Columba's Treasure

Author: Christian Martini Grimaldi

Columba's Treasure

Christian Martini Grimaldi

Helen Kyung Soo Kwon tells the story of a Korean martyr beatified by Pope Francis

"Columba Kang Wan Suk, catechist and martyr of the first Korean Catholic community, was born in 1761, in the province of Chungcheong".

These are the words of Helen Kyung Soo Kwon, an elegant woman of genteel manners who speaks English extremely well and is so involved in her community that it took two months to fix an appointment with her. A brief look at her CV gives one an idea of the breadth of her involvement. She was President of the Archdiocese of Seoul's Catholic Women's Organization; Vice-President of the Archdiocese of Seoul's Council for Laity; a member of the Lay Apostolate's Sub-Committee on Women; President of the Organization for Korean Catholic Women; a member of the Steering Committee for Pro-Life Activities for the Korean Bishops' Conference; and currently a member of the Permanent Committee for the World Union of Organizations of Catholic Women.

Not much has been written on the history of Christianity in Korea, even less on the role played by women. Why? "For a long time, until the opening of the country at the end of the 18th century", Helen Kyung Soo Kwon tells us, "Korea was a very closed society; it's no accident that in the West it was called the Hermit Kingdom. Society at that time was regulated by a political ideology, i.e. Confucianism, which did not allow many opportunities for women at the social level, especially if the women belonged to the wealthy class".

Columba Kwang Wan Suk was beatified by Pope Francis during his visit this month. Can you tell us her story?

"Columba was an illegitimate child but she belonged to a noble family. She married Hong Ji-yeong, who already had a son from a prior union. It wasn't until this time," Helen Kyung Soo Kwon explains to us, "that Columba became familiar with the Catholic religion through reading books written by Jesuits and others who had come from China. During the first persecution in 1791, she tended to the health of Christians who had been imprisoned. She had her adopted son learn about Catholicism; he too would later be martyred during the first great persecution. Her husband, on the contrary, constantly criticized her religious passion and ultimately preferred a concubine over her. At this point Columba moved to Seoul, where she'd heard Christians were very numerous. Here — after making contact with the community of the faithful thanks to her social status and therefore to her strong economic power she decided to "sponsor" messengers to China so that priests might finally come to Korea".

At that time, Helen Kyung Soo Kwon continued, "there was no truly organized Catholic community. It was only with the arrival in the country of Fr James Zhou Wen Moe, i.e. the first priest to step foot in the Kingdom of Choson, that the first baptisms began to occur through the hands of an ordained priest: Columba was among the first to be baptized. She was then chosen by Fr James to be a catechist, and thus spent the whole of her life teaching the catechism. She also hosted Fr James at her home in Seoul during the long period when the priest was being persecuted by the local authorities who had learned of his presence in the city. At the time, inspections in homes owned by women were prohibited. That is how the first priest to enter Korea managed to escape death sentence for many years".

The decision to host a man in her home, even a priest, was a strong break from the conventions of the time, especially considering that noble women could not even leave their homes during the day. They waited until evening when the streets were deserted. As late as 1897 Elizabeth Bird wrote that at around 8 pm the great bells in central Seoul would ring. That was the signal for men to retire to their homes, and for the women to go out.

Helen Kyung Soo Kwon smiles: "Of course, Columba was a true leader and precursor for women's emancipation. I also think of her decision to leave a husband, who preferred a concubine to her. Many women at the time silently endured the presence of another woman in their home. It was through her great charism, together with the work of Fr James, that the royal family entered the Catholic Church".

Helen Kyung Soo Kwon continues: "The king's half-brother, Mary Song and her adopted daughter Mary Sin also relatives of the royal family — were all baptized by Fr James. With Christianity then came the first female presidents of the Catholic associations. Even before the Korean Church had a structured hierarchy organized by the foreign missionaries, women had created their own associations with a female in charge. These were the first signs that female emancipation was possible".

We already know the end of the story, but we ask Helen Kyung Soo Kwon to recount it for us. How did Columba die? "During the Sinyu persecution in 1801, Columba was reported for her religious activities. She was arrested on 6 April, together with other faithful who were in her home. She was tortured at length in an attempt to make her reveal the location where Fr James was hiding, but she didn't give in. On 2 July of that same year, she was condemned to death. She was beheaded outside Seoul's western door. She had just turned 40".

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
29 August 2014, page 6

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