Father Timothy Peter Leonard (1893-1929, Missionary Society of Saint Columban)
Pioneers of the Underground Church in China
By Theresa Marie Moreau
And fear ye not them that kill the body and are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him that can destroy both soul and body in hell. Matthew 10:28
From love, Timothy Peter Leonard was created, and from hate, he was destroyed.
Born on the Feast of the Holy Apostles, June 29, 1893, the County Limerick native seemed destined to win a martyr’s crown, like Saint Peter, who was crucified upside down in Nero’s amphitheater, and Saint Paul, who was beheaded with a sword in Aquae Salviae.But rather than in Rome, the Eternal City, he would win his in a desolate mountain village, deep inside pagan China.
Second child to humble farmers, in an ever-expanding family, they all lived and ate and slept and prayed in their quaint home: the stout, single-story Ballycraheen House with a traditional thatched roof, sheaves of wheat straw attached to beams by a highly skilled thatcher.
Head of household, William (1843-1930) worked before the sun rose until after the sun set on his dairy farm, as he tended to his small herd of Herefords, a few dozen square-back cows with reddish-brown coats and white faces with long eyelashes. A few dry cows and bulls filled out the herd to graze the 70-acre estate before sold off for butchering. In a pen off to the side, a few feeder hogs slept and sloshed about in a comfy sty, until it was their time.
Heart of the family, Mary Anne (1862-1945) tended to hearth and home and to her growing brood. In addition to Timothy, there was first-born William (1891-1961), and then Jane (1895-1984), Richard (1898-1972), Joseph (1900-73), and Mary (1902-73).
In the fields behind and beyond the whitewashed stone wall that matched the whitewashed stone house, the family tended to the homestead’s garden, where they tilled, seeded, weeded and prayed for abundant autumnal harvests that produced bushels of potatoes, cabbages, turnips and parsnips. The orchard grew wizened fruit trees with juicy red apples and succulent pears to be plucked from branches and stored alongside the root vegetables in the food press, a large cupboard.
On Sundays, Feast Days and special Sacramental occasions, such as weddings and baptisms, the Leonards clambered aboard their pony and trap, with its shielding canopy to protect them against the drizzles and the downpours. Up Peafield Road a ways, the pony veered left onto Monaleen Road and trotted toward Mary Magdalene Catholic Church. Perched high atop a hill, the family’s spiritual home was a limestone Gothic revival beauty, with its pitched slate roof, soaring bell tower and dedication inscription over the main door: D.O.M. SUB INVOCATIONE B MARIAE MAGDALENAE AD 1873, which translates to: God most excellent and great, under the invocation of Blessed Mary Magdalene, AD 1873.
Not the only Leonard family around, the clan extended beyond their own and included another, whose members also traveled by pony and trap to Mary Magdalene Church from their home, the Peafield House, the road’s namesake, about a third of a mile southwest from the Ballycraheen House, just a whistle away on a windy day.
Head of the Peafield estate was William’s brother John (1843-1918). Irish twins, the two men, along with their brother, Richard, and sister, Alice, had originated in Rose Lawn House, a farm on nearly 100 acres, in Castle Troy, where the family had taken root and flourished by the River Shannon.
Also a dairy farmer, John tended to his few dozen Herefords that grazed on more than 70 acres, with the land’s boundaries hugged by a small armlet of the River Groody, where carefree and fun-loving boys went wading and baiting during the summer, catching eels and tossing the black snakelike creatures back into the slow, silent stream.
John’s family included sons William (1891-1959), Patrick (1893-1925) and Richard (1894-1971), who, of all three boys, was the one to become fast friends with his cousin Timothy, from the Ballycraheen House.
During their primary school years, Richard and Timothy walked up Peafield Road to the Monaleen Road passing green pastures with hidden bouquets of red clover and purple thistle, in their homeland of Killonan, Ballysimon. Along the mile or so, they lugged their school satchels, stuffed with lunches, books, pencils and papers.
The old Monaleen National School, which stood under the jurisdiction of the government, had only two classrooms, one for girls and one for boys, which the two entered and took their seats at a long desk that students shared. To rid the chill and the dampness, someone fed lumps of peat, Irish turf, into an open fireplace, igniting a gentle blaze with an aromatic cloud that descended upon the room.
For lunch, the Leonard boys bit into sandwiches, slices of homemade white bread wrapped around slivers of ham from the slaughtered feeder pigs or chunks of cheese from the dairy Herefords. For dessert, they sunk their teeth into apples or pears picked fresh from the fruit trees or grabbed from the food press. Sometimes, they brought soft drink bottles filled with fresh, cream-crested milk, strained through cheesecloth from the dairy pails.
When the cousins proceeded to secondary school, they continued to travel together. On bicycles, they rode about three miles, as the black-crested lapwing flies, to Limerick, a city with a population that would top 38,518 in the 1911 census.
The two steered past rows of bacon factories and tobacco factories and shoe factories, each with a tall red-brick smoke stack that puffed out billows of steam and fumes. At the banks of the River Shannon, they reached Saint Munchin’s College, with its motto of Veritas in Caritate. Founded in 1796, the sprawling estate, on Corbally Road, in Corbally, boasted an immense sports ground.
After school, they bicycled back home and helped with the chores and with the dozens of cows that had to be milked by hand twice a day.
Before bedtime, Timothy, a scholarly, serious young man, sat down with his books, studying the classics. He also memorized Gaelic, with an ancestral love for the old Irish language. The only illumination: the flickering light from a candle like the ones used at church for Mass, or the dim glow from a paraffin oil lamp, with a wick extinguished by rolling it down so as not to blacken the glass globe from sooty wisps of smoke.
Upon graduation, the cousins each made the same solemn decision.
Saying good bye to their families, they boarded the train in Limerick and headed for Dublin, the capital of Ireland. There, the two country boys – an odd pair, with Timothy well over 6 feet tall and Richard about 5 feet 4 inches – were temporarily jostled about in the rush and push of the metropolis, with its population of 304,802.
But they soon continued their journey for the last leg of their trip. Destination: Saint Patrick’s College, the national seminary, in Maynooth, County Kildare, to pursue their vocations. Heeding the call of God, the two submerged themselves in the religious life secluded from the world.
However, after only one year at the seminary, bad news arrived at Maynooth for one of the Leonard boys. Word reached Richard that he was needed at the farm. So he packed away his cassock and collar and returned to Peafield House, leaving behind his cousin, a serious and studious ascetic, who continued with his sacred studies, spending most of his time in the library, as books had always interested him much more than sports.
As the years passed, Richard remained on the family farm, and Timothy received the Sacrament of Holy Orders, on April 28, 1918, for the Limerick diocese. But soon thereafter, he joined the newly formed Maynooth Mission to China, now known as the Missionary Society of Saint Columban, a religious order actively seeking volunteers to join their first group of priests headed to the Far East.
In that first group of 11, Father Leonard’s confreres were: Father Joseph Crossan (1891-1974), Father Matthew Dolan (1888-1957), Father Alphonsus Ferguson (1894-1973), Father Arthur McGuinness (1893-1943), Father Michael McHugh (1876-1959), Father John O’Brien (1894-1968), Father Edward J. O’Doherty (1879-1967), Father Thomas Quinlan (1896-1970), Father Richard Ranagan (1889-1937), and Father Cornelius Tierney (1872-1931).
Ireland born and Ireland bred, Father Leonard left his homeland, the Emerald Isle, the Land of Saints and Scholars.
First, he and his fellow missionaries sailed the 150 miles from Dublin to Liverpool, where, on Saint Patrick’s Day 1920, they boarded the Carmania, a ship that steamed head-on to New York City and docked on Good Friday, April 2. Then onto the Columban’s American headquarters, in Omaha, Nebraska, where they underwent further training. After a month or so, they traveled by railroad to San Francisco, boarded a ship to China and docked in Shanghai, the city renowned as the Paris of the East.
For the final 525 miles, the 11 missionaries on the Woong Woo steamboat floated along the Chiang Jiang, the Long River, known around the world as the Yangtze River. On August 21, 1920, the ship pulled ashore, and the men set foot upon their new home: Wuhan’s Hanyang District, in Hupei (old form of Hubei) province.
Once settled, Father Leonard, with a cast-iron constitution, worked tirelessly and became known for his earnestness, self-sacrifice and for being an exceptionally devout man. His confreres described him as the happiest man in China, blessed with the gift of laughter, despite all the dangers.
Stationed in Yo-Ba, Mienyang, he pecked out a typewritten letter to his parents, on November 29, 1921. With levity and perhaps a bit of mental reservation, he attempted to alleviate any worry that his family may have had about him in his new surroundings. He signed off with his preferred Tadhg, the Gaelic equivalent of Timothy.
“My Dear Father and Mother,
“I am just after finishing my retreat at Hanyang and I got safely back to this diocese up here. I think it is more correct to call it a diocese than a parish. I said safely, and lest a little account of my adventures which you will see in the Far East probably later on might frighten you, I shall tell you all.
“I was in a little steamboat on the way to Hanyang when it was suddenly attacked by brigands. I was in the most conspicuous place in the boat; I was given the place of honour as you know I am a respectable looking man. So I was more exposed to the bullets of the brigands than the other passengers, being in the front of the boat I was the first to come into their view. The account I am giving you, which is the correct account will show you that there is very little danger to my life here. Those brigands waited till the boat had come close up to them and then fired several shots into the Chinese passengers with the object of killing or wounding a few to ensure that no one would object to handing out all the money he had. They could be heard distinctly warning one another to beware of the foreigner. All Chinese are afraid of the foreigners; and those fellows feared that if they hit me they would not long enjoy life of the brigand. The boat stopped, and all the passengers had to clear out except myself; all were searched except myself and my boy and deprived of all the money they had; next the boat was searched and those ruffians got away with a few hundred pounds, about £300. They had shot one dead, but there was time to baptize him, and wounded four badly. You will rejoice with me, I feel sure, that I was able to help the wounded; otherwise they would be rather badly off. I had them removed to the Hanyang hospital, where the doctor soon made new men of them. Before I left Hanyang for this place one of them was well enough to be able to get through the catechism in a few days. The sad little incident has done good, and will surely be the means of making a number of conversions, apart altogether from the four wounded.
“My life is safe enough here; I am in God’s hands, and a sparrow does not fall without God knowing it. So you need not be afraid. I am here to do God’s work, and God is the protector of my life. Whom shall I fear, therefore? I know that you will thank God with me for the good He has done through your own son. I have not the time to write you a longer letter at present. I write you this account lest you might be frightened. It is only necessary to say that I know a good deal about China now and I am as little afraid of anything happening to me as I would be in holy Ireland. I am in great form; life here suits me immensely; any hardships there are well compensated for. You see I am at the end of my tether, so to speak, and have not time to begin a new page. Did the Doc. make a nun of Maire yet? You hate being a Sister, Maire, don’t you. That is no sign that you won’t, if God so wills it. Any chance yourself or Janie would help to man Cathercon. Whisht with your Cahircon, I hear mother saying.
“Pray for me all of you, won’t you, and thank God for the great honor He has conferred on me in making me His ambassador here. Not only has He done great things for me, but He has asked me to do great things. Help me that He may be glorified.
“With love to all of you, and all the neighbours and friends,
After only a few short years in China, back to Ireland he went, in 1924, to perform promotional work for the Columban Fathers, always in need of donations and draftees to shore up the depleted reserves for the Church Militant.
At home, he found his family in the beautiful, newly constructed Ballycraheen House: a two-story, four-bedroom stone structure, Georgian style architecture, with a slated hip roof and a symmetrical arrangement of door, windows and even chimneys.
The old thatched house, where all the Leonard children had arrived into the world, had been converted into a cow house, where the Herefords would bring their calves into the world.
His bachelor brother, Richard, had stayed home to take care of the farm, so, too, did his spinster sisters. But the other two brothers, like Timothy, had joined the priesthood. William was on his way to becoming an acclaimed biblical scholar, earning a Doctorate of Sacred Scripture. Joseph would live most of his life as a parish priest in Athlacca, County Limerick.
While at home, on January 23, 1925, he wrote to his brother William, on the teaching staff of Saint Patrick’s Seminary, in Sydney, Australia.
“My Dear Liam,
“Your letter reached me at Ballysimon this morning. I am so sorry to hear that your health is not good. Perhaps you overdid it when there was question of mortifying yourself at meal-time or times which should be meal-times. I shall say Mass for you to-morrow, and as often as I can in the near future, that God may give you your health, and that you may know His blessed will. I’m sure you will continue to act according to His will, like a man.
“A few words about Giolla an amuráin [Gaelic for unfortunate fellow]. I had been labouring under a rather serious handicap in Yo-Ba, but Fr. Galvin wished me to work there, although I felt I would do better elsewhere. I got a little fit of sickness last summer, but I was well again in a month, and am very well since. During the sickness the Doctor recommended that I be taken out of the Yo-Ba swamps, and sent to a district near the hills. I was preparing to move to my new field of labour when 8 of us got orders to go a-begging ‘for a time.’ I got to Ireland two weeks ago with another priest, and 6 others went to U.S.A. I am here in Ballysimon for the past 12 days, and expect to be called on very soon. I have been visiting in Monaleen and Limerick since I came home. I had to see most of the priests and sisters and brothers in Limerick. I sometimes tire of talking and answering questions about China.
“I hope you will try to get many holy people to make intercession for me, that I may be a man and strive to be what a priest ought to be. Now you remember that preacher whose sermons were converting multitudes, but it was the lay-brother sitting on the steps of the pulpit, saying his Hail Marys that was doing all. Even though I thought it very hard to have to leave China, I feel happy. I feel the year here at home – I don’t expect to be more than a year at home – will fit me better for the work in China.
“The work in China, by the way, is not without results. I am glad to be able to tell you that the lawsuits which were making such a mess are quickly being reduced to a minimum.
“All at home well. The new house is almost finished. We are living in it. The only thing is that they are not well off at home. Janie is the one that is suffering; she has reason to be dissatisfied. Joe gone back to Maynooth. Joe will be all right, I feel sure.
“God bless you,
“Your affectionate brother in Xt,
After his stay in Ireland, he headed back to China, in 1926, where the political theater was just beginning its dramatic ascension.
After Imperial China collapsed, in 1911, a declaration of the formal establishment of the Republic of China quickly followed, on January 1, 1912, with the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, old form of Guomindang) rising to power after its formation later in the year by the merging of several Republican groups.
However, the Nationalists became infected with the anti-republic, anti-democratic, pro-revolution, pro-dictatorial Chinese Communists, who opened their first chapter, in 1921, in Shanghai, 106 Rue Wantz (former name of Xingye Road), with backing from the Communist International, headquartered in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Because of their sadistic predilections and proclivity for savagery, the Communists were lanced and drained from the ranks of the Nationalists, in April 1927.
In retaliation for the purge, the Communists attacked the city of Nanchang, the capital of Kiangsi (old form of Jiangxi) province, on August 1, 1927, at 2 in the morning, considered the founding of the People’s Liberation Army. After the Nanchang Uprising, which ignited the Chinese Civil War between the Nationalists and the Communists, thousands of Communist guerrilla forces spread throughout the neighboring mountains and countryside.
In that dangerous climate, the following year, in 1928, Father Leonard set out for his mission house, where he would be pastor, in Nan Feng, 30 miles south of Nancheng. The region around his parish, less than 100 miles south of the city of Nanchang, was infested with Communist guerrillas.
On July 9, 1929, he wrote to his uncle, Canon Joseph McCarthy, in County Limerick. It would be his last known letter.
“My Dear Uncle,
“Your letter dated April 23rd reached me only two weeks ago. I am very grateful for it, as I know how busy you have been with the repairs to your church.
“At the moment I am having a little rest here in Nan Feng. I don’t know to what extent I have earned it, to what extent I have given satisfaction to my Master. At all events, during the year He chose to work much good in souls that had shown no regard for Him. The outlook was as black as one could imagine a year ago. And yet it has been a rather fruitful year. One may call those events that brought baptism to old man Chow and Extreme Unction to Mary Li coincidences, but they were coincidences that God in His mercy arranged. And it was a further proof of God’s infinite mercy that old Anna Cheh, who perverted over twenty years ago, came back to the faith just a week before she died.
“God sent us a goodly number of well-disposed catechumens, some of whom have already received baptism and a few of whom seem to have been physically transformed by becoming children of God. God has worked a bigger miracle in some of them in six months than others have permitted Him to work in them in twenty years.
“One of the greatest consolations I had during the year was when the little flock insisted, if you please, on making a seven-days’ Retreat under my direction. The spirit with which they entered into it! It is simply marvelous what purity of intention and purity of life you find in the midst of so much filth; I think there are few things that express so well God’s goodness to us.
“These are only a few little notes about our year’s work. But there are other little notes I could write to you which would show the power of all the prayers that are said for us day after day. That’s all I have to say about our work except to ask you to keep it before the minds of your devout parishioners. We had no very big results here during the year, but there were ever so many little things – if one can so designate them – for which we can never thank God sufficiently.
“Your affectionate nephew,
On July 15, 1929, a few days after he had signed and sealed his letter, Father Leonard was still in bed, around 3 a.m., when he heard gunfire in the distance. Fully awake, he decided to rise, to begin his day and to celebrate Mass earlier than usual.
Around 5 that morning, dressed in his vestments, he approached the altar inside the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ Catholic Church, a wooden structure in San Gang. At the same time, a mob of Communist guerrilla soldiers surrounded the church, pushed their way inside through both doors and grabbed the priest.
In an effort to break free to prevent any sacrilege to the Blessed Sacrament, Father Leonard convinced them that he needed something from the Tabernacle. As soon as he opened the door, the Communists grabbed the ciborium and scattered the Hosts all over the sanctuary floor.
Furious, Father Leonard scolded the soldiers. In retaliation, one of them punched him in the face. As blood gushed from his mouth, soldiers ripped the vestments off the priest, tied him up, pushed him outside and demanded a ransom of $30,000, which he could not pay. The ragtag group of Communist soldiers dragged away Father Leonard, with a rope around his neck and without his glasses, knocked off during the scuffle.
That day, parishioners lost touch with him, but the next morning they found him at the Communists’ mountain hideaway, about 20 miles away from the church. Permitted to visit him, they found Father Leonard badly wounded, for he had been interrogated and tortured. And although suffering from intense pain, he was consumed with worry about the faithful in his parish, until his visitors convinced him that no one else had suffered from the attack by the Communists.
“Thank God. My mind is now easy,” he told them. “As for myself, it cannot be more than a matter of a few days.”
Those were his last words to his parishioners.
Frog marched before a tribunal of the People’s Court, he was tried by three Communist “judges,” in their 20s, who declared the foreign devil guilty of being hostile to the People of China, of being friendly with the Nationalists, of being a foreign spy and of promoting religion.
After the reading of his guilty verdict, the Communists threw Father Leonard to the ground, where they viciously attacked him and brutally hacked him to death, with his head nearly severed from his body, on July 17, 1929.
Word soon reached the Columban Fathers’ mission that their confrere had been murdered by the Communists. Immediately, the priests dispatched a search party to recover the body, which they found, covered with wounds from head to heel.
The protomartyr of the Missionary Society of Saint Columban was returned to the mission, where he lay in repose for three days. On July 23, Father Patrick Dermody (1898-1990, Missionary Society of Saint Columban), Father Patrick Quigley (1904-79, Missionary Society of Saint Columban) and Father Diu, a native Chinese priest, celebrated a solemn Requiem Mass.
After the Mass, Father Leonard’s body, encased in a rough wooden coffin, was carried, in a scorching heat that reached nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit, for the three-mile procession to San Gang, where he was laid to rest on a hillside.
“Mortified in life; a witness to Christ in death,” one of the mourners said, as the coffin with the priest was lowered into the grave.
To send word of Father Leonard’s tragic ending, the Fathers in China dispatched a cablegram, on July 24, 1929, to the religious order’s main house in Ireland, and, in turn, the Fathers in Dalgan Park contacted the unsuspecting family in the Ballycraheen House, soon filled with sobs of intense grief and disbelief.
Upon learning of the death of his brother, William, who was in Australia, sent a cablegram back home: “Congratulations, Mam. You have become the mother of a martyr.”
Mourning extended to the Peafield House, where Richard commemorated his cousin, classmate and lifelong friend by hanging his portrait in a place of honor: the reception room wall, the first thing visitors would see when brought into the house.
A few years after his cousin’s death, Richard married and started a family. His son, John Martin Leonard (born 1934), grew up seeing the portrait of the serious-looking man with dark hair, thick eyebrows, glasses and a Fáinne Óir, a gold ring pinned to his lapel that showed he was a Gaeilgeoir, a fluent speaker of Gaelic.
Around the age of 10, John asked his mother, Mary Bridget Leonard (née O’Neill, 1899-1991), about the man, whom he had seen every day of his life.
That man is Father Timothy Leonard, she explained. Your father’s first cousin, who was born up the road at Ballycraheen. Furthermore, she continued, he was a martyr who had suffered a cruel death at the hands of the Red Communists, in China, in 1929.
Predicting that one day the martyred priest would be raised to the sainthood, John’s mother, a deeply religious woman with a great devotion to the man in the portrait, encouraged her son to pray to him.
And, through the years, John did remember him in his prayers, hoping that he would become a saint. With the prerequisite of a miracle waived for a martyr, beatification would simple, it would seem, because the only requirement would be proof that he died for the faith. But his canonization has not yet come to pass.
Inheriting his parents’ love and honor for Father Leonard, not only has John assumed the role as executor of the priest’s legacy, working for his beatification, but he has traveled to that remote hillside in China, located the original burial place, and erected a Celtic cross with a small altar at the gravesite, which has become a holy place where local Catholics pray.
ENDNOTE: I would like to thank John Martin Leonard for all his help. Miscellanea and facts for this story were pulled from the following: “Doctor William Leonard: Limerick-born distinguished Churchman, Biblical Scholar and Mystic,” by John Leonard; “Limerick’s first Columban Martyr,” by John M. Leonard; “One lone, unarmed man had the courage to stand up: A campaign is underway to canonize Fr. Timothy Leonard, who was martyred in China,” by Eugene Phelan; “The Red Lacquered Gate: The Stirring Story of the Early Days of the Columban Fathers’ Catholic Mission and the Courage and Faith of Its Founder, Father Edward Galvin,” by William E. Barrett; and “Those Who Journeyed With Us: 1918-2016,” by the Missionary Society of Saint Columban.
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.
John Martin Leonard with the portrait of Father Timothy Peter Leonard.
The sanctuary where Father Timothy Peter Leonard was offering Mass when he was abducted.