The first efforts to bring Catholicism to Yunnan and Southwest China began in the mid-1800’s by the Foreign Missions of Paris (Societe des Missions Etrangeres de Paris) also known with the abbreviation, M.E.P. which was founded in Paris in 1659. The prelude to the creation of the M.E.P was the founding of the Society for the Propagation of the faith in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV. This was done as a response to the independent and sometimes rebellious missionary work of Spain and Portugal at that time. With the foundation of the Society, all missionary work now came under direct control of the Vatican for the first time. In 1658, three apostolic vicars to China were appointed by Pope Alexander VII. François Pallu was given responsibility for the southern provinces of China and another, Cotolendi Ignace was made responsible for Nanjing and northern China. Unfortunately, Ignace died before reaching the country.
But the Church’s first involvement in China began in the mid-1500’s. Up to that time, China forbid any foreigners to enter the country. The Jesuits and Franciscans from Spain and Portugal had missions in Southeast Asia and Japan but China was still closed. It was only with the permission from a Mandarin official in southern Guangdong province that allowed the great Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), an Italian Jesuit to enter the country that the growth of the Church in China began. Ricci basically single handedly brought the Catholic faith to China by teaching and travelling under enormous hardship and great personal risk from the port and Portuguese enclave of Macao northward to Beijing. He was the first foreigner ever allowed into the Forbidden City and gained the respect and admiration of the Emperor Wanli who came to protect and allow the growth of Catholicism in the nation.
Francois Pallu, as mentioned above, was the first apostolic vicar appointed by the Pope to enter China after three voyages around the world. He had to endure these detours and was prevented from fulfilling his duty by feuding Portuguese and Spanish missions who did not want to recognize the authority entrusted to him by Rome. Finally, he reached Taiwan which lay off the coast of Fujian province and crossed the Taiwan straits to enter China in 1683.
The first bishop of Sichuan, which borders Yunnan on the east, Bishop Arthur of Lioness and apostolic vicar from 1696, managed to recruit four priests for his vicariate. Two were from the M.E.P. and two were Vincentians. These "priests of the mission", which we now call "missionaries" opened a seminary in Sichuan, at that time a very remote area of western China. One large obstacle to the recruitment and training of local seminarians was the requirement that they all study Latin as proscribed by the Society of the Propagation of the Faith despite a previous authorization that Chinese could be the language of instruction and daily use. However, despite their concerns and pleas for a change in the rules, this was not allowed.
But, undeterred and convinced that the Church must adopt the Chinese language to spread and growth the faith, Pro vicar, Jean Basset, wrote a lengthy memorandum in 1702 in Chengdu, Sichuan under the title: “Review of the Mission of China”. In this work he lamented the sad state of the Church in Sichuan in spite of many years of hard work. Knowing that a key to further growth would be to promote the use the Chinese language he took it upon himself to do a translation of the New Testament from Matthew to Hebrews and the Mass liturgy into Chinese. He noted, “It was the practice of the apostles to speak and teach in the language of the country they were in, and it is the only way to spread the Christian message."
A fellow M.E.P. and one of the earliest Chinese priests, Andrew Li was sent to Sichuan in 1732 with a few other priests. They entered the province from the south in 1734 by sailing up the Mekong River which is known as the Lancang River in China.
Father Li did an excellent job of growing the Church in Sichuan for the next 15 years. He did so well in fact that Rome ordered that the province be led by the M.E.P. in 1753. Unfortunately he was not to be considered as the next Apostolic Vicar as many Europeans thought that only they were best qualified. However Father Li did have his supporters and Father Kerherve, a director of M.E.P. in Paris stated that, “ Andrew Li would perform the function of the mission better than anyone else. This venerable priest has the soul that would support and grow the mission”.
Nonetheless, François Pottier (1726-1792), a young French priest ordained in Tours in 1753 and only arrived in Sichuan in 1756 was chosen as Apostolic Vicar in 1767 to shepherd the more than 6,000 Catholics scattered throughout the province.
Meanwhile, old Father Andrew Li spent the last years of his life committed to the formation of local Chinese seminarians. The seminary was located a short distance west of the capital city of Chengdu. The school was reported to the authorities who destroyed it in 1770. Undeterred by such a setback, a new seminary was founded in 1780 at Longxi on the border of northern Yunnan.
Bishop Pottier died in 1792 and a new Bishop, Gabriel Taurin Dufresse was chosen a few years later. He already had almost twenty years of experience in Sichuan before his elevation having arrived in the province in 1776.
By 1802, the Church in Sichuan was relatively prosperous. In 1756, there were 4,000 in the province and only two Chinese priests. But by 1802, the number increased tenfold to 40,000 Catholics and 16 Chinese priests. Throughout the next decades, the Church operated many clinics which had not been known in Sichuan up to that time. Many orphanages were established as well; many through the financial support of the Holy Childhood Association that was founded in 1848 by Charles de Forbin-Janson, Bishop of Nancy, France. Through these efforts, thousands of orphaned and abandoned girls were saved from death and received a Catholic education.
The Church in Yunnan began its activities through the M.E.P. in Deqen County which lies in northwestern Yunnan. There they built churches in Badong Village in 1866, in Cigu Village in 1867, and in Shenping in 1872. However, the French missionaries' work in this Tibetan-Buddhism-dominated area was far from smooth. In an "exorcising foreign religion" movement in 1905, two missionaries were killed and Cigu's church burned down.
With compensation from the government of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the missionaries rebuilt the Cizhong Church and it still stands today. It was completed in 1914 and became one of the main churches of Yunnan. The three-storey Cizhong Church is of Gothic design but its top floor is in Chinese pavilion style, covered with glazed tiles. From the tower, one can enjoy a wonderful view of Cizhong village and the vineyard’s planted by those early missionaries to produce altar wine.
But, even though foreign missionaries were forced to leave China in the early 1950’s, Catholicism had long taken root in Yunnan and Sichuan. Northern Yunnan province lies on the Tibetan plateau and almost all of the Catholics here are Tibetan. In the In their elegant church at Cizhong, built by European missionaries a century ago, they cling to their faith as tenaciously as their homes cling to the hillsides above the swirling Mekong River. .
How this and a few neighboring communities blossomed into unlikely Catholic outposts on the roof of the world is a fascinating tale of East meeting West and of the enduring power of faith. These Catholics had to struggle to survive during the dark days of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s when many churches were destroyed and the relics, valuable chalices, statues and other artwork were either ruined or stolen. In Cizhong, on the majestic but forbidding mountains that feed into the Himalayas, there is only one resident priest to guide the villagers but the outlying villages only have visits from a priest since there are not many in the province. This is slowly changing however as there are more vocations. As a matter of fact, six new priests were ordained in Yunnan last year and have already begun to serve their flocks.
The faith of the Catholics throughout Yunnan has endured under very difficult circumstances. Through decades of war, scarcities of food and other necessities, civil strife and official persecution, the Catholics in this area have held on to their religion with strong fervor.
In the 1930’s the devoted M.E.P. which had endured much conflict and bloodshed of many priests, requested that the area of Yunnan and Sichuan be handed over to the Swiss Canton of between Tibet and China's Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. In the 1930s, weary of the conflict and bloodshed, the French fathers turned the area over to the Swiss order of Canton Regular of Grand Saint Bernard (CRB), which was agreed to by the Pope. It was they who continued the work of the M.E.P. and nurtured the faithful until the early 1950’s.
In Cizhong, the Swiss priests ran a school, a seminary and a hospital for the poor--which meant virtually everybody. On the rippling green hillsides, they planted barley and grapes from Europe. In 1949, Father Maurice Tornay, was killed at the hands of Buddhist Tibetan monks. His friend and fellow Swiss priest, Father Alphonse Savioz was the last priest to serve the area of northwestern Yuann from 1948 to 1952 when he was expelled from Yunnan and China. From that time on, the Catholics in the region were left leaderless and without spiritual support for the next 30 years.
After China began to open up and began on the road to modernization in the 1980’s, the parishioners trickled back into the churches. Throughout the decades and hardships they have kept their faith and there are now 40,000 to 50,000 Catholics in Yunnan.