The following Christmas letter from an early Maryknoll missioner to China was submitted to Maryknoll magazine by Louise Moresco of Royal Palm Beach, Florida, who was given it in 1950 and saved it as “a reminder of all the good works our missioners do around the world.” The writer, Father Gerard A. Donovan, served in China from 1931 until he was kidnapped and murdered by bandits in late 1937. In the letter, Father Donovan refers to Father Edward A. Weis, a Maryknoll priest for more than 50 years.
Catholic Mission – Sin Pin, Manchuria
December 29, 1933
Christmas week, always a busy one, was made doubly busy here this year by a sick call that came in from the country the evening of Thursday, the 21st. A recently baptized Catholic walked thirty miles that day to bring the priest to a dying man. There is no question of travelling all night in this section just now, but we got an early start Friday morning, with the thermometer just a little below zero. That is fairly warm for these parts, and anyhow we were well bundled against the cold. With a fast cart we made good time over the frozen roads—and up over two bad mountains. The last few miles were back through the hills without much trace of a road, so we ran along the frozen creek and over the fields until we came at last to the lonely little mud hut perched on the side of the hill.
After anointing the man, there was a baby to baptize and a few confessions to hear. Since bandits had carried off the one or two oil lamps the family owned, I ate my supper and read my Breviary by candlelight. Then we sat and talked of the many things, smoking the “pipe of peace” until someone noticed it was past eight o’clock. Early to bed, early to rise is the rule where kerosene or candles are so precious.
The “kang,” a heated brick bed, was hot enough to fry eggs and still I slept comfortably until four-thirty. There were a few more confessions before Mass. During my thanksgiving they prepared a wholesome breakfast and by daylight we were on the road again. By two o’clock we were home again.
Father Weis had been doing two men’s work while I was away. He had examined the candidates for baptism, rehearsed the choir, heard confessions and prepared his sermon for Sunday morning. My own sermon was written in English and after I returned Saturday afternoon, my catechist helped me to put it into decent Chinese. I knew what Sunday would be like and was not disappointed. Our Masses, baptisms, a funeral, rehearsals, visitors and the Breviary—not to mention a few odd meals—took up every minute of the day. By nightfall, there were about two hundred inside the compound, for all who were to attend the Midnight Mass had to come before dark and stay until morning.
Father Weis sang the Mass and I only wish I could find words to describe the scene to you. Our little chapel is a gem by candlelight, even if the strong light of day does show it rather crude. The hushed expectant Christians, the straw-thatched crib, the snowy white linens of the altar and the red cassocks,— all these were a perfect setting for the Midnight Mass of the missioner’s boyhood dreams, and he would not change it all for the most gorgeous cathedral in Christendom.
After the three Masses, the Christians had a real Christmas feast and it was three o’clock when we turned in for a few winks before the new day began. Father Weis brought Communion to some of our sick folks in the morning and I said three Masses, followed by Benediction and a few more baptisms. Then we tried to snatch a few more winks of sleep, but the cook insisted that we get up and eat our Christmas dinner.
Yesterday I went down to say Mass in a little village fifteen miles away—and today I am juggling the machine to write to all my friends. You may notice the machine doesn’t spell so well—and it has other faults, but I know you will excuse them.
With a prayer for God’s best blessings,
Gerard A. Donovan