Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Finding a Martyr Saint

The discovery of a shallow grave from the 1866 persecution period by an American priest in July 1980, led to the recent dedication of a church in the memory of Saint Luke Sokdu Hwang in May 2009. The saint is one of Korea's 103 martyr saints most who's last resting place are unknown.

Maryknoll Father Robert M. Lilly, former pastor of Su An Bo Church area where the grave was located, placed a relic of the martyr in the new church in Cheong Ju diocese. "I was fortunate to find the ancestral burial ground of the Hwang family in a mission station of my parish," he said. " My desire to find out more about his role in the growth of the Catholic Church in Korea evolved from that discovery."

Luke Sokdu Hwang was martyred with four companions at Kalmaemot on the west coast of Korea in March 1866. Childless, he had adopted his nephew, son of an older brother, some years earlier. At the time of martyrdom, the adoptee no doubt had heard the news,
but waited two months before going to the site. Then secretly at night he retrieved the body and carried it home. Other members of the family had already fled and dispersed in every direction. Only another nephew, Andrea Hwang and the martyr's adopted son John remained to bury the corpse in a temporary grave. They observed that the body still seemed supple and life like in appearance. They then took leave of the village where a number of the family had lived prior to the last great persecution.

Andrew Hwang was martyred that same year in Seoul, while John Hwang underwent the same fate in Seoul In 1867. Previous to that, John Hwang had transferred the remains of Luke Sokdu Hwang, his adoptive parent, to their ancestral roots in Pyeong Pang Kol in north Chung Cheong province. There, one hundred and fourteen years later, on July 9th 1980, the heretofore unknown grave was opened.

Luke Sokdu Hwang's name was on the list of twenty four candidates beatified by Pope Paul VI in Saint Peter's Basilica, Rome, on October 6,1968. Added to the seventy nine already raised to that honor, the total amounted to one hundred and three awaiting canonization. That historic event, conducted by Pope John Paul II, took place in Youido Plaza, Seoul on May 6, 1984.

Meanwhile, through the years local gossip at Pyeong Pang Kol had always rumored that a Christian believer killed for his faith was buried in the mountainside Hwang family grave site. About ten years after the beatification ceremony in Rome and following an extensive search of church and civil records, the quest narrowed.

The grave revealed skeletal remains resting in water only a few feet under the surface. The severed head lay upside down on the chest and the whole scene suggested that the burial had been carried out in a harried and confused fashion, nothing like the usual Korean respect for the dead.

Later , on closer examination at Sou An Bo church the remains showed that the neck had been cut through at the third vertebrae of the spinal column by a blunt instrument, such as a heavy sword, with such force that it had driven the fragmented bone into the skull. The upside down position of the head upon the chest bone would have alerted attention in any subsequent exhumation and the shallowness of a water filled grave again was contrary to rigid Korean custom.

Present through out the procedure were the late Church historian, Father Joseph Kisoun Oh, the Su An Bo pastor, a senior family member and a medical doctor from Saint Mary's hospital in Seoul. The bones remained at Su An Bo for two years before being transferred to Yon Pung martyrs shrine on August 25, 1982, where then retired Korean Archbishop Paul Kinam Ro officiated at the internment ceremony.

Needless to say it had been a long journey for the saint from a mountainside unknown grave to a site of veneration in a beautiful new church of Cheong Ju city and a spiritual trek as well for his persistent companion.

Lastly, it is a fitting postscript to point out that had not the opportunity been seized to seek out and save the relics of a martyr of the Church, a different scenario might have occurred, as it has on many occasions. In the mid nineteen eighties the separate graves of Pyeong Pang village were moved and it became part of a huge public works project, an interchange in the burgeoning Korea superhighway system.