The first martyrs of the Salesians will be declared blessed on Sunday. Fr Francis Thoburn tells their story.
THIS Sunday at St Peter's,Popc John Paul will beatify two Salesian martyrs of our own century.
Bishop Louis Versiglia SDB, titular bishop of Caristo and Vicar Apostolic of Shiu Chow, China, was, by any standards a holy and outstanding missionary, and Fr Callistus Cravario SDB, another great apsotle was his remarkable secretary.
Both were put to delth by Chinese communist bandits as they travelled on a mission boat on a small river, the Siu Pak Kong (the Small Northern River), on their way to Lin Chow. It was February 25, 1930, just 53 years ago, What sort of men were these martyrs?
As a young lad, the future bishop was noted as a good, practising Catholic, and a regular, happy Mass-server.
Then came three years, in Don Bosco's school in Turin. He found it hard at first, but soon felt a one-ness with Don Bosco and his ways.
He joined the Salesian Society, and was clothed at Foglizzo (Italy) by Fr (now Blessed) Michael Rua, Don Bosco's first successor, in 1886.
Three years later, at Valsalice in Turin, he was professed. He was soon chosen for higher studies in Rome.
Don Bosco had always encouraged the Missions, and had sent in a very short time several groups to S America and elsewhere.
Like many others, Fr Versiglia was impressed by the inspiring dream of the saint in which he showed a map of the future Salesian Missions stretching from Valparaiso in South America to Peking.
It was in August 1905 that Fr Versiglia received the news that he was to lead the first Salesian Mission to China.
It was destined at first for Macau. The group left Genoa on January 18. 1906, and arrived in Hongkong on February 19 and at Macau next day. Before leaving Italy, however, Fr Versiglia went, first , to Portugal and then to Battersea (London) to study the Portuguese and English languages, some knowledge of which would be an essential in the new mission.
One remembers hearing, as a young man, at Battersea something of the skill displayed by the bishop as a goalkeeper at the college in Battersea. He was, it seems, very popular.
Fr Callistus was born in Piedmont, northern Italy Don Bosco's homeland — on June 8, 1903, he came of a pious and hard-working family. In early years, he attended the Salesian Oratory of St Joseph in Turin, and afterwards the Salesian School of St John the Evangelist also in Turin.
There he met some of the priests who were, in God's Providence, to be his future teachers and superiors in Shanghai.
He made his religious profession in 1919.
With some of his friends he met Fr Versiglia and told him of his desire to go to China with him — a desire to which his superiors only consented after the completion of his advanced studies. His path was never easy, and one of his biggest crosses was when civil war caused an interruption in Salesian activities in Shanghai, and Callistus was one of those who had to go south to Macau.
In spite of ill-health, he did great work for the boys, and had, the while, to bear with long delay before his ordination,
there being no bishop within reach.
The dream of his life-time came true when, after the Salesians had to leave Macau, he found himself in Shiu Chow, 'where. on May 9, 1929, Mgr Versiglia raised him to the Sacred Priesthood.
Monsignor considered the young priest already so holy and mature that he sent him on missions activity at once He was a man with a genuine spirit of penance and of love of souls. In spite of poor health, he travelled tremendous distances in his search for souls, and there shone through all his labours a real spirit of sacrifice.