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Vincenzo Marchi SJ: the journey of a missionary Jesuit to China

Dettaglio della lettera inviata dal gesuita missionario in Cina Vincenzo Marchi ai genitori

Today we board a ferry, alongside a young Jesuit on his way to China as a missionary. Letters sent by Fr Vincent Marchi to his family and confreres allow us to retrace the route that took missionaries from Italy to faraway mission lands.

On 8 December 1870 Fr. Vincenzo took paper, pen and inkwell and wrote a long letter to his parents in Bologna, which would only reach its destination two months later.

The letter from Fr Vicenzo

Dear Parents and dear Brother,

I hope you have received the letter I wrote to Fr Arturo from Marseilles and from it you will have heard of my departure from Rome. I do not know when there will be an opportunity to send you this letter; but in the meantime, I want to begin it so that I may stay with you on this day consecrated to our good Mother.

You certainly wish to know my story, and I wish to tell it to you […] to begin therefore ab ovo, when the Piedmontese entered Rome, I joined Monsignor Dubar, Apostolic Vicar of Pechelì, and with him as secretary and in the habit of a French abbot I left Rome. Embarking at Civitavecchia, we called at Toulon where the Papal Zouaves who were returning to France came ashore, then we passed on to Marseilles where we were received by the Fathers of the Company and there we stayed until it was time to put to sea again.

The difficulties of departure

The first part of the letter immediately gives us some interesting information. Fr Marchi was in Rome when the Papal State fell, on the day of the breach of Porta Pia, 20 September 1870, and he pretends to be a French abbot in order to leave the city, perhaps fearing that he would not be able to do so in Jesuit dress.

He was escorted by papal zouaves who took his own boat, many from there continued on to Switzerland, to return home.

The stages of the journey

The Jesuit then recounts:

We passed on to Marseilles, welcomed by the Fathers of the Company, and there we stayed until it was time to put to sea again for China. This was on 3 October. We boarded the Tigre, one of the most beautiful steamers in the French navy, 120 metres long and with a strength of 500 horsepower. The passengers were few and yet we who were five missionaries could have a dressing room for one. […]

Leaving the port of Marseilles on the 4th at 10 o’clock we made our first stop at the mouth of the new Suez Canal. It is 160 miles long and it took us almost two days to pass it because you have to sail only when the sun is up and even then very slowly. Then we entered the Red Sea where I felt a heat I had never felt before. On the 17th we dropped anchor in front of Aden; on the 26th we arrived at the island of Ceylan, and went down to Singapore, a very pleasant city, despite the heat, being only two degrees off the line. On the 6th we arrived in Saigon in Cocincina where Bishop Miche wanted us to have lunch with him. On the 13th, holy to St Stanislaus, I had the consolation of seeing the first lands of China, which we never lost sight of again. On this day we went down to Hong Kong, a Chinese island owned by the English, and said Mass at the Foreign Missions. There we left the Tiger and took the Phase, a smaller boat, and later, on 19 November, the Saturday sacred to Mary, we landed at Shang-hai.

Here is the whole of my voyage, which was very happy […] the sea was always so smooth and calm that I was able to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice almost every day.

First days as a missionary

I came [to Zi-Ka-vei, a small village which he describes in an earlier passage] on the third day after my arrival, and soon the great metamorphosis took place in which I was converted from a European barbarian into a Chinese gentleman. When my photograph is taken I will send it to you: everyone says that I look much better in my new dress than in the European, I certainly do not recognise myself any more. To complete the transformation my surname has been changed, or rather to mine, by which I am called by the Europeans, they have added another Chinese one and it is the last syllable of Marchi that is Chi [the ideogram is shown here]. The climate here is about the same as in Italy, and on top of that we now have an extraordinarily beautiful station.

For the missionaries in China and Asia, it was essential to embrace the Oriental style, growing a long beard and thinning it towards the tip, wearing local clothes, in order to be integrated, recognised and accepted by the local population. The religious also studied the local language, starting with ideograms. We see another passage in which the Jesuit describes some new customs.

Manners and customs

The Chinese customs, to describe themselves in two words, are perfectly the reverse of the Europeans in everything: but even in this I find a special help in the Lord, for I so readily take to Chinese manners that I often prefer them to the Europeans, and in this I have already surpassed most of my companions, and while they, for example, can only eat rice with a spoon, I eat it with chopsticks. As for external tranquillity, here we have it perfect: we are certainly in medio nationis pravae [in the middle of a dangerous nation]; but no one twists a hair on us, and these heathens when they see us pass by feel nothing but hilarity aroused by seeing our noses and beards.

The themes of lifestyle characterise the Jesuit’s long correspondence with his parents and confreres. In a letter from 1873, for example, Fr. Marchi talks about another cultural characteristic of the Chinese people:

The word “hurry” is unknown in China: one does what one can without fretting, and what one cannot one leaves behind. For Europeans, this is a bit harsh, but if you do not get used to it, too bad for you. I have heard it said that the reason why many French fathers died was that they did not know how to acquire this calmness, and that on the contrary the Italians live longer because they are more settled, we shall see if this is true.

Perhaps, in his old age, the Jesuit will have thought that there must have been a kernel of truth, looking back on his life: Fr Vincenzo Marchi, who was born on 24 January 1839 in Massa Lombarda, after a long life spent in the apostolate, died in Shanghai on 3 March 1912, at the age of 74.