Father Carl Schmitz, C.P.
Missionary and Martyr
by Fred Sucher, C.P.
Thirteen-year-old Billy Schmitz was standing in the parlor of Immaculate Conception Monastery in Chicago, waiting to talk to Fr. Edgar Ryan about possibly joining the Passionists. His eyes were riveted on three large portraits of Passionist priests--Fathers Godfrey, Clement and Walter, who were murdered in 1929 as missionaries in Hunan, China.
Fr. Walter Coveyou (right), Clement Seybold (center), and Godfrey Holbein (left), murdered by bandits in Hunan, China on April 24, 1929
Billy's eyes never wavered from the portraits even as Fr. Edgar came into the parlor. He had made up his mind and stated simply: "I will be a missionary." His words were more than a momentary burst of enthusiasm. William Schmitz took leave of the family--especially of his twin sister, Marion--and entered the Passionist Preparatory Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. He would grow into manhood in his six years there, acquiring a knowledge of Latin, Greek, English Literature and Science.
After a year testing his call to religious life in the novitiate, he took vows and became a Passionist, as Brother Carl Schmitz. In monasteries in Detroit, Chicago and Louisville, he lived the Passionist Rule and spent long hours studying theology, holy scripture, canon law and church history. Then on April 26, 1944 he became Father Carl Schmitz, an ordained priest. His determination ("I will be a missionary") was still strong. In 1946, China was the principal mission territory for north America Passionists, so Carl was sent to Beijing in the fall of 1946. But Communism was then flooding across China, and the young priest had to return to the States.
For a few years, Fr. Carl conducted retreats for laymen at our Cincinnati monastery and preached parish missions. Then in 1950 he was sent to Ensley, Alabama, where the Passionists had opened a mission field among black people. With his deep sense of the worth of every human being in God's eyes, Fr. Carl worked to improve the lot of African-Americans in the Birmingham area, where segregation was strongly entrenched. He regularly asked a black man, George Welch, to accompany him when he drove the parish car, to the consternation of the police--who soon tired of stopping him. He kept reminding the white Catholics of their obligations to the blacks. The community accepted and respected him.
In 1953 a short letter arrived at the rectory for him, telling him that he and Fr. Matthew Vetter were to establish a Passionist Mission in Japan.
Landing at Yokohama, the two priests got their jeep through customs and with a Japanese map and the help of angels started along the narrow mountainous roads for Osaka, finally arriving at their future home Hibarigaoka--"Hill of the Larks."
Their house in Hibarigaoka was a shambles--no windows or doors, holes in the roof, rain-damaged floors. A quick fire would have been the best solution for it! But plans were made for restoration, and Fr. Carl was in a Japanese language school within the week. Soon the missionaries were following the Passionist regimen of prayer.
Japanese is a notoriously difficult language. The average foreigner may reach the level of a ten-year-old in two years. Each day the learners needed to memorize 30 sentences! Pitfalls lurked everywhere. Fr. Carl tells of a time when he pronounced the word for "world" and used a double "k." He was saying "soap!" His audience rewarded him with many bars of soap!
During his 20 years in Japan Fr. Carl developed a good command of the language both for preaching popular missions and for directing religious in their contemplative lives. Native Japanese could readily communicate with him. He was a successful missionary and had converts to prove it. He established a parish at Ikeda and a retreat center at Fukuoka.
However, Japan was becoming "first world." Somehow, this was not what Fr.Carl envisaged for himself as a missionary. He wanted a mission that would put dirt under his fingernails! And he had intimations that God was calling him to such a mission.
On a visit to the Philippines for study, Fr.Carl traveled to Mindanao where the Passionists had a thriving mission and he involved himself in ministry there. Moved by the poverty of the people and their need for more ministers, he volunteered to serve there, and his offer was accepted. As pastor of the Parish of Our Lady of Peace in Santos City, he had his first taste of Filipino life and culture.
right: Carl Schmitz, C.P.
But Fr. Carl's heart and eyes looked toward the mountains where some 80,000 pagan Bila'ans were asking for missionaries. In 1976 he was sent to work with the mountain people in a rugged jeep. Clambering hand over foot along muddy mountain paths, sleeping on dirt floors in thatched huts, he struggled to learn a new dialect and be a sign of God's love to these people.
Now in his 60s, he was vigorous and enthusiastic. But the years of driving himself--and some serious falls--left him with a bad back condition. Fr. Carl would not hear of returning to the States. So he was treated in the Philippines and was soon back at his strenuous mountain mission. In letters home, he tells of baptisms and marriages. Child brides and polygamy were normal among the Bila'ans. Fr. Carl tried to win them to see the wisdom and rightness of the Christian way. His charm with children was legendary. A Christian culture began to emerge.
The Bila'ans were an abused people who had been displaced from the lowlands to the mountains where it was hard to find suitable land for their small gardens. Murder and burning of properties were rampant. Violence was constant. Fr. Carl found himself as chief negotiator for peace and an advocate for the Bila'an people.
Two serious issues faced the missionary. Paramilitary forces in the area often turned out to be bandits who used young Bila'ans as their agents in illegal logging and rustling water buffalo. When Fr.Carl discovered that going on, he would head up the mountains, find his people, persuade them to go to the coast with him and seek amnesty.
The New Peoples Army (Communist) was another problem. Young Bila'ans often saw the NPA as a way to gain back their stolen lands. Fr. Carl tried to persuade his young men to leave the rebels and seek amnesty.
His activities did not make him popular with the paramilitary. In Easter Week, 1988 Fr. Carl had brought six young Bila'ans to his out-mission at Bolul. He planned to take them from there to the authorities the next day. The paramilitary were probably uneasy, fearing some action could be taken against them.
Determined to stop Fr. Carl, they got a young Bila'an, Johnny Monday, half drunk. Handing him a Garand rifle they told him to kill Fr. Carl. Some teachers at Bolul, who were housed close to Fr. Carl's rectory, tell us what happened then.
The half-drunk Johnny Monday lurched into Bolul and stopped at the bottom step of the thatched rectory.
He shouted: "Get out here Fr. Carl, I've got a bone to pick with you."
"Take your time, Johnny, I'll be there." Carl came out and stood at the top of the steps about 10 feet from Johnny Monday, who continued to shout: "I am going to kill you, Fr. Carl."
"Why would you do that, Johnny?"
"You are a bad man--you give money to the Communists."
"You know better than that, Johnny, I take care of my poor. Just this afternoon, I paid for your wife's medicines."
"You're smiling, Fr. Carl, you are never going to smile again."
The first shot went through the Fr.Carl's mouth and killed him instantly.
Monday then emptied the magazine and tore his body apart.
A tragedy? Yes.
But for Fr. Carl, it was a missionary career crowned with martyrdom for justice. He loved the Bila'an people and would not allow them to be corrupted by the paramilitary, who were often bent on illegal logging and the rape of the virgin forests. Quite aware of the risks he was taking, he saw the face of Christ in his people and he knew the blood of Christ was shed for them. He was Passionist and missionary through and through, and malicious men brought him to a martyr's death.
On April 26th, 2004 Fr. Carl would have celebrated 60 years of priesthood. On that day, his fellow Passionists in the Philippines along with the local bishop officially opened the process for his beatification.
It will not be hard to record the depth of his personal commitment to the Lord and his unremitting toil for a people he loved.
Fr. Ferdinand Dulong C.P., first native Bila'an priest, pictured here with his mother on ordination day, April, 2003. His ordination took place just a few yards from the site of Fr Carl's murder.
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