Bishop Walsh in China’s Wild West

Despite danger, Walsh and his priests built institutions and converted souls - Part 3

The year 1924 saw the Vatican give Maryknoll’s mission territory independent status, with Fr. James Walsh being its head with the rank of monsignor. Headquarters was at Kongmoon (now Jiangmen), a major seaport on the West River, 40 miles west of Macao, with a population of 100,000. In other towns, the Maryknollers had taken over French missionary buildings, but there were no such buildings in Jiangmen. And there were just 30 Catholics. Thus, Msgr. Walsh returned to the United States, for the first time since he had left six years earlier, with the dream of raising $40,000 to build a complex consisting of a church, seminary, novitiate, language school, hospital, a school for catechists, a printing press, and more. Cardinal O’Connell of Boston invited the Monsignor to come to Boston and restrict all his fund-raising to his archdiocese. In just nine months, Msgr. Walsh achieved his goal, the equivalent of $700,000 in 2023 dollars. Boston did it by itself! Boston proudly became the first American diocese to found a complete mission center in all of Asia.[1]

On his return to China, Msgr. Walsh did indeed build a seminary that began with 19 students, and he sent four more students to the seminary in Canton (Guandong). Ten years later, the first men of Jiangmen would be ordained. As envisioned, he built a language school that allowed students to learn Cantonese in one year instead of the three years it took him. He built a church, convent, and rectory all with Chinese architectural styles.[2]

There are 144 pictures of Maryknoll’s mission in Kongmoon (Jiangmen) held by the University of Southern California and posted online. Many are dated 1920-1923 but this is error because there were no Maryknoll priests assigned to the city at that time. Many of the photos in this collection show the work of the Maryknoll Sisters. A number of the photos show persons with leprosy – for which there was no cure until the 1940s.

Msgr. Walsh slept and worked in the same room in his rectory. The room had simply a board for a bed, mosquito netting, a desk, two chairs, a crucifix, and a picture of St. Catherine of Siena.

Like many of today’s urban centers in Communist China, Kongmoon (Jiangmen) was wholly commercial, likened to a Wild West town, when Msgr. Walsh lived there from 1924 to 1936. Women constituted only about 20% of the population and children were a rarity. This was so unlike the rural interior in which Msgr. Walsh had been living.

For 40 miles of riverfront, there were pirate villages exacting tolls, engaging in ransom, and committing arson and murder. There were more than pirates and bandits, however. The years 1925-27 were a violent time of clashes between the Communists and the Nationalists. In July 1925, because of the civil war, the United States government advised Msgr. Walsh to evacuate Maryknollers out of China. Msgr. Walsh wrote that if it had been a religious persecution, he would not have done so, but since it was political, he did, but he only sent them as far as Hong Kong. He himself remained. In October, he ordered the Maryknollers back to their missions. He wrote his superior that he had erred in sending them out in July. “In [the] future, I will not ask any of our men to leave until they are carried out on a stretcher.” Twenty-six years later, in 1951, after the 1949 success of the Communists, he wrote to explain why all missioners would stay at their posts. He wrote that internment or even death “should simply be regarded as a normal risk that is inherent in our state of life and is a small price to pay for carrying out our duty, much as is the case of firemen and policemen who are sometimes required to give their lives.”

A headline from the time:


In this instance in September 1926, 400 bandits were plundering a town to which 5,000 soldiers eventually responded.[3]

Despite the conditions, Msgr. Walsh and his now 30 priests throughout Maryknoll’s mission territory built institutions and converted souls. Father Ford’s attention to a village of persons with leprosy resulted in the conversion of the entire village. By 1927, Maryknoll’s mission territory included 15 missions, 188 outstations, 28 schools, and six dispensaries. So, the Vatican elevated this mission territory to a Vicariate Apostolic and named Msgr. Walsh, age 36, a bishop. Rather than holding the consecration rite in the United States, Walsh arranged for it to be conducted on Sancian Island (the name comes from São João, “Saint John” in Portuguese, it’s now called Shangchuan Island).

When Kongmoon (Jiangmen) had been made part of Maryknoll’s mission territory in 1924, Msgr. Walsh had been delighted to observe that Sancian Island was part of it. He had been devoted to the great missioner St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552), a Spanish Jesuit, since his grade school days. St. Francis had died on the island just short of his destination, mainland China. Walsh often spoke and wrote about the great saint. (He later published a book, Tales of Xavier, on him in 1946.)

For the occasion of Monsignor Walsh’s consecration as a bishop, diocesan and religious bishops and priests, Chinese and foreign, came from every part of China, greatly exceeding the capacity of the island’s church, leaving hundreds outside in the mud and rain. The ceremony had just started when 500 lay Chinese arrived in a single ship in which they had been unsheltered overnight from the torrential rain.

After the consecration, the new Bishop Walsh and 1,000 people processed to another building holding a relic of St. Francis Xavier. After the relic had been venerated, Bishop Walsh addressed his priests and stated: “I am the least among you. Look upon me as your servant. I am made a bishop chiefly to help you…”

The September 1927 issue of The Field Afar had two articles on Bishop Walsh’s consecration. One was by Father Robert Sheridan, M.M., and the other was a republication of a report in the Hongkong Telegraph.[4] Although the caption to the picture that accompanied the stories refers to five bishops, both reports identify only four. Also, the caption states that the church in the background is the place where St. Francis was buried. Rather, a relic (his body was moved to Goa) is in a structure out of view, further above the hill.

A picture of newly-consecrated Bishop Walsh appears with brother bishops in Zeal for Your House. In it, another mistaken picture caption says the bishops are all French. This author can, however, identify them, based on their images online as, left to right: Bishop Enrico Valtorta, Italian, of Hong Kong, one of two principal co-consecrators; Bishop Manuel Prat Pujoldevall, O.P., Spanish Dominican, of Xiamen; Bishop Walsh; Bishop José da Costa Nunes, Portuguese, bishop of Macao, one of two principal co-consecrators; and Bishop Antoine-Pierre-Jean Fourquet, M.E.P., French, bishop of Canton (Guangzhou), the principal consecrator.


In Part 4, we’ll look at his first years as a bishop.


[Note: Link to Part 2 is here.]


[1] In 1928, the value of the land and buildings was $428,000. Paul R. Rivera, “’Field Found!’ Establishing the Maryknoll Mission Enterprise in the United States and China, 1918-1928,” Cath. Hist. Rev., vol. 84, no. 3 (July, 1998), p. 490, n. 38,

[2] John-Paul Wiest, “The Spiritual Legacy of Bishop James E. Walsh of Maryknoll,” Tripod (Holy Spirit Study Center, Hong Kong), 1989, pp. 56-67, 62, 1989 No3 6 Tripod 51.pdf ( Wiest authored Maryknoll in China: A History: 1918-1955 (1988).

[3] Catholic Transcript [Hartford CT], Sept. 9, 1926, p. 1, col. 6,——192-en-20–21–txt-txIN-%22james+e+walsh%22——-

[4] A Field Afar, Sept. 1927, pp. 206-208,


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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