Church Bells on the Yalu
Of stones squared and hewed : he made the walls thereof
seventy cubits broad, and thirty cubits high, and the towers
thereof he made a hundred cubits high.
"THE Great Sin Gishu Mystery, or St Patrick to the Rescue. By Shamrock Jones," was the title of Father Byrne's humorous account of a very unpleasant incident that had been in no way humorous. It occurred when new buildings and other problems of administration were worrying him. An anonymous letter with libellous charges against the American missioners appeared in a Sin Gishu paper. Both the American consul and the French bishop in Seoul, whom Father Byrne consulted, told him that the Korean people paid very little attention to things of this kind. Everyone know that it was a favourite means employed to get unwanted people out of town, and everyone realized that the charges were probably false. Father Byrne, however, was determined to get a printed retranction.
He finally reached the secretary of the governor. As a result of his persistence, the newspaper was forced to do something that never had been done before, so far as anyone could recall. A retraction of the whole story was printed in the newspaper, and was given the same prominence as that accorded to the original story. No further instance of this kind occurred. The mission personnel, meanwhile, continued to increase. Each year a new group of young priests arrived from Maryknoll.
Father Byrne did not like desk work. He preferred to bend
steel and plan buildings. This predilection for manual labour became a cause for despair to his secretary, Brother Joseph. During periods of construction Father Byrne's desk was piled high with letters awaiting attention, and it was not uncommon to see Brother Joseph following the priest around the construction site with a pen and a sheaf of letters, trying to hold his attention long enough to get the papers signed.
Father Byrne had worked long and hard on plans for the new church, both because he enjoyed this kind of work and because he wanted the edifice to be worth while. Since the city had originally been build on a sand bar of the Yalu River, the basement of the church always would be filled with water unless properly constructed and not sunk too deep. He wanted a building in Oriental style, and this called for a pagoda-type roof with its great weight of tile. Hence a special foundation was necessary. Finally the work was started. When the foundation had been completed, I visited the building. Father Byrne was busily engaged in placing the long steel reinforcing rods in the forms, for pillars and beams. There was so much steel that I wondered where the concrete was going.
When I questioned him on this, he shook his head and laughed. " I guess you're right. It looks like an awful lot, doesn't it? " He learned later that the engineer had indicated two-and-a-half times as much steel as that needed for the reinforcing.
The basement, only about three feet below the surface of the ground, had windows five feet high, which gave sufficient light for a basement school. In the basement were solidly reinforced pillars about three feet square and fifteen feet apart to carry the upper structure. The roof was constructed, according to Father Byrne's pattern of green Korean tile for which a special kiln had been built. The church was perhaps the first building of its kind in Korea. The pagoda effect and the colour of the tile pleased the Korean people and aroused interest in Catholicity in Sin Gishu.
Much thought went into the interior decoration. The later, the alter rail, the large painting of Pentecost above the alter, and the Stations of the Cross, were all specially planned. The frames for the Stations of the Cross were a unique arrangement of brown tile brought from Nagoya, Japan.
The architect's plan, made by McGinnis and Walsh, of Boston, called for a campanile. Father Byrne had purchased an excellent bell with a beautiful tone in Seoul, but when it arrived in Sin Gishu it appeared to be too big for the opening in the campanile. This dilemma occasioned snickers and smiles among the " sidewalk superintendents", who are ever present in Korea even as they are in our own country. They seemed to enjoy Father Byrne's discomfiture, but that simply sharpened his zest to meet the challenge. He built a scafforld of bamboo around the campanile and found that the bell would enter the opening, although there was not enough space for it to swing freely. However, it had a pleasing tone and could be heard clearly at the mission in Antung, four miles away across the Yalu River.
Some of Father Byrne's best description of Korea and mission conditions were contained in letters he sent to friends during that period. One letter to Mrs Kavanagh in Auburn was written from a Korean hotel on the northern frontier, halfway between the Yellow Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Father Hunt and he had made the trip alone, having sent back the Korean catechist who started with them. He was too much bother. Instead of his taking care of them, they were taking care of him.
Normally, the trip was two days by auto and five days by sled. They were both such speed artists that even though the temperature sometimes dropped to thirty below zero they made the five-day sled trip in only three days plus two hours. The usual run for a day's trip was eighty Korean li, which was equivalent to about twenty-five miles. One day they made 145 li, but the next day, trying to better their record, they got
lost in Manchuria and the drivers didn't know where they were. Father Hunt came to the rescue with an electric torch, and they found tracks in the snow. They followed the tracks for about an hour and finally reached the river again and a place to stop and rest.
He went on to describe their stopping place : "Just now it is evening, and I am writing on a Korean ondel [ a heated floor ]. If you want to know what it is like, go out into the kitchen and sit on the stove. It is a compliment to the guest to make the ondel as hot as possible, so we used the bed covers to sleep on instead of under.
"There are nine little kid in the room. Father Hunt is feeding them molasses candy. We are living on what we brought along : bacon, bread and butter, plus what we can get here ー condensed milk and rice ー plus what we get elsewhere ー wild boar and chicken. The wild boar is delicious, sweet and tender.
"The sled trip is marvellous. The little horse hauls the thing along. If the road is smooth and level, the driver hops on, too. Down valleys we go, along frozen streams, dodging boulders, climbing steep mountains, and then rushing down the side like Dad with the devil after him ー the horse flying to keep away from the sled, the driver leaping and hopping like a demented kangaroo, and the passenger trying in vain to make an act of contrition."
At this point in the letter Father Byrne drew a rough map and marked the spot where he was staying during the night he wrote the letter. It is not far from the place where he now lies buried. He concluded the letter with a bit of nonsense stating what he was leaving to each of the family in a sort of mock will or testament, in case he should never return.
When Father Byrne got back from this trip, the church at Sin Gishu was nearing completion, but the workmen were moving slowly. One day, when the letters were absent, Fathers Byrne and Petripren completed one section of the basement. The workmen were astonished to see what had
been accomplished by two men in such a short time. After that the work speeded up appreciably.
Father Byrne was always thoughtful of the Society's situation at home, and when he made requests for personal or funds, it was always with remembrance of the needs back at the Centre and of the many demands upon it. A list of duplicate books in the Maryknoll library had been sent to all the missions. The missioners were requested to indicate which books they would like.
Father Byrne replied that he had not desire to " hog it ", but that he would be glad to get any or all the books he had checked off on the list. To defray overhead, he offered twenty-five cents per volume for the books, unless the encyclopædias were suffering from senile decay, in which case he exempted them. He also mentioned that the freight charges at the boat in New York would be charged against his good will, too.
In this letter he mentioned the coming of the Sisters and of Brother William. "Father Hunt has gone to Seoul to meet the two Sisters and Brother William. At least we hear there are two Sisters. The temporary house of studies at Yengyou is up to the roof and will soon be occupied. We are leaving the present grande maison for the Sisters. We will probably be moved out in another month. We are wondering over the silence. How many more are coming, and how about the assignment? To get the benefit of John Chang's teaching, we think as many as possible of Sisters studying should be in Yengyou. What do you think?"
John Chang, whom the letter mentions, is a Catholic who became Korean Ambassador at Washington, then Korean Delegate at the United Nations, and then Prime Minister of Republic of Korea. His sister, a Maryknoll religious, lost her life during the Communist invasion.
A few months later Father Byrne wrote concerning personnel changes. In view of their probable losses in the near future, he asked to be kept in mind should another candidate
for the missions appear on the horizon. He hoped that, in the " juggling " to set up definite assignments, some possibility might turn up to help strengthen the new group. He added, however, that he didn't want the letter to be the least bit embarrassing, and that he knew they had enough problem without getting complaints based on what he called a " one-sided consideration ".
Sister Juliana, one of the Sisters with the first group in Korea, wrote about Bishop Byrne for the Catholic World, after his death. She described him as she knew him during this period :
"He was the sort of person who couldn't be anything else but distinguished. He was tall, thin, with a slight stoop, and his gait might better be described as a casual amble rather than a walk. He needed only to enter a room in his unhurried way, and all eyes would be drawn to him and all attention focused on his infrequent, quiet remarks. He was extremely witty with a kindly humour, and laughter followed him wherever he went. He thought people ought to laugh frequently; he thought it was good for them, and he was always looking for ways to make people happy. He was no dour puritan. Father Bang, as the Koreans would call him, had to bend his long frame almost double to enter the squatty naive houses, but he was soon well known among the people. He had a brilliant mind and was soon preaching, hearing confessions, managing his parish affairs as well as those of the vicariate.
"He was always good for a hand-out to any Korean with a sad story, for his heart was soft as warm butter. His cook, a native named John, was not even fairly efficient but lived in comparative ouplence on the generous salary Father Byrne paid him ' because he had a wife and family '. He always overpaid his help according to Oriental standard, because he felt that we should be more generous than local native employers, who have a lower standard of living than ours.
"John was often worth his salary on account of the amuse-
ment he caused. Father Byrne once bought a quantity of canned sardines, so as to have something for his modest table on days of abstinence. Weeks went by, and he wondered why those sardines never appeared. He said nothing to John about it; it wasn't his way to embarrass anyone by a complaint. Each Friday a glutinous mass of boiled fish appeared. Finally the facts came to light. The cook had been taking the sardines out of the cans and cooking them."
Sister Juliana goes on to tell of an occasion when Father Byrne was given a cake with raisins in it, possibly a fruit cake sent by relatives for Thanksgiving or Christmas. John noticed the priest's enjoyment of the raisin-filled cake and decided to prepare something similar. As he could not find any raisins in the local market, he bought hard dried peas which he mixed with cake batter, baked the cake, and proudly set it on the table. Father Byrne and his guests were surprised, not to say touched, by John's solicitude when they tasted the cake and discovered that they cracking hard peas between their teeth.
This picture of John's inadequacies is accurate. On more than one occasion when I visited Sin Gishu, Father Byrne pleaded with me to eat John's dessert. "I have to live with the man, Ray," he would say. "Do your duty!" The Sisters might send down a cake or some special dish from Gishu. John, a bit jealous of their prowess, would make his own imitation. It had the external appearance of the original, but the actual result was far from the same. As we were eating his dessert, John would come in nonchalantly and say, "By the way, the Sisters sent this down." It was a technique that never failed to bring a smile to Father Byrne's face.
During his first years as Perfect Apostolic in the northern Korea mission, Father Byrne had a convent built for the first group of Maryknoll Sisters in Korea, twelve miles from his parish in Sin Gishu. Sister Juliana mentions that he did much of the work himself and carefully supervised every detail of construction to be sure that the local workmen met American
standards of building. Father Byrne thought of everything, and when the Sisters arrived they found the house in shining order and their first meal already cooked, ready to be served to them. He had also prepared a beautiful chapel for the Sisters and was solicitous of their spiritual needs, coming frequently to Gishu to give them spiritual conferences.
"One day," wrote Sister Juliana, "Sister Simplicia broke her denture. To visit a dentist, she had to travel by crowded bus down twelve muddy miles to Sin Gishu, then by rickshaw across a long bridge over Yalu, and by various stages through the streets of Antung to the dentist's office. She had to leave the denture with the dentist for repairs. Father Byrne said he would be going to Antung during the week and would pick it up and send it to Gishu, to save Sister the long trip.
"The Sisters watched for the postman each day, and Sister Simplicia kept out of sight of the natives and tried not to smile. No package came. Finally a huge ox-cart was pulled into the yard by a great hulk of a beast. On the cart was a massive wooden crate addressed to the Sisters. They flocked around, filled with curiosity, while the cart driver and the local handy man opened it. Inside were a lot of packing and a smaller wooden box; inside this, more packing and a cardboard box; inside that, more packing and a little box; inside the little box a big red apple into which Sister Simplicia's teeth were biting. Father Byrne had come upon an ox-cart driver in need of a job, and he thought the Sisters could use a little laugh.
"He was deeply humble and tried to sidestep honours and dignities. Later on, when he was consecrated bishop, he referred to himself flippantly as ' My Excellency'. Only his close friends really knew how deeply spiritual he was, and only an occasional late prowler discovered by accident that Father Byrne each night, after everyone else had retired, went into his church or chapel and prayed for an hour or more before the Blessed sacrament."
After I had been some years in Manchuria, Father Byrne took me on a trip to Wonsan, on the east coast of Korea. A
hunting lodge on the bay of Wonsan was for sale. Father Byrne knew it would make an ideal resthouse for missioners who worked in Korea and Manchuria. He bought the place, and for many years the missioners in Korea spent part of each summer there to regain their strength. It was a little too far away for most of the missioners stationed in Manchuria.
Inevitably, periods of mental depression beset a missioner, caused by the press of work, delays, and labours that seem fruitless. Monsignor Byrne and I were travelling together by train one day from Fushun, my own mission centre in Manchuria, to Mukden. We both had been having difficult times. We spoke of entering the Trappist monastery near Peking. We were serious for a moment, then suddenly looking each other, we burst out laughing. The idea of either of us becoming a Trappist was too much. Keep quiet day after day,and never talk? For us? But such a life seemed a welcome escape just then.
Father Byrne's principle of administration was to interfere as little as possible with the work of his priests, although he was most generous in helping them whenever his assistance was requested. His priests had great admiration for his persistence and courage, his resourcefulness, and his ability to stay on the job despite his health, which was never of the best. His pioneer days in Korea were difficult. There had been very little done in that area prior to his arrival, and a good part of the entire building programme was accomplished during his régime.
His work was rewarded in 1927, when the mission was raised to the rank of Prefecture Apostolic and he was appointed Prefect with the title of Monsignor. At this time the mission staff consisted of seventeen priests, two Brothers, nine Sisters from Maryknoll, and six Korean Sisters. Eleven districts of the vast area were staffed, and there were eleven schools, three dispensaries, and one home for aged. Special work had been undertaken among the 50,000 Japanese in the mission, for during all of Monsignor Byrne's administration Korea was under Japanese control.