“What is it but a bad quarter of an hour — think of the reward.”
These are the words of Father Timothy Leonard (1893-1929), the first of many martyrs from the Missionary Society of St. Columban to die while trying to keep the faith alive in places that sought to obliterate Christianity.
Despite countless efforts to warn Father Leonard of the dangers that awaited him if he were to pursue the mission of evangelizing and spreading the Gospel in China’s Nanchang Diocese, where Mao Zedong and his communist revolutionaries were ravaging the area, this heroic priest was undaunted.
At 5:30am on July 15, 1929, while Father Leonard was celebrating Mass, a mob of Communist soldiers barged in and seized both him and his altar server. Although he attempted to protect the Blessed Sacrament by consuming the Hosts, in order to prevent his attackers from committing any sacrilege, they struck him with a rifle, threw the Hosts to the ground and trampled on them. Father Leonard successfully pleaded with his captors to spare the young altar boy’s life and was then taken to a Communist stronghold in the mountains, where he was tortured and interrogated by his assailants.
Father Leonard died at the age of 36 on July 17, 1929, after he was thrown to the ground and hacked to death. He was the first of 24 Columban martyrs to die on mission around the world — 23 priests and one nun, Sister Joan Sawyer (1932-1983), who was murdered in Lima, Peru. The Missionary Society of St. Columban was founded in 1916 in Ireland to spread the Gospel message in China. The Missionary Sisters of St. Columban were founded eight years later, in 1924, to share in the missionary work of the Columban Fathers.
Blood of Martyrs
Throughout Church history a key message coined by early Christian apologist Tertullian has echoed through the ages: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” With the cross, there is the Resurrection; a sign of true freedom and self-sacrifice embraced with love. A sign that, after persecution, the Church will always welcome a wave of new life and that it is in the crucible of suffering that some of the greatest heroes are born.
“Tim Leonard was just 36 when he was killed in China. His heroic life and death still inspires Christians in and near his parish of Nanfeng, members of his family in Limerick and Columbans around the world,” said Father Neil Collins, historian of the Columban Fathers.
“We can all learn from his unshakable faith in Jesus, especially in the Eucharist. The world needs us to witness to that faith by our way of living,” he told the Register.
And in that spirit, the untold story of Father Leonard must not remain unsung.
Born on a farm in Killonan, Ballysimon, County Limerick, June 29 — the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul — in 1893, Timothy Peter Leonard was one of six children. After entering St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, he was ordained a priest April 28, 1918.
Upon joining the Columban missionary fathers after ordination, Father Leonard was one of the first Columban missionaries to go to China in 1920 along with Father Edward Galvin, the society’s co-founder who later served as the first bishop of Hanyang, China.
His second cousin, John Leonard, a retired company director who lives in Corbally, Limerick City, Ireland, told the Register, “Father Leonard, according to his colleagues, was the happiest man in China, enthusiastically going about his business of converting the pagan people of this communist country. His mode of transport was on horseback and sometimes by boat on the waterways.”
“Father Leonard seemed determined to spend himself in winning souls for his Divine Master,” his cousin added. “His zeal was tireless. He did not work for Christ: He slaved for him.”
John Leonard further described how Father Leonard prepared for his mission by completing an intensive course in Mandarin to be able to engage with Chinese locals. He traveled extensively throughout China to evangelize, preach and nourish Christ’s flock entrusted to him. He also worked tirelessly to raise money for the missionaries and encouraged vocations by regularly preaching after Mass and visiting schools and colleges upon his temporary return back to Ireland.
It was during his stay in Ireland in 1924 that Father Leonard was forewarned of the dangers of his missionary work in China.
“Does it ever occur to you that you might be killed out there in China?” asked Father William Fenton, parish priest of Athea.
“What if I were?” Father Leonard responded, “If I thought I wouldn’t, I would feel disappointed. After all, what is it but a bad quarter of an hour — think of the reward.”
Although Father Leonard died many decades ago, today there are still those who remember his profound witness.
After a headstone in the shape of a Celtic cross was erected over Father Leonard’s unmarked grave near Nanfeng in China in 2001, the site has since become a pilgrimage hot spot where many flock to seek the martyr’s intercession.
In October of last year, the Missionary Society of St. Columban worked alongside Sino Immersions to hold their first ever Columban pilgrimage from Australia to China to commemorate 100 years of the Columban Mission, with 27 pilgrims attending.
For Janette Mentha, a key organizer and editor of Australian Far East magazine, a special highlight for her was visiting Father Leonard’s gravesite.
“It was a poignant moment to remember the sacrifice of just one of the young Columbans for the faith,” she told the Register. “It was unimaginable that a young man, the same age as my son, died for his faith.”
After attending a memorial Mass in Dalgan Park, Ireland, during last year’s centenary celebrations of the Columban Fathers’ mission, John Leonard told the Register that he has since been “calling on the Vatican to elevate to sainthood en masse all 24 Columban martyrs — from the first martyr, Father Timothy, to the most recent martyr, Father Rufus Halley [ who died in 2001], who was educated by the Benedictines at Glenstal Abbey, County Limerick.”
“Father Timothy Leonard’s heroic sanctity, his bravery in adversity, his pastoral charity and humility, his love of the Eucharist, reveal an interior richness, which, I believe, makes him a very suitable candidate for beatification,” said John Leonard.
Although the political situation in China between the Vatican and Beijing has created difficulties, this relative has nevertheless sought to keep Father Leonard’s memory alive by retelling his story in the local press and printing out prayer cards in English and Chinese.
“People are inspired by his life and some pray to him,” he said. “They say he is a saint all but in name. He was crucified for his faith and had no difficulty in dying for the Lord.”
He added, “He was a fearless and holy priest and an inspiration to us all.”
Register correspondent Georgette Bechara writes from Sydney, Australia.