Murder, Memory and Inspiration in Hunan, China: Passionist Fathers Godfrey Holbein, Clement Seybold and Walter Coveyou, 1929 to 2009

cover by Robert E. Carbonneau, C.P.

On April 24, 1929, at Hua-chiao Hunan, China bandits ambushed the traveling party of American Fathers Godfrey Holbein, Clement Seybold and Walter Coveyou. First, in quick succession, Coveyou and Seybold were shot through the head. Seconds later, Holbein was executed the same way.

After the priests’ bodies were dumped in an abandoned mine shaft, their companion Chinese Mass servers and carriers, who had witnessed the murders, were set free to return to Chenzhou [later named Yuanling], Hunan to report the news. Later, the missionaries’ bodies were recovered and buried in Chenzhou on April 29, 1929. Eighty years later, this event allows us to understand continuity and change in our lives. right: Passionist Fathers Walter Coveyou, Godfrey Holbein and Clement Seybold

Understanding Murder

Beginning on April 27, 1929 people throughout the world opened both secular and Catholic newspapers to learn about the shocking murders. “Father Holbein and 2 Priests Slain in China” stated the April 29 front page headline of his hometown Baltimore Sun. “Baptism in Blood” proclaimed the Catholic Northwest Progress of Seattle, Washington on May 10. Starting in June 1929, the American Passionists’ own Catholic monthly magazine, The Sign, began to serialize details and eventually photos of the sad news.

The political and social disarray of Hunan in 1929 meant death to foreigners was always a reasonable option for Chinese Nationalists, regional leaders and the new emerging Communist Party to gain control over one another.

In 1929, representatives from the United States Department of State, the Chinese government and even the Holy See at Vatican City in Rome achieved limited success in their immediate year-long effort to catch and punish the culprits from west Hunan. Today, any contemporary history detective can travel to the National Archives at College Park, Maryland and relive the drama of murder and investigation when they read the actual State Department case in Record Group 59: 393.1123 Coveyou, Walter.

Interpretations of their murders vary. The United States secular press didn’t call them martyrs while the Catholic press often used the label. Historical research shows they probably were killed because they were “foreign devils” rather than zealous Gospel missionaries. Later, Albert J. Nevins’ American Martyrs (1987) described Holbein, Seybold and Coveyou as the “first American martyrs outside the United States.” However, to the present day, there has been no official attempt to declare the three Passionists as martyrs or saints. Interestingly, their family and the Passionists of that generation always admitted them to be martyrs in a cultural rather than technical sense.

Understanding Memory

HeadstonSo, who were these men and what do they teach us? Father Godfrey Holbein was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1899. Baptized Claude, the Passionist parish at St. Joseph’s Monastery was his home parish. In 1911, he entered the Passionist Preparatory Seminary, professed his vows in 1917, and volunteered for China several years later. Consequently, his theology studies were condensed and he studied first aid in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he was ordained a priest in 1923. By July 1924, Holbein was on his way by boat to China with Father Seybold and twelve other novice missionaries. right: Memorial Grave Marker, Yuanling, Hunan, China

Holbein found mission life difficult due to fragile health. He struggled to learn the language, and adapt to the culture. In 1927, he was forced to evacuate his local Hunan mission for a short time due to political turmoil. By 1928, Holbein had reached his limit. Introspective piety led him to believe that it would be better to return home to minister to Black Catholics in the then North Carolina mission fields. In 1928, he asked and received permission from the Passionist official visitor to return to the United States. However, slow communications and decision-making prevented implementation. Bandits murdered Holbein on April 24, 1929. His life represents the tenuous, struggling and anxious missionary.

Father Clement Seybold was born in Dunkirk, New York in 1896. Lawrence was his baptismal name. In 1914, he entered the Passionist Preparatory Seminary and professed his vows in 1918. Ordained in 1923, he was accepted as a volunteer for China, and had the same preparation as Holbein. Seybold adapted to China with comparative ease. His command of the language, good health and sound psyche led him to become a confident missionary. Seybold correctly determined that the political discord of 1927 would not reach his mission station. He stayed there. Bandits murdered Seybold on April 24, 1929. He represents the well-adjusted missionary.

Walter Coveyou, was born in Petoskey, Michigan in 1894. A parish mission at St. Ignace, Michigan by Chicago-based Passionist Father Henry Miller inspired Coveyou to enter the seminary. Ordained a Passionist priest in 1920, Coveyou lived in Cincinnati, Ohio from 1922 to 1928 and was a tireless advocate of support for the Passionists in China. In 1928, he got his dream to go China. His face in China was the face of all who had prayed and gave money for the missions. On April 24, 1929, some six months later, he was murdered. Coveyou represents the importance of those at home who are inspired by and support the missions.

In early 2004, government officials of Yuanling, Hunan decided to build a road through the old Catholic missionary cemetery. This prompted the local Chinese Catholics to contact the Passionists and set in motion a plan to exhume and successfully move seventeen bodies—including those murdered in 1929— to a new gravesite complete with a memorial marker. In August 2004, I traveled with a group to west Hunan. I stood before the new grave marker to pay my respects. At that moment, I made a special effort to touch the names of the three men murdered in 1929 and recall that their lives represented Passionist history, Hunan history, and Yuanling Chinese Catholic history. Half way around the world, their memory had come to life.

Understanding Inspiration

Image with articleYou might be surprised to know that the murder and memory of these three Passionists inspired me to teach at Sichuan International Studies University in Chongqing, China from 2007 to 2008. This reminded me that their lives represented historical continuity and change and made me aware that it was time for me to be a teacher of English, American history, and international relations in China. right: Father Rob Carbonneau, C.P., Ph.D. at the front gate of Sichuan International Studies University in Chongqing, China.

I was under no illusions. I was required to apply my skills in a new way, in a new place, and by new means that had been unknown to previous Passionist missionaries to China. Still, they became my example when I encountered the ebb and flow of everyday Chinese life. Like Holbein, I realized that there might be times when my anxieties might overwhelm me so my response was to become patient with myself so as to be patient with others. Fortunately, Seybold provided me with thankful confidence to respect the Chinese culture, food, and language. Often he motivated me to maintain self-respect and take pride in my accomplishments. Finally, Coveyou reminded me I was living my dream and it could not have been realized without the love of my family, Passionist family, close friends and multiple people I had met over the years.

The eighty-year anniversary of the murders and lives of Holbein, Seybold and Coveyou calls to mind their quest to seek routine in life and spiritual peace in China. Even with diverse personalities, they, like us, responded to the best of their ability. Wouldn’t you agree there is a little bit of their three personalities in all of us? The lives are also dramatic. As missionaries, they faced the unknown. So many times, we must face the unknown in our lives. Years ago, the drama of their life led them to China. Today, the drama of instant world communications, finance, and politics leads China to us. In other words, their lives mirror the modern reality that we must seek cultural understanding in ways they never anticipated.

Our faith tells us they are in heaven. No doubt, they are pleased that local Chinese Catholics have remembered them. At the same time, we can say some prayers to Holbein, Seybold and Coveyou: First that the local Chinese Catholic Church continues to grow in faith and finds a mutual path of reconciliation in conjunction with China and the Holy See. Second, that there is an end to worldwide murder and violence. History and life called them to China. They remind us to live life with consistency and change. Where does history and life call us?

Fr. Robert E. Carbonneau, C.P. is an historian and Director of the Passionist Historical Archives.