They Left Their Hearts–Part 2

In the second installment of this series commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Congregation of the Mission Western Province’s mission in China, we examine the experience of Fr. Edward Sheehan, C.M., as he begins his missionary work in China.

In the early 20th century, the opportunity for Catholic missionaries to serve in China was extremely enticing. The predominantly non-Christian population presented missionaries with the potential to really make a difference by bringing the message of the Gospel into an area that was unacquainted with this teaching. Among the men who willingly answered the call to serve in China was Fr. Edward Sheehan, C.M.

Ordained in 1916, Sheehan was Prefect at St. Vincent’s College in Cape Girardeau, MO, when Fr. Thomas Finney, C.M., Visitor of the Western Province, sent out a request for missionaries to serve in China. Sheehan and his confreres, Frs. John Lavelle and Paul Misner, C.M., set sail for China on January 18, 1923. We have records of his adventures from letters he sent to his former students in Cape Girardeau and letters to the editors of The Vincentian, a newsletter published at St. Mary of the Barrens Seminary in Perryville, MO.

Frs. Sheehan and Lavelle succumbed to seasickness early in the journey. Sheehan describes the experience thus: “Half the time…I was afraid that I would die and the rest of the time, I was afraid that I would not die.” Once he recovered from seasickness, he joined his confreres in offering daily Mass for the Daughters of Charity that were also beginning their missionary journey.

Upon arrival in China, Fr. Sheehan’s patience was tested by the very slow pace of travel on the small rivers that he had to travel. After an arduous 200-mile, week-long journey, he arrived at his destination and within days contracted the mumps. Fr. Sheehan quickly realized that serving in the China Missions would exact a toll on the missionaries. Separation from family, friends, and all things familiar was just the beginning. The unfamiliar foods, grueling travel, and primitive conditions they encountered proved physically and emotionally challenging.

After a year in China, Fr. Sheehan writes,

To know China you must leave the residence and go out among the Chinese. You must live like them, at least to a certain extent. You must accustom yourself to the sight of dirt, sickness, disease. You must eat food that defies analysis, unless you can thrive on rice and onion tops as I can…You must make the acquaintance of mud walls and damp floors and ill-ventilated, windowless rooms…The great need of this vicariate is priests. At present, the number of priests is hopelessly inadequate. There are so many souls that could be saved. We need money, too… We need money for the poor. I think I never saw a really poor person till I came here. I received quite a bit of money from friends back home for Christmas. They told me to buy cigars, etc. Well, one does not feel a whole lot like enjoying a cigar when one knows that within a stones-throw there are many poor people that are out of rice, (who) cannot sleep at night because they have not sufficient clothes, (who) cannot buy a little grass to make a little fire. I scarcely think that I shall buy any cigars. In fact, I know that I shall not, because the money has taken wings.”

Fr. Sheehan served in various capacities during his time in China. In 1925, he was successful in recruiting more confreres from the Western Province to join the missionaries in China. In 1928, faced with the possibility of the Western Province abandoning its missions in China, Sheehan lobbied the provincial and the Superior General not to withdraw from these missions. His efforts paid off. The confreres were allowed to stay, and all Vincentian missionaries in China became members of the Western Province of the United States. Sheehan was consecrated Bishop in Poyang, China, in 1929.

Among the challenges Bishop Sheehan faced were a shortage of priests and the increasing military presence by Chinese forces in the mission compounds. Eventually, these issues were resolved, but Sheehan did not live to see the benefits. He died in Nanchang, among the people he served and loved, in May 1933.

Photo: (from left) Frs. Leo Moore, William Ward, and Edward Sheehan, C.M., circa 1925


The Vincentian, Vol 1 # 1, 4, and 8; Vol 2 #1

The American Vincentians, John E. Rybolt, C.M. (editor)