China’s Doorman: Father Ambrogio Poletti
By Theresa Marie Moreau
First published in The Remnant, August 21, 2017
One bridge connects the two territories. A few meters of barbed wire separate two worlds and two civilizations. The physical distance can be measured in a few meters. The moral distance, however, cannot be measured. On one side there is liberty, over there the negation of every religious liberty.
– Father Ambrogio Poletti –
from “The Priest at the Bamboo Curtain”
Under the brim of a grimy, frayed newsboy cap, two sunken eyes rimmed in black stared straight ahead from their sockets, as if frozen from fear.
A scraggily beard hung like gray stalactites from cavernous cheeks. Bald patches detailed a survey of where torturers had plucked hairs during interrogations.
Upon a stretcher lay an Italian bishop, 63 years old, frail and weak. His black tunic and dirt-stained pants draped loosely over his bones. Chinese black-cloth shoes – wrapped around and tied with spare twine – swaddled his swollen feet.
After three years and seven months in a Chinese Communist prison, Bishop Alfonso Maria Corrado Ferroni (1892-1966, Order of Friars Minor) weighed no more than 70 pounds, down from 180, a loss of 110 pounds.
His first day of liberty: September 17, 1955, the Feast of the Impression of the Stigmata of Saint Francis.
“Welcome to freedom. It’s all right now. It’s all over,” whispered Father Ambrogio Poletti (1905-73, Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions).
Father Poletti always welcomed those who reached Lo Wu Bridge, the “Bridge of Freedom” that spanned the border between the People’s Republic of China and the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong, the border between Communism and Colonialism, Marxism and Capitalism, savagery and civilization, tyranny and democracy, slavery and freedom, materialism and spiritualism, oppression and compassion, death and life.
Some walked the short distance from the land under the Five-star Red Flag – with its bloody symbolism of Revolution and Communism – to the land under the Union Jack, emblazoned with the three Christian crosses of Saint George, Saint Patrick and Saint Andrew, symbolism of charitable love.
Some arrived dead. Some nearly dead. Some out of their minds after years of sadistic abuse, starvation, humiliation, interrogations. Some limped. Some collapsed and were carried. Some were wheeled across. One Jesuit priest ran past the barbed-wire barrier, screaming, insane from the physical, emotional and mental torments he had endured.
After the Communists gained control of the mainland, in 1949, the enforcers of the godless, materialistic ideology launched religious persecution against the believers of the God on the Cross. Those who refused to renounce the Church of the Imperialist West were arrested, imprisoned, interrogated, tortured. The regime’s aim: control native Catholics and rid the country of foreign “dogs.”
With the help of British Police Superintendent A.L. Gordon, Father Poletti gently lifted the bishop from the canvas litter and carried the living corpse across the train tracks and across Lo Wu Bridge, a main crossing point at the border.
Born on February 1, 1892, in Rignano sull’Arno, in Italy’s Florence province, Bishop Ferroni had been ordained in 1920. Assigned, in 1922, to mainland China, he spent 30 years ministering to the sick, the dying, the poor, the hungry, the needy, the orphans, the widows. In 1932, he was consecrated bishop of Laohekou (Laohokow) diocese, on the banks of the Han River, in Hubei (Hupei) province.
Arrested in February 1952, he was handcuffed for the first three months, which left permanent scarring on his flesh. During his entire incarceration, he remained in solitary confinement, suffering torture, deprivation, starvation, beri-beri. All that time, he never had clarification of the charges against him.
Banished forever from the mainland, the nearly dead Bishop Ferroni barely survived the 700-mile journey from north of the Yangtze River, southward, to the Pearl River Delta.
No one had been expecting the bishop. As Father Poletti comforted him, a British policeman at Lo Wu Station sent a telegram, at 2:30 in the afternoon, to the Franciscan Missions of Hong Kong, with a message: The bishop of Laohekou had just arrived from China.
Authorities placed the delirious bishop inside an ambulance, where he muttered repeatedly, “You can’t change my mind. You can’t change my ideas,” as the emergency medical team rushed him to Saint Teresa’s Hospital, 327 Prince Edward Road, in Kowloon, founded in 1940 by the Sisters of Saint Paul de Chartres.
After his arrival and admittance to the Catholic medical facility, he continued mumbling about the “Communist radio,” “lights” and “loudspeakers,” tools used against him during interrogations and physical abuse.
During the first day in the hospital, he received urgent care, including a blood transfusion. On the second day, death looked so certain that a priest administered the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, the anointing of the Last Rites, a preparation for death as well as a prayer for recovery.
Surprisingly, the bishop’s health took a turn for the better and continued to improve. Gradually, he recovered his strength and eventually resumed pastoral duties. But he never returned to the mainland, where the Communists had tried, unsuccessfully, to destroy him.
“Despite their threats and torture, I would never change my mind. They wanted to put a Communist brain into mine. They failed,” he said.
Father Poletti understood what it meant to cheat death on the mainland for life in Hong Kong.
Born on June 11, 1905, in Italy’s Mandello del Lario, home to the world-famous Moto Guzzi motorcycle manufacturers, he was ordained on May 25, 1929. On November 9, 1930, he left his occidental homeland for his oriental apostolate, and, at the age of 24, arrived in Hong Kong, on December 4, 1930.
After an accelerated, submersion course in the instruction of the Chinese language, he transferred to the mainland and was assigned, in 1931, to Shanwei (formerly known as Swa Bue), Haifeng County, with the Hakka-dialect people, and then to the city of Huizhou (Huichou), from 1932 to 1933, all in Guangdong (Kwantung) province.
In 1933, he was appointed the rector of Tam Tong (now known as Dantang), a village on the east bank, in a bend of the Danshui River, near Wing Wu, about a 30-minute drive south of Huizhou.
When the Second Chinese-Japanese War (1937-45) reached his district, he was detained and held, from December 1941 until March 1942, in an internment camp on Weizhou (Wai Chow) Island, in the Gulf of Tonkin. Upon his release, he returned to Hong Kong, which had been surrendered to Imperial Japan, on December 25, 1941, by Governor Mark Aitchison Young (1886-1974), who was seized as a prisoner of war.
Father Poletti remained in the crown colony during the Japanese occupation, which ended with the conclusion of World War II, August 15, 1945. After a failed attempt, in 1946, to return to Tam Tong, the following year, he successfully sneaked through Communist lines on the mainland, where the off-and-on Chinese Civil War (1927-49) had resumed between the Nationalists, headed by Jieshi Jiang (Kai-Shek Chiang, 1887-1975) and the Communists, headed by Zedong Mao (Tse-Tung Mao, 1893-1976).
In 1948, the Reds gained territory near his parish in Tam Tong. Soldiers surrounded his church, and when they called to the priest and ordered him to surrender, he clambered out a skylight onto the roof, where he remained all night while the Communists pillaged the church property.
Bishop Enrico Pascal Valtorta (1883-1951, Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions) had already sent a message to the priest in distress:
“When the sky is clear, you can come back,” code for “Return immediately!”
But the missionary never received the message, and when the bishop didn’t receive any response, he sent another:
“Either you are not living or have no way to say your Mass. If you are alive, come back by any means that you can.”
When Father Poletti learned of the instructions, he headed south. First, he hid among beggars, and then for the approximate 50 miles from Tam Tong to Hong Kong, he rode a bicycle over the mountains, crawled through rice fields and swam across rivers to freedom.
Never would he see the villagers again. But years later, Catholic parishioners and Taoists friends smuggled across the border a heavy gold cross, paid for with their money hoarded and hidden from the Communists, to let him know that they had not forgotten him, that they still waited for him, that they still believed.
Safe in Hong Kong, having survived the ordeal but with his health greatly deteriorated, his superiors repatriated him to his Italian homeland for a sabbatical. After two years, he returned to the crown colony, in 1950, and received various assignments, until he became rector of the northeast section of the New Territories, very near Lo Wu Station.
In March 1951, Maryknoller Father Paul Duchesne (1910-83, Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America) casually shared his idea of greeting banished missionaries. The suggestion sparked a purpose, and it was then that Father Poletti began his apostolate, with daily treks to the border and became known as “China’s Doorman.”
At Lo Wu Station, he prayed over the dead with solemnity and welcomed the living with charity. Of all the expellees and survivors whom he met, for him, one of the most exciting, and, perhaps, one of the most rewarding, followed an unexpected knock at the door.
Father Poletti had already finished his day’s work, in the early evening hours of October 17, 1952, when an English policeman entered the rectory, at 5:30 p.m., with an urgent radio message that had arrived at the police station for the priest: A missionary expelled from mainland China had arrived at the border, but he carried an invalid passport.
Although quite tired and without any idea who the missionary could be, Father Poletti mounted his motorcycle, gripped the handlebars, kick-started the engine with a hard jump, hunched over the gas tank and hurriedly sped off, as usual, with beard in the wind, as he headed for the border only a few miles away.
After a short ride from his residence, he arrived at Lo Wu Station and parked his motorcycle. A Chinese officer presented the priest with a green Italian passport.
Father Poletti pulled open the cover.
“This is my bishop! Where is he?” he shouted, when he saw the identification of the missionary.
“He is still on the other side, in the Communist zone, beyond the barbed wire of the border bar,” the officer said.
Father Poletti rushed across Lo Wu Bridge, where he instantly recognized Italian-born Bishop Lorenzo Bianchi (1899-1983, Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions) and ran to the man dressed in filthy beggar’s rags.
“He is my bishop!” Father Poletti announced as he welcomed the bishop and ushered him into the free zone on the bridge, where they embraced in thanksgiving.
In his usual hurried pace, the priest grabbed some food and fed the bishop, who hadn’t eaten anything since the previous day, and then seated him on the pillion of his motorcycle, driving very carefully back to the Tai Po residence, which included a small pack of parish dogs, a cat and even a black-feathered, yellow-billed mynah that croaked out invocations of “Ave Maria!” with a heavy Italian accent when prompted to say its prayers.
Under construction was Saint Joseph Catholic Church, a beautiful gray-granite structure with a bright white interior, a few miles away, at 5 Wo Tai Street, Luen Wo Market, in Fan Ling, closer to Lo Wu. The 75,000-square-foot parcel of land had been a gift from Yan Kit Chu, a local Taoist.
Inside the residence, he telephoned Father Antonio Riganti (1893-1965, Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions), who had been appointed vicar general, to act as proxy for Bishop Bianchi, who, while still in prison, succeeded Bishop Valtorta upon his death, on September 3, 1951.
Prepare for the arrival of the bishop, Father Poletti excitedly told an incredulous Father Riganti who thought the priest was joking.
An English policeman offered to deliver the bishop to his cathedral in style and grandeur with a motorcade, but the freed bishop preferred to take the train to the brick-and-stone Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, 16 Caine Road.
However, he did accept a car ride to Tai Po Station, and by the time Father Poletti and Bishop Bianchi left the rectory, radio stations had already broadcast the news of his survival and of his arrival at the border.
When Bishop Bianchi, still dressed in filthy rags, boarded the railcar for his cathedra, it was almost 9 p.m. En route, he slipped into Episcopal vestments brought for him, and he prepared to greet the faithful for the first time as their bishop.
Born in the central Alpine village of Corteno Golgi, in the Italian province of Brescia, he had been ordained in 1922. The following year, he was sent to the East and arrived in Hong Kong, on September 13, 1923. On April 21, 1949, he was appointed coadjutor bishop of the British crown colony.
At Kowloon Station, where news reporters waited for him, more than 1,000 Catholics welcomed the bishop. The faithful included most of the diocesan clergy as well as Archbishop Antonio Riberi (1897-1967), the apostolic nuncio who had been expelled the previous year, on September 8, 1951.
When the train reached its destination and squeaked to a halt, the bishop proceeded down the steps from the car to the platform, where the crowd received the prisoner-turned-prelate with tears of happiness, as they sang “Christus Vincit,” “Christ Conquers.”
ENDNOTE: I would like to thank Martin Chung for the map coordinates to locate Tam Tong village (22°57’47.0”N 114°30’47.2”E), his ancestral homeland. Miscellanea and facts for this story were pulled from the following: China Missionary Bulletin, published by the Committee of Catholic Missionaries; “From Milan to Hong Kong: 150 Years of Mission,” by Gianni Criveller; “Il PIME e La Perla Dell’Oriente,” by Father Sergio Ticozzi; “In Memory of the Past Members of PIME in Hong Kong,” edited by Father Sergio Ticozzi; Life magazine; Ofmval.org; “Padre Ambrogio, personaggio straordinario,” by Giovanna Gatti; “The Priest at the Bamboo Curtain,” by Wilmon Menard; and Time: The Weekly News Magazine.
Theresa Marie Moreau is the author of “Blood of the Martyrs: Trappist Monks in Communist China,” “Misery & Virtue” and “An Unbelievable Life: 29 Years in Laogai,” which can be found online and at TheresaMarieMoreau.com.