true priestly fidelity, and you have been truly a loyal ‘steward of the Gospel,’ as St. Paul is wont to call all priests.”[14]


In Part 8, we will begin with some words about his prison years, what I call his time of contemplative ministry, his unannounced release from prison in July 1970, and his visit with Pope St. Paul VI in August.


[NOTE: A link to Part 6 is here]


[1] https://www.catholic-hierarchy.org/bishop/bkupm.html

[2] “Two U.S. Jesuits Among Quickly Mounting Number of Ousted Missionaries,” July 27, 1953, Catholic News Service – Newsfeeds 27 July 1953 — The Catholic News Archive

[3] “Bishop Leads Devotions to Mary in Red China,” St. Louis Review, Oct. 30, 1953, p. 9, col. 4, https://thecatholicnewsarchive.org/?a=d&d=SLR19531030-01.2.93&srpos=8&e=——195-en-20–1–txt-txIN-%22james+e+walsh%22——-

[4] “Bishop Walsh to Leave China as ‘Expellee,’” La Salle Collegian [La Salle University, Philadelphia], vol. 26, no. 3, Oct. 19, 1955, p. 6, col. 3 (according to three expelled Belgian missionaries), https://digitalcommons.lasalle.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1451&context=thecollegian

[5] “600 at Shanghai Mass,” Catholic Advocate [Newark], Jan. 5, 1957, p. 3, col. 2, https://thecatholicnewsarchive.org/?a=d&d=ca19570112-01.1.1&e=——195-en-20–1–txt-txIN-%22james+e+walsh%22——-

[6] “Religion: The Normal Risk,” TIME, March 28, 1960, https://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,826157,00.html

[7] “Religion: The Normal Risk,” TIME, March 28, 1960, https://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,826157,00.html, republished in 华理柱主教(Bp James Edward Walsh)——美国玛利诺会神父在桂剪影(3) – 博客 | 文学城 (wenxuecity.com)

[8] https://www.britishpathe.com/asset/145836/

[9] ”Judge Walsh Sees Brother,” Catholic Advocate [Newark], August 11, 1960, p. 1, col. 1, https://thecatholicnewsarchive.org/?a=d&d=ca19600811-01.2.3&srpos=44&e=——196-en-20–41–txt-txIN-%22james+e+walsh%22——-

[10] Catholic Advocate [Newark], August 25, 1960, p. 1, col. 7, https://thecatholicnewsarchive.org/?a=d&d=ca19600825-01.1.1&e=——196-en-20–1–txt-txIN-%22james+e+walsh%22——-

[11] “We Will Meet Again in Heaven,” Catholic Standard and Times [Philadelphia], Aug. 26, 1960, p. 6, col. 1, https://thecatholicnewsarchive.org/?a=d&d=cst19600826-01.2.46&srpos=143&e=——196-en-20–141–txt-txIN-%22james+e+walsh%22——-. The brothers did in fact reunite after the Bishop’s release. William died in 1975.

[12] “We Will Meet Again in Heaven,” Catholic Standard and Times [Philadelphia], Aug. 26, 1960, p. 6, col. 1, https://thecatholicnewsarchive.org/?a=d&d=cst19600826-01.2.46&srpos=143&e=——196-en-20–141–txt-txIN-%22james+e+walsh%22——-. The brothers did in fact reunite after the Bishop’s release. William died in 1975.

[13] https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0514927/fullcredits?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm

[14] “Pontiff Praises Imprisoned Bishop,” Catholic Transcript [Hartford CT], Dec. 17, 1965, p. 12, col. 3, https://thecatholicnewsarchive.org/?a=d&d=CTR19651217-01.2.98&srpos=17&e=——196-en-20–1–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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