In the fourth installment of this series, we examine the experience of Fr. John Lavelle, C.M., during his brief missionary work in China. We also observe the arrival of the second group of Vincentian missionaries from the Western Province: Frs. James Coyle, C.M., James Lewis, C.M., and Harry Altenburg, C.M.

Fr. John Lavelle was ordained as a priest of the Congregation of the Mission at St. Mary of the Barrens in Perryville, MO, in 1916. Having served in Los Angeles, Dallas, Perryville, and as president of St. Thomas Seminary in Denver, he joined Frs. Edward Sheehan and Paul Misner as the first men from the Western Province to serve the Missions in China.

Fr. Lavelle’s accounts of his experience in China reveal a deep enthusiasm for the people and the work there. Though he initially finds some Chinese customs unusual, he comes to appreciate the meaning behind these customs and recognizes the deeper truths they express. He believes that one of the most pressing needs for the Church in China is that of additional catechists. Individuals who are preparing to become Catholic live in community and receive formation for several years before they are fully received into the Church. Lay catechists lead these communities and provide education about the Catholic faith.

Unfortunately for Fr. Lavelle, his health deteriorated, necessitating his return to the United States within a year of his assignment in China. In late 1923, Frs. Coyle, Lewis, and Altenburg joined Frs. Sheehan and Misner in the China Missions.

Fr. Lewis, a Canadian-born Vincentian, studied at St. Vincent’s College in Los Angeles and St. Mary’s Seminary in Perryville, where he was ordained in 1919. He was Prefect of Studies at St. Vincent’s College in Cape Girardeau at the time of his missionary assignment. Fr. Coyle from Nebraska, who studied at SVC in Cape and at the Barrens, and his classmate Fr. Altenburg, a native of Milwaukee, were both ordained in Perryville in 1923.

In the December 1923 issue of The Vincentian (the newsletter published at St. Mary of the Barrens Seminary in Perryville, MO), Fr. Lewis is described as an “unfailing guide, counsellor, and friend” to his students at St. Vincent’s College in Cape. His departure for China was met with “profound regret” by the students there.

Fr. Coyle's first Mass holy card

Fr. Coyle’s first Mass holy card

In describing Fr. Coyle, we read, “Like his great father, St. Vincent, James Coyle was characterized in a striking way by ZEAL. How solicitous he was for the spread of Catholic literature, and how anxious he was, even during his student days when his opportunities were of necessity few, to alleviate the miseries of the poor.”

Fr. Coyle’s classmate, Fr. Altenburg, is described by the author as abounding in earnestness. “No one was more anxious to fit himself for the sublime ministry of the Priesthood. How he labored in the acquisition of knowledge, what enthusiasm he carried into his work!”

In a letter he wrote while onboard the S.S. President McKinley, addressed to The Vincentian, dated November 15, 1923, Fr. Coyle records his thoughts upon first seeing mainland China. Despite encountering rough seas during the journey, Fr. Coyle remained undeterred in his enthusiasm for the mission.

“We have seen a great deal of land for the last three or four days, but when the shores of China appear before us this afternoon, we shall be filled with a different feeling than that which took possession of us at the sight of Japan. From now on, we shall be in our own land, that land for which we have left our own people and dear ones; we shall see on our way to our mission, many hundreds of Chinese faces and each of them shall encourage me the more in the work that I have undertaken. What a great work it will be…a glorious work looking at it in a spiritual light and what it will mean for the souls converted and for our Lord who gave Himself to us in order that the grand mission…might be carried on and completed before His final coming.”