One of the most dramatic episodes in history, the siege of the foreign legations in Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, gave birth to an equally dramatic film, 55 Days at Peking. As thrilling a tale in fact as on screen, the story of how 900 European, American, and Japanese soldiers, marines, and civilians (many of the latter women and children), and about 2,800 Chinese Christians held out for almost two months against overwhelming odds is a stirring record of human accomplishment.
But all the while that was happening, a similar epic was taking place two miles away at the Peitang, so-called North Cathedral, the Catholic Church of the Saviour.
Therein, 33 priests and nuns, 43 French and Italian marines, and over 3,000 Chinese Catholics held off on their own a similar horde of Boxers and Chinese soldiers. Extraordinary as was the defence of the Legations, the siege of the Cathedral was even more so. Commanding the cathedral was its redoubtable Bishop, Alphonse Favier (1837-1905).
Favier himself had designed the current cathedral (the fourth) and oversaw its con- struction in 1883. On the China mission since 1862, Favier had been an obvious choice for Catholic bishop in the Imperial capital. While the Boxer rage against the foreign devils who were carving up China would not explode until June of 1900, they began murdering Chinese Catholics in April and May. Foreseeing what would happen, Favier stockpiled food, ammunition and weapons, and asked the French and Italians for guards – hence the marines.
The storm then broke on June 13. All the other Catholic churches in the city were wrecked or destroyed, and 20,000 Chinese Catholics killed.
For 62 days, the siege continued. Favier described it afterwards: “of the 80 Europeans and 3,400 Christians with [him] in the siege, 2,700 were women and children. Four hundred were buried, of whom 40 were killed by bullets, 25 by one explosion, 81 by another and one by another. Of the rest, some died of disease but the greater part of starvation. Twenty-one children were buried at one time in one grave. Be- side these 400 who were killed or who died, many more were blown to pieces in explosions so that nothing could be found to bury. Fifty-one children disappeared in this way and not a fragment remained.”
The dogged defenders were at last rescued by Japanese Marines.