Faith Matters

'I hope to see you in Paradise' - the last words of Co Down Columban martyr Fr James Maginn

Fr James Maginn (38), killed July 4 1950

FATHER James Maginn was born in Butte, Montana in the United States on November 15 1911.

His parents, James Maginn from Glasdrumman and Annie Murphy from Killowen, had emigrated from Co Down.

Fr James was the second of four sons. The family home was in Granite Street, Butte and James went to school at Sisters of Mercy Convent School, Park Street, Butte City.

In 1921 the family returned to Co Down, where his father opened a new hotel in Newcastle, at the foot of the Mourne Mountains.

The Montana Hotel, as it was called, later became a popular meeting place for the American soldiers stationed in the area during the Second World War.

The young James attended St Mary's National School in Newcastle before going off to St Malachy's College in Belfast in September 1925.

In 1929 James began his preparation for priesthood in the Columban seminary in Galway and, after ordination in 1936, he left for the Missions in Korea.

Fr James Maginn (38), killed July 4 1950

He had only one trip home - in 1948 - by which time his mother had died.

Fr Maginn was pastor in the village of Sam Cheok, a parish on the east coast, about 50 miles south of the border between North Korea and South Korea.

In the week between the outbreak of war in June 1950 and the occupation of his parish, he had been urged by his people to leave town before the Communists came.

He advised them to go and some did. Fr Maginn gave them money to help them survive, but he chose to stay, saying: "I shall remain here and defend the Church until death. I shall bear witness for God to the Communists who deny Jesus Christ."

John Kim Soo Sung, a teacher in the High School, was very devoted to Fr Maginn, who had baptised him.

He declared that he could not leave and vowed to stay, knowing that Fr Maginn was willing to face death at the hands of the Communists.

I shall remain here and defend the Church until death. I shall bear witness for God to the Communists who deny Jesus Christ 

On July 2, the Reds invaded the village. Two days later, acting on information from the local Communists, they came to arrest the priest.

As John Kim recalled, "Fr Jim received them with calmness and composure."

Entering the church, he knelt before the altar for a short final prayer. The impatient soldiers shouted to him from outside the church.

When he emerged, they seized and kicked him, struck him with their rifle butts and were about to handcuff him.

With a calm smile, he said, "Make yourselves at ease. I'm not escaping. Let's go this way."

Overcome by his self-possession, they yielded to his request. He was escorted to the police station at gunpoint.

A few hours later, John Kim was arrested and detained in an adjacent cell.

They questioned Fr Maginn for two days. Because he had been born in America, they wanted him to confess that he was a US spy.

John Kim got out of jail when the Reds retreated in October and he was able to give a detailed account of Fr Maginn's last days.

After a period of detention, starvation and torture, Fr Maginn was lying almost unconscious on the floor at midnight, when a warder came and shouted at him to get up and come out of his cell.

Fr Maginn had already guessed the reason. He asked them to let him say a word of farewell to John Kim, who was still in the adjacent cell.

The warders could not refuse the last request of a man about to die. Passing his fingers through John Kim's hair, he gave him his final blessing, saying: "John, I hope to see you in Paradise.

"Whatever pain you have to suffer, bear it patiently and never lose your faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ."

He disappeared into the pitch-black night and John Kim's mourning wails followed him and continued long after he had gone.

Fr Maginn was hustled barefooted along the rugged mountain road as far as Cha-chi-ri. A shot echoed through the ravine and he fell.

Next morning his body was found by villagers, who charitably buried it at the very spot.

Whatever pain you have to suffer, bear it patiently and never lose your faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ

Fr Maginn had spent 14 years in Korea, including a brief term of imprisonment and eight years under police observation by the occupying Japanese until they were ejected in 1945, only to be killed by the North Korean troops, who saw him and his faith as the enemy.

Co Down priest Fr James Maginn was one of seven Columbans killed for their faith by North Korean Communists in 1950. In this 1942 photograph he is pictured with 13 other Columbans during their internment by the Japanese forces who occupied Korea during the Second World War. Pictured in the front row are Brian Geraghty, Thomas Quinlan and Pat Brennan; in the second row, James Maginn, Frank McGann and, giving the victory sign, Tony Collier; in the third row, Pat McGowan, Phil Crosbie, Tom Neligan; in the back row, Paddy Deery, Frank Herlihy, James Doyle, Frank Gallagher and Hubert Hayward. As well as Fr Maginn, Fr Pat Brennan and Fr Tony Collier were also killed by North Korean communist forces. Picture courtesy of Missionary Society of St Columban.

He was 38 years old. It was not until March 1952, after the liberation of Chunchon city, that his grave and body were located by Fr Brian Geraghty, on information of eyewitnesses of his last hours.

His body was exhumed and laid to rest beside his fellow Columbans Fr Tony Collier and Fr Patrick Reilly in the church yard in Chukrimdong, now the Cathedral Church of Chuncheon Diocese, in South Korea.

Later the Holy Trinity Church was built in Sam Cheok in memory of Fr James - my late father's cousin.

Fr James Maginn's grave in Chuncheon, Korea, where he is still fondly remembered

Fr James Maginn's grave in Chuncheon, Korea

On our once-in-a-lifetime visit to Korea in September 2018, we were completely overwhelmed by the devotion of the parishioners of Sam Cheok to his memory, all these years later.

He is prayed for by name at every Mass in the parish church, where a huge photo of him still takes pride of place.

I will never forget their kindness to us, just because we are family.

The case of all seven Columbans martyred in Korea in 1950 - Fr Tony Collier, Fr Patrick Reilly, Monsignor Patrick Brennan, Fr Thomas Cusack, Fr John O'Brien, Fr Francis Canavan and Fr James Maginn - has been referred for Beatification. Please join us in praying for this intention.

A memorial to Fr James Maginn on the family grave in Newcastle, Co Down

Paying the ultimate price

BETWEEN 1929 and 2001, 24 Columban missionaries died while serving on mission for the Gospel.

Their stories - including those of Fr James Maginn and his colleagues martyred in Korea in 1950 - feature in a book compiled by the Columban Missionaries.

Columban Martyrs 1929-2001 can be ordered online, by telephoning 00353 46 909 8275 or writing to Columban Missionaries, Dalgan Park, Navan, Co Meath, C15 AY2Y.

More information about the Columbans can also be found here.

Details about the Columbans who have died serving the Gospel can be found here.

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Faith Matters