As many of you know I have spent many a year reflecting on the life, death and memory of Passionist Fathers Walter Coveyou, Godfrey Holbein, and Clement Seybold. Their life and the ramifications of their 1929 murder was the topic of my 1992 dissertation at Georgetown University. We Passionists and all associated with the Passionists should do well to remember this anniversary of their death. Some may say that is only a look back. Yet I would suggest that this formative event in the life of St. Paul of the Cross Province and Holy Cross Province established a vision of responsible ministry in missionary activity overseas. For example, all the literature in The Sign Magazine promoted the appeal of zeal and the quest for martyrdom. This was the culture of missions to China that one could read in promotional literature from Maryknoll, the Columbans, the Vincentians, Franciscans, the Society of the Divine Word, the Sisters of Charity of Convent Station, New Jersey, or the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, PA. These last two sisters’ group ministered with the Passionists in West Hunan.
What the 1929 murder of the three Passionists signified to all American missionary societies was the human and spiritual cost of missionary life. Missionary romance turned into reality. Records in the Passionist archives show that these tough missionaries were shaken to their core because of the murders. To be sure, the threat of death was all around the Passionists in the 1920s. A Confidential US Department of State report written in 1926 identified robbery of mission property, theft of Standard Oil resources, the capture and release of Passionist Father Timothy McDermott and the death of a Protestant minister as true diplomatic concerns. Safety of Americans during this warlord era was paramount. Nevertheless, Passionists often moved about West Hunan with bandit guards. Concerns were real but all appeared safe if the missionaries played by the rules. Local Chinese mandarins and bandits in turn knew the power of the missionary to negotiate a truce. In Zhijiang, Hunan for example, Passionist Father Arthur Benson settled a local dispute to ensure the safety of the town. Passionists were convinced that they might be harassed or held for ransom. Yes, that was fearful. But the attitude seemed to be that a dead Passionist was not worth much. Why would they be killed? There would be no money for dead bodies. The murders were a signal that West Hunan was out of control and a shock to Passionist life.
Who were these three Passionists?
Walter Coveyou was born on October 17, 1894 in Petoskey, Michigan. He was the son of W. M. Coveyou and Flora Draper. He professed his vows on February 13, 1912 in Holy Cross Province (western province) and was ordained on May 29, 1920. He quickly offered his ministry to the China missions, but it was decided that the time was not right. Instead he was assigned to Cincinnati, Ohio where he was a preacher who raised monies for the Passionist missions in China. He also preached sermons and gave Lenten courses. After 1927 it appeared that the civil strife, which had consumed China, was coming to an end. The western province decided to send more missionaries and Father Coveyou was chosen. For six weeks he took a medical course in order to prepare for the missions and then proceeded on to China. He arrived in late 1928 where he studied the Chinese language in Shenchow. The strain of the new life there caused him to suffer for a short time from herpes – an attack of the nervous system. Sister Finan of the Sisters of Charity brought him back to health. At the close of the annual retreat in Shenchow in April, Fathers Coveyou, Clement Seybold, and Godfrey Holbein proceeded to the mission at Yuanchow, Hunan. After spending the night at an inn they were attacked by Chinese bandits and murdered.
Father Godfrey Holbein was born Claude Holbein on February 4, 1899 in Baltimore, Maryland. Godfrey was his name when joined the Passionists. He was the son of Frank L. Holbein and Mary Kelly. His father died when he was young. He was educated at St. Joseph’s Monastery School, Baltimore from which he graduated June 1911. That August he entered the Passionist Preparatory Seminary, St. Mary’s, Dunkirk, New York. He professed his vows in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on May 16, 1917. Studies were done in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Brighton, Massachusetts; Scranton again; and then West Hoboken, New Jersey. He volunteered for China, was accepted and received training in Pittsburgh in theology as well as first aid from Dr. Rectenwald. Bishop Boyle of Pittsburgh ordained Holbein a priest on October 28, 1923. For a while he preached in Pittsburgh and then set sail for China from San Francisco on the President Wilson, July 22, 1924. Father Holbein made it to the interior Hunan, China. He found the mission life difficult and expressed some desire to return to the United States. In 1928 he was assigned to the mission at Supu, Hunan as an assistant to Father Flavian Mullins, C.P. In 1928 he was forced to evacuate due to military troubles. He was killed by bandits at Hua Chiao along with Fathers Seybold Coveyou. They had just completed their annual retreat at Shenchowfu and were going back to their mission post. He was proclaimed by the Catholic press in the United States as a martyr.
Father Clement Seybold was born Lawrence Seybold on April 18, 1896 in Dunkirk, New York, he was the son of Simon and Mary Seybold. Clement was his name when he joined the Passionists. In 1914 he entered the Passionist Preparatory Seminary, Baltimore, Maryland. After three years he went to the novitiate at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he professed his vows on September 17, 1918. He studied at Scranton, Pennsylvania, and West Hoboken, New Jersey. Accepted as a volunteer for China he received medical training in Pittsburgh from Dr. Rectenwald. He was ordained on October 28, 1923 by Bishop Boyle of Pittsburgh. In July 1924 he set sail for China. He found the mission life to be a challenge, but he had quite good success. He was assigned to the Kienyang, Hunan mission as an assistant to Father Quentin Olwell, C.P. In 1928 he refused to evacuate. He was killed by bandits at Hua Chiao with Fathers Holbein and Coveyou.
In the last several years I have thought of a way that these deaths have meaning for contemporary Passionists. Reading the powerful emails of Father Rick Frechette, C.P. who is in Haiti has made me realize the delicate balance that society faces in relationship to healing and politics. In person, I once asked Father Rick about the local gangs and leaders he must deal with. As he spoke he mentioned that his ministry of healing often crosses political boundaries because in an earthquake all can get sick. Enemies on the street can find truce at a hospital bed. Negotiating with government officials of Haiti or organizations that provide medical or social services requires patience and faith and dialogue. As he spoke I had the impression that the 1920s letters of China were coming to life. Clear focus of dedicated heart to the Gospel message as it is lived with the local people who live with hope often beyond the sacramental church links modern Haiti realities with past China realities. Missionaries and even us here in the U.S. spend a lot of time dealing with people who never show up in church!
Furthermore, Father Rick turns to his benefactors like us for prayers and financial assistance in the same way that the China missionaries turned towards the appeals in the Sign Magazine. My study has shown that the success of overseas mission depends on the stability of the local domestic church. Now the worldwide gospel link must see the dynamic relationship between needs for the mission and ongoing education at home. With the Internet we are all at home; we are all abroad. No matter in the 1920s or 2012 we must see we how we our spiritual realities are a gift to be shared in prayer or sacrifice. This was true in China and it is true in Haiti today. It is also a legacy lived out by the Passionists in Jamaica, West Indies and in our ministries in Honduras. My point is that China history offers an inspirational past for a realistic future.
Another side of the death of the three priests in China in 1929 was the fact that investigation of the murders was done by the US Department of State. The entire diplomatic investigation can be read by anyone at Archives II in College Park, Maryland. These letters are humbling to read. One can read the emotional filled anger of Father William Westhoven, C.P. of Holy Cross Province trying to comprehend the murders. The murders also got the Holy See involved. The Holy See did not seek indemnity (paid money on the account of the death of a foreigner which was a right based on China extraterritorial law) because the Holy See wanted to see China move away from long-standing unequal treaties. The Passionists followed the approach of the Holy See. This did not make the US Department of State happy because US officials thought it without protest more US missionaries or business leaders would be killed or robbed in China. China was just a political cauldron out of control in 1929
The web of diplomacy explained above can remind us that the present Passionist NGO office at the United Nations is a way that the Holy See and diplomats and religious orders like the Passionists communicate today. Some wonder about church and state issues. But the China mission documents and the 1929 murders are a reminder of the importance of citizenship and respect for human life in the face of violence especially when there is a vacuum of national leadership or inability to appreciate cultural and religious dialogue. The 1929 murders serve as a reminder that missionaries, citizenship, Gospel, justice and dialogue are time-honored perspectives. Knowledge of our NGO efforts is a dynamic way to appreciate modern Gospel realities of today. Again, the China documentation shows Passionists from the 1920s to the 1950s in political dialogue because that was where the Gospel led them especially as it pertained to refugee work in China from 1937 to 1945.
My last point is personal. I have gained patience and faith studying the lives of Fathers Coveyou, Holbein and Seybold. The China Collection presents the emotion of ministry, knowledge of a local Catholic Chinese Church that still is alive today in West Hunan and remembers the Passionists and Sisters with thanksgiving. The ability to share my knowledge of what is in the Passionist Archives China Collection spills over to other issues such as Father Victor Koch in Germany during World War II or the spiritual vitality of the present day Scranton Novena. Publishing the Passionist Heritage Newsletter and answering requests from the Provincial office, local communities or people who look at the Archives website www.cpprovince.org/archives has remained inspirational.
Yes, we remember the violent death of three Passionists in 1929. But the lives and memory of Fathers Walter Coveyou, Godfrey Holbein, and Clement Seybold hold us all accountable to seek the link between history and imagination of faith in our everyday world. On this 83rd anniversary I ask how the knowledge of this historic event goes to the heart of your Passionist vocation as a member or as an employee.
May the Passion of Christ Be Always in Our Hearts,
- Rob Carbonneau, C.P., historian and director of the Passionist Historical Archives