Faith Matters

Priests' heroic martyrdom echoes across the decades

A Faith matters article about Ireland's missionary tradition encouraged reader Mary Kane to share the remarkable story of Fr James Maginn, a relative. The priest, who grew up in Co Down, was one of seven Columbans martyred in 1950, killed for their faith by Communist forces during the Korean War. She tells the story of the seven - who have been referred for beatification - and, in particular, Fr Maginn, who stayed with his parishioners to "defend the church until death"

The Columban missionary priests who served in Korea were familiar with imprisonment and adversity. This Second World War Japanese propaganda photograph shows 14 Columbans serving in Chuncheon who were interned in 1942. They were placed under house arrest by the occupying Japanese forces. 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. Three of those pictured, including Co Down priest Fr James Maginn, were later martyred for their faith during the Korean War in 1950. Fr Pat Brennan and Fr Tony Collier were also killed by North Korean Communist forces. Picture courtesy of Missionary Society of St Columban.

IN the summer of 1950, three Columban priests serving in Korea were murdered. By the end of that bloody year, a further four Columbans had been martyred for their faith.

The first, Fr Tony Collier, was killed on June 27, just days after the war between North Korea and South Korea started. Originally from Clogherhead in Co Louth, the 37 year old was detained and gunned down in the street.

With China and the Soviet Union supporting the North and the United Nations - chiefly through the United States - backing the South, the Korean conflict was something of a proxy for the Cold War.

Fr Tony Collier (37), killed June 27 1950

Within days of Fr Collier's death, a second Columban, Fr James Maginn, was targeted.

He was dragged out of his tiny church and beaten mercilessly. His attackers then took him to prison, where he was starved and tortured, and eventually he was marched along a mountain road and shot dead.

There was significance in the fact that Fr Maginn was killed on July 4, US Independence Day.

Fr James Maginn (38), killed July 4 1950

He had been born in the United States to parents who had emigrated from Co Down - his father was from Glasdrumman and his mother from Killowen - and later returned to the Mournes with their young family. The Communists who murdered him wanted him to confess to being an American spy.

Meanwhile, a few miles away, Fr Patrick Reilly from Co Westmeath, refused to leave his parishioners and escape to safety.

"No thank you, my place is here," was his response to the threat of death.

With the help of loyal parishioners, he survived for a month in the hills, before being captured, imprisoned and shot.

Fr Patrick Reilly (35), killed August 29 1950

At the start of the invasion a United States army adviser to the South Korean forces wanted Monsignor Thomas Quinlan and his assistant Fr Francis Canavan to go south with him towards safety, but the Monsignor said he felt it was his duty to stay.

He did tell Fr Canavan, "You're free to go. You're not responsible for this district. I'll give you my blessing, and think as much of you as if you stayed."

Fr Canavan, however, preferred to stay.

Just a week later, while the Monsignor was saying Sunday Mass, the Communist soldiers came for him.

Fr Francis Canavan (34), killed December 6 1950

After shooting up the church, they marched Monsignor Quinlan and Fr Canavan, along with several hundred other prisoners, to Seoul, and then on to an internment camp at Manpo in the far north of Korea.

This became known as 'The Death March'; although they didn't know it at the time, this march was part of the Communist army's retreat before the advancing units of the United States Infantry.

Several hundred prisoners - including soldiers, journalists, missionaries, some old, many sick and all feeble from near starvation - died during the 10-day march.

Fr Canavan contracted pneumonia on the march and was ill for some time and, although he seemed to recover, he had a relapse and died on December 6 1950.

Monsignor Patrick Brennan, who was born in Chicago, was superior at the Columban mission in the Southwest province of Chollanamdo in the 1940s.

Patrick Brennan (49), killed September 24 1950

The pastor was Fr Tom Cusack, from Liscannor in Co Clare, and his assistant was Fr John O'Brien.

On July 17 1950 an official from the US Consulate called to warn Monsignor Brennan to leave with his personnel because the United Nations would not be able to defend his mission.

Monsignor Brennan said that he was staying, declaring "it goes with the job".

Fr Cusack immediately said he too would stay. "I would not be able to live with myself if I left and Catholics were killed," he said in a message sent to his mother through fellow Columban Michael O'Connor.

Fr Thomas Cusack (40), killed September 24 1950

Fr O'Brien would also stay. Like their fellow Columbans, they all opted to stay with their people and would also pay the ultimate price.

On July 24, the North Korean forces entered Mokpo and the three priests were arrested and transferred to jail in Kwangju city.

On August 26 they were ordered to travel to Seoul. However, the convoy was attacked and the three Columbans were jailed in Daejon.

Towards the latter half of September the North Koreans had to abandon Daejon as UN forces advanced.

As they fled, they executed all of the prisoners, including the priests, and dumped their bodies in a deep well.

The well was emptied in 1952 and the bodies cremated. The remains and bones were buried in a grave on a nearby hill.

I would not be able to live with myself if I left and Catholics were killed

- Fr Tom Cusack 

In 1966 Daejon city decided to develop the area. Family members of the dead were notified and, in their presence, the grave was opened, the bones exhumed, and each family took some bones to bury privately.

A local Catholic historian, who knew that the three missionaries were among the massacred, took some of the bones and placed them in an urn in his own garden.

In 2008, the urn was transferred to a new memorial by Daejon diocese in honour of the martyrs.

During the war, the Columbans lost seven priests, several seminarians, at least 2,000 parishioners and half of their buildings.

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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