By Sharon Essner, MPS, Associate Researcher for Mission
In August of 2022, we will begin a series of articles to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the American Vincentians’ service in China. As a prelude, we offer the story of St. Francis Regis Clet, C.M., a Vincentian martyr who gave his life while serving as a missionary in 19th century China. Next month, we will offer the story of another Vincentian martyr who served in China, St. John Gabriel Perboyre, C.M.
Francis Regis Clet, C.M., was born in Grenoble in southeast France in 1748. Earning a reputation as a scholar at the Royal College at Grenoble, he joined the Congregation of the Mission in 1769 at Lyons and was ordained in 1773. After his ordination, he taught Moral Theology and was rector at the major seminary at Annecy before being transferred to serve as spiritual director and Master of Novices at St. Lazare in Paris. When the French Revolution resulted in the closing of religious houses, Fr. Clet asked to be sent to China.
Fr. Clet was sent to Jiangxi, a poor, neglected Christian community. He acclimated to most of the customs of the community but struggled to master the language, stating, “I know only enough for the ordinary dealings of civil life, to hear confessions and to give some instructions to the Christians.” He baptized over 100 adults in the year he spent in Jiangxi.
After one year, Fr. Clet moved to Huguang (today’s Hubei and Hunan), joining two confreres in caring for ten thousand Christians in an area of nearly two million square miles. The priests were based in Kucheng. Due to the immense territory they covered, the confreres saw each other infrequently. Within a year, Clet’s confreres both died. Five years later, three Chinese priests joined him, travelling from Pekin (currently Beijing).
Though zealous in his desire to care for souls, Clet was careful to tend to his own spiritual needs. He urged his colleagues to observe similar attention to their own spirituality and cautioned against “indiscreet zeal…which tries to do everything at once, a thing which speedily ruin the health of missionaries and reduces them to inactivity, and then the enemy comes and sows the cockle in the field.”
Clet was cognizant of the impending danger he faced daily from government officials, urging his confreres to be prudent and to go into hiding, if necessary. In mid-1812, it was reported that Christians were planning an uprising against the government. Fr. Clet went into hiding. When the mandarins searched his house during this time and found it empty, they destroyed the house, the church, and the school.
In addition to the pain of persecution, Fr. Clet regretted his apparent lack of success in apostolic endeavors. His converts neglected his counsel, were ungrateful, and made false accusations against him to the Bishop of the Vicariate. Eventually, the accusations were exposed as falsehood. Fr. Clet was recognized by both believers and non-believers as a man of holiness because his greatest desire was to serve God and to give his life as a martyr.
In May 1818, a thunderstorm with torrential rain hit Pekin (Beijing). The emperor’s astrologers and advisers attributed this storm to curses and enchantments brought by the Christians, launching persecutions that began in Huguang. Fr. Clet and two other priests went into hiding. Not only were the priests hunted by mandarins, but the Christian congregations became so fearful of government retaliation that they turned away from their Christian faith and even aided the government and military agents. Clet and companions managed to avoid their predators for several weeks, eventually making their way to Hunan district. In correspondence with other Vincentians, Fr. Clet described the terror and damage inflicted by those who hunted for him. He explained that all his belongings, including his Mass kit and Holy Oils were gone. Nevertheless, 70 year-old Fr. Clet stated his plan to continue serving in ministry, thanking God for His protection.
Fr. Clet managed to elude his pursuers until Trinity Sunday 1819 when soldiers surrounded the house where he was staying. Fr. Clet and the residents of the house were arrested, their house and belongings destroyed. The prisoners were taken to the nearby city of Nanyang where they were tortured. Bound with chains, Fr. Clet was forced to walk one hundred thirty miles to the chief city of Hunan. Throughout this treatment, his fellow prisoners were astonished by his fervent prayer and unwavering faith.
After a month at this prison, Fr. Clet was transferred to a district more than four hundred miles away. He was taken to a prison in Wuchang, where he was reunited with a Fr. Chen and other Christians. They were able to pray together daily without repercussions. A priest who was surreptitiously visiting neighboring Christian communities was able to sneak in to hear the prisoners’ confessions and bring them Holy Communion. Fr. Clet described his joy at God’s paternal care, which allowed him to receive the sacraments and to continue to minister to the faithful with whom he was imprisoned.
In January 1820, Fr. Lamiot, Superior of the mission at Pekin (Beijing), Fr. Chen and Fr. Clet were brought before the Grand Mandarin for trial. Fr. Lamiot was released but Frs. Chen and Clet were sent back to prison to await the emperor’s decision on their fate. Fr. Chen and twenty-three other Christians were sentenced to perpetual exile. On February 18, soldiers took Fr. Clet to the execution site where he was tied to a cross and died. His body was first buried among criminals, but later, the Christian community requested that it be moved to the Red Mountain where it remained until being transferred in 1859 to Paris to St. Lazare. He was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1900 and canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000. His feast day is July 9.
Source: Some Vincentian Missionaries by Very Rev. N.S. Rossiter, CM (1955)