A Century of Missionary Benedictines in Korea and North-East China
Dr Johannes Mahr, Professor of literature at the University of Würzburg, Ochsenfurt


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Benedictine life in Korea began on 1st December, 1909, with a newly opened Priory in Seoul. At that time the Priory had only one inhabitant, the Prior. He was waiting for the brothers from Germany who were still on the long sea-voyage which was bringing them. On 25th September, 2009, the Abbey of Waegwan celebrated the centenary of their arrival. Apart from many ecclesiastical representatives and friends of the community the celebration brought together the members of three Korean Benedictine communities whose origin goes back to that event: the monks of the Abbey of Waegwan, the largest of the worldwide Congregation of Benedictine Missionaries of St Ottilien; the sisters of the neighbouring Priory of Sasudong, near Taegu, a foundation of the Benedictine Missionary Sisters of Tutzing, who until the communist persecution had their mother-house in the episcopal city of Wonsan in North Korea; and the sisters of Pusan, a foundation of the Olivetans of Cham on Lake of Zug in Switzerland, whose founding group had to flee in 1948 to the episcopal city of Yenki in China.

The celebration in Waegwan took place in the new abbey church, dedicated barely three weeks before. The church is new because Waegwan had been afflicted by one of those many catastrophes from which the Benedictines of Korea and China have emerged strengthened: on Good Friday 2007 the Abbey of Waegwan was burnt to the ground.

However on this day of festival the Benedictines of Korea were able to gather in the magnificent light of the new church. Its colourful windows were fashioned in the monastery workshops by Br Polycarp, the lightbrown benches, reflected in the polished floor, in the joinery by Br Nicholas. This was the scene in which Cardinal Nicholas Cheong Jinsuk of Seoul celebrated the pontifical Mass, surrounded by the whole Episcopal Conference of Korea, by the President of the Benedictine Congregation and by representatives of all the monasteries of the Congregation of St Ottilien. Among them was of course the Abbot of Münsterschwarzach, one of the three small German monasteries which in 1909 had embarked on such a dangerous and daring venture.

A look back over the hundred years of Benedictine life in Korea may be helpful. In October 1908 a French priest appeared at St Ottilien who introduced himself as Gustave Mutel, Bishop of Seoul. This was a kairos, a moment ordained by God. It brought a single solution to two highly diverse problems. On the one hand the very existence of the Missionary Benedictines of St Ottilien, who were caring for an immense missionary area in East Africa, was threatened. Many of its members living in Africa wanted to cut loose from the Order in order to work more freely. The Bishop of Dar es-Salaam was forbidding the Abbot of St Ottilien to wield any authority in his territory. Abbot Norbert Weber had scarcely any say left in the conduct of the mission. Then suddenly appeared the Bishop of Seoul, intent on reorganizing the Church in Korea. During the decades of persecution in the nineteenth century it had become a Church of the poor, driven into remote corners without any link to public life. This situation was symbolised by the magnificent cathedral of Myongdong: since 1898 it had dominated the skyline of Seoul, but it had no interior. The French missionaries were diocesan priests. Each one had to care for his own community, and this meant that he heroically shared the poverty of his community. Nevertheless it was essential that the Church in Korea should enable believers to adapt to a society which was rapidly changing, all the more so because in 1910 Japan had declared that Korea was to become a Japanese province so that they could exploit the country.

The proposal put by the Bishop of Seoul to the monastery of St Ottilien provided a solution both for the Benedictines and for the Church of Korea. The Benedictines could begin at Seoul on a new basis, and found a monastery. In Africa this was impossible. When, at the bishop’s behest they took over schools, the fathers could remain in the monastery and ensure the choir Office while still fulfilling their missionary task. Indeed a Benedictine abbey offered the bishop more than he had hoped for: it had laybrothers, who opened a school for craftsmen and formed professional workers. In addition the undertaking assumed a national character for Korea. While the leaders of the country sent their sons to school in Japan, to fit them in due time for the favour of the colonial power, the bishop’s house was making plans for a Korean middle class. A training school for teachers, a secondary school and a technical school constituted the first step in this direction. The Benedictines prepared themselves carefully for their task. The monastery established in December 1909 at the Little East Gate introduced the full monastic horarium on 1st January 1910, and already in 1913 became an abbey. With St Ottilien and Seoul the Missionary Benedictines had two abbeys at their disposal, one in Germany and the other on the mission.

Already in 1913 negotiations began for taking over their own missionary territory. The result was dazzling. In 1920 the Benedictines were given an Apostolic Vicariate which stretched from the port of Wonsan some 1,500km – no one quite knew how far – to the border of Siberia. From the beginning P. Boniface was determined to show in Korea that missionary work could also be done from an abbey, and he insisted on keeping his monks together in Seoul. His missionary territory was so great that he could station a priest at most every 100km. Since defeat in the First World War the situation of St Ottilien had changed. England no longer tolerated German missionaries in its colonies, and even expelled them from India. At the end of 1920 Bishop Thomas Spreiter, interned with the last German missionaries in Dar es-Salaam, had to leave East Africa with no hope of return. It made sense therefore to have a coherent Korean-Chinese mission territory and to concentrate the whole Benedictine mission in East Asia. A series of abbeys was planned, which would function as yeast in the great mass of dough. In 1919 Boniface Sauer wrote in a letter to the Abbot Primate in Rome, in reminiscence of his mother’s baking, ‘Our Benedictine method is first to found a great centre of faith, and from there permeate the whole population.’ He explained, ‘a single missionary goes to work in the cities, where he is scarcely visible and attracts no more notice than any other European. A centre or, still better, several centres of Catholic life in a non-Christian country or, to go straight to the point, several Benedictine abbeys attract more notice than fifty or sixty single missionaries.’

Despite the opposition of several missionaries who wanted to build up mission stations first, the Abbey of Tokwon was established between 1925 and 1931. A fairly large number of fathers ensured the choral Office while others accomplished the most important task of any mission, making themselves superfluous by forming indigenous priests. The building of a great monastery and a seminary swallowed up the whole profit from the sale of the abbey in Seoul, leaving nothing over for the planned second abbey of the Korean mission on Chinese soil. However, Boniface Sauer saw Tokwon as a model for the Church in East Asia and indeed for the Benedictine Order as a whole. He wanted to show the Buddhist monks that there was a kind of monasticism which did not hide away in monasteries, but went into the villages and worked for the spiritual and physical wellfare of the people. He wanted to show Protestant preachers that it was not sufficient to spend large sums of money building schools and churches, but that the new faith needed living witnesses. He wanted to show within his own Order that it was possible to combine a life according to the Benedictine Rule with a mission to non-believers. And missioners of other Catholic congregations should see that it was not sufficient to work as single warriors, because the faith finds its home in the community celebration of the liturgy.

After the model of the medieval monasteries of Europe, Tokwon offered in the political scene of East Asia a clear architectural and intellectual alternative to the majestic colonial buildings of Japan. The abbey demonstrated the claims of its own religious system of thought and way of life. It dominated the countryside but not the inhabitants. It constituted an invitation, and whoever responded found spiritual uplift, while politics was socially debasing. In troubled times the abbey helped in its own way to preserve Korean identity. There was no longer any room to doubt that abbeys could form centres for the Benedictine mission.

From 1925 onwards England again allowed German missionaries to go to East Africa. After the decision to build the Abbey of Tokwon Archabbot Norbert Weber made it clear that he would again make missionaries available for Africa only when there was an abbey there. So in 1928 the Apostolic Prefect Gallus Steiger became abbot of the at first fictitious abbey of Lindi, the port on the Indian Ocean, which at this point did not even possess a church. Steiger joked that it was ‘an abbey on paper’ until he finally settled in Peramiho. However with this foundation the way was clear for the four abbeys that exist in
Tanzania at the present day and the possibility was prepared for further monastic foundations. Of course the plan for East Asia was deprived of the missionaries who went to Africa, which forced Boniface Sauer to abandon the region of Ilan and the furthest northerly region of the Vicariat of Wonsan in Sungari because he saw no possibility of founding an abbey there. It is, however, difficult to understand his almost complete failure to make provision properly to equip the Korean mission into Chinese territory. In 1928 when Theodore Breher was nominated Apostolic Prefect of Yenki he compared his situation to the poor man Lazarus in the gospel. Letters to Abbot Placid Vogel in Münsterschwarzach from the years 1929 and 1930 contain sentences like, ‘The mission has no properties, nowhere to live on the spot; gifts flow in sparsely, we have no house where more than three fathers can live with any dignity’ or ‘Yenki has been cut off without the slightest forethought for men and materials’.

This makes all the more astonishing what happened in Yenki in scarcely a dozen years before the Second World War, when Japanese fascism restricted the mission to ever narrower bounds. For this mission was living continuously in the shadow of the aggression of Japan against China. The year 1932 was hideous. P. Honorius Traber escaped murder only by leaping from a window. P. Boniface Köstler spent days wandering in the countryside, escaping from robbers who wanted to hold him to ransom. In Taeyongdong two young missionaries died of typhus within a month. On 5th June, 1932, P. Konrad Rapp was cut down by Japanese soldiers while attempting to ride to the funeral of P. Sylvester in Taeyongdong. In many respects the work on the mission at Yenki was even more lively and daring than that in Tokwon, especially in the liturgy. The lynchpin of the mission was Abbot-Bishop Theodor Breher. A powerful and highly gifted personality, nothing went sufficiently fast for him. At the same time, not only as teacher of complicated languages, he communicated to all the ability to detect the most minute nuances in the way people expressed themselves. He was a person who preferred to do everything himself, because it then got done more quickly, but at the same time he remained entirely dependent on the silent prayer of his companions. He rode thousands of kilometres in the toughest conditions, but had only one aim, ‘a completely personal inner life with God’. He fully agreed with a remark of his own father, ‘You have more trust in God than good sense.’ He admitted that he could ‘fly off the handle’, but with incredible patience he communicated to the young people who came to him fresh a security in their unfamiliar environment. He was intolerant and often unfair to the weaknesses and failures of his brethren, but there was never a sick person whom he would not tend with the utmost selflessness. Not everyone could put up with such contradictions, not everyone could bear his tempers, his violent gestures, his endurance which put everyone else in the shade. All the same they were amazed at what he achieved by burning himself up like a flaming torch. Nothing else could have accounted for the unusual achievement of the Yenki mission, that the community of fathers, brothers and sisters found in one another an unconditional support.

waegwan2As soon as the Red Army invaded, on 22nd August, 1945, P. Witmar Farrenkopf and on 2nd September, 1945, Br Engelmar Zellner were murdered. Then the Red Army set about proving that freedom of religion existed in countries under Stalin’s control. Next, on their withdrawal, the missionaries were subjected to the whims of Chinese and Korean communists. One night on 26th May, 1946, the local party boss of Sinchan simply had P. Servatius Ludwig shot. On 20th May, 1946, the abbey and the priory of sisters in Yenki were confiscated. There followed two agonizing long years in a remote village in the frontier region of Korea, and then an even worse period under the continual harassments of the communist authorities, until between December 1949 and August 1952 the missionaries were allowed to leave in small groups. The Abbey of Tokwon and the Priory of Tutzing sisters in Wonsan were closed by the police on 9th May, 1949. A number of the German and Korean monks were retained as major criminals in prison in Pyongyang and were killed in August 1950. Among them was our Br Gregor Giesgerich. The remainder disappeared in the inaccessible mountains of North Korea, the first to die in the camp of Oksadok being Br Petrus Gernert. I assume that some of you were present out on the square on the morning of 24th January, 1954, when a little group of eight pallid and shabby gray-clad men returned to Münsterschwarzach – the survivors of the camp.

Once the death and destruction suffered by the monasteries still tainted by their European character were over, what was perhaps their greatest achievement remained too long neglected. As the Chinese and Korean communists in 1946 and 1949 subjected the missionaries first in Yenki and later in Tokwon and Wonsan to their long drawn-out suffering, many in Europe thought that the East Asia mission was dead. They did not reckon with the stubborn fidelity to their vocation of the young Koreans, men and women, who had become members of the Benedictine communities.

However, the monasteries of Tokwon, Wonsan and Yenki had imparted so much strength to their Korean members that they survived the destruction of their communities. The spiritual heritage they took with them sufficed for them to re-orientate themselves in a totally unfamiliar environment and to prepare the monasteries which we today admire in South Korea. For Waegwan the rebuilding of a great mission territory was decisive. This provided a foothold in the country, and since the end of the 1960s enabled them to make ever greater advances, to hand over to the Korean diocesan clergy the parishes with their fine churches and parish centres. It enabled them also to transform Waegwan from being a centre for mission to being the homeland of Korean Benedictines, that means a return under new conditions to the ideal of the Abbey of St Benedict in Seoul.