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The missionary who said he would die for China ‘a thousand times over’

St Joseph Freinademetz: ‘I want to be Chinese in heaven’

Joseph Freinademetz (1852-1908) was a missionary in China. Though often working in acutely hostile conditions – not least during the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) – he found himself powerfully drawn to the native population.

“Missionary work is useless,” he believed, “if one does not love and is not loved. The greatest scourge for us, as well as for the Chinese, are the crowds of morally inferior Europeans without any religion who swarm all over China. There is no doubt that our heathen Chinese are a hundred times better than these dregs of mankind.

“I have come to love my Chinese. I take China and its people and its language as my native country… I would die for them a thousand times over.”

The fourth of 13 children, Joseph Freinademetz was born on April 15 1852 in Oies, a village in the Dolomite Alps which is now Italian but which was then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Freinademetz means “halfway up the mountain”. Joseph’s family somehow scratched a living from the land. They spoke Ladin, the local dialect.

When Joseph was 10 a local weaver spotted his exceptional intelligence and arranged for him to go to a German-speaking school in Bressanone. The boy moved on to the Imperial Royal Grammar School, and then won a scholarship to the cathedral choir school where he added Latin, French and Italian to his German and Ladin. Ordained in 1875, he was appointed curate at San Martino di Badio, close to his birthplace. His imagination, however, had been caught by the missionary seminary, Societas Verbi Divini, which Arnold Janssen had founded in Holland. In 1877 he joined Fr Janssen at Steyl.

In 1879 Joseph and another priest from Steyl, John Baptist Anzer, fortified by the blessing of Pope Leo XIII in Rome, arrived in Hong Kong, where for two years they prepared for their mission to Shandong, some 300 miles south of Peking. Although evangelised by the Jesuits in the 17th century, the province had only 158 Christians in 1881.

Aware that the Chinese elite identified Christianity with hostile foreign powers, Joseph adopted Chinese dress and concentrated his efforts on the peasantry. Having mastered Chinese, he was able not merely to preach, but to produce works of devotion in that language.

His mission was often dangerous and progress was slow. Nevertheless, within six years he had more than 1,000 catechumens in 30 villages.

The strain on his heath was such that in 1898 he was ordered to Japan for a rest. Back in China he dismissed any notion that he should succeed Anzer as bishop: “A mitre does not fit on a blockhead.”

Joseph finally succumbed to typhus in 1907. He was canonised in 2003. “I want to be Chinese in heaven,” he had said.