A depiction of the death of Saint Jean-Gabriel Perboyre by suffocation in Wuhan.
A depiction of the death of Saint Jean-Gabriel Perboyre by suffocation in Wuhan, China. Image Credit: catholicreadings.org

Dubai: The first canonised saint in China, St Jean-Gabriel Perboyre, was martyred by suffocation on a cross nearly 200 years ago in Wuhan, the city where the COVID-19 pandemic is believed to have erupted.

Most accounts of SARS-CoV-2 infection point to acute respiratory distress syndrome and a feeling of suffocation, especially in terminal cases.

Catholics have recently highlighted on social media the life and times of St Perboyre, a French priest. This month marks nearly a quarter of a century since he was canonised by Pope John Paul II. Another missionary in China, St. Francis Regis Clet, was martyred in Wuhan 200 years ago this year (February 18, 1820).

Wuhan link

Wuhan is the city now known the world over for being the place from where the pandemic jumped from animals to humans.

Jean-Gabriel Perboyre was born in France on January 6, 1802 to Pierre Perboyre, a farmer, and Marie Rigal.

At age 15, Jean Gabriel was fired up to become a missionary. At age 16, he followed his brother Louis to the seminary, and joined the Vincentains in 1818 and was ordained a priest in Paris on September 23, 1825.

Following ordination, he became a seminary rector and taught at the Saint-Flour seminary, 225 km south of Paris, when his brother Louis, also a priest, died on a mission to China. John Gabriel was asked to replace him.

Fr Jean-Gabriel’s birthplace (Lot, France) is not far from Montpellier, home of the University of Montpellier, the alma matter of Prof. Shi Zhengli, the controversial virologist and so-called Chinese “bat woman”.

Never to return

In 1835, Fr Perboyre received permission to take the 1,000-mile trip by boat to Macao, where he landed in June 1836. He then made a trip on foot across three provinces, before arriving in central China.

Many missionaries left for China in the 19th century with the knowledge that they would never return. In one early letter written to his community in Paris, he described himself as a curious sight: “My head shaved, a long pig-tail, stammering my new languages, eating with chopsticks.”

'Trade imbalance'

Fr Perboyre’s work included helping rescue abandoned Chinese children and in educating them.

In 1839, a widespread persecution of Christians erupted: It was the same year England had attacked China.

This was the period when the demand for Chinese luxury goods (silk, porcelain, and tea) triggered a trade imbalance between China and Britain, which then led to the so-called “Opium Wars”.

Fr. Perboyre, denounced to the authorities by one of his catechumens, was arrested on September 16, 1839 under a law that banned Christianity. He was tortured and interrogated for months -- hanging by this thumbs while being flogge with bamboo rods.

His biographer, Fr d'Addosio, has written in Chinese, in 1887, about the life of Perboyre, with full bibliographical details given in "Bibliotheca Sinica”.
His biographer, wrote: “A neophyte, like another Judas, betrayed Jean-Gabriel for thirty ounces of silver. He was stripped of his garments and clothed with rags, bound, and dragged from tribunal to tribunal. At each trial, he was treated inhumanly, tortured both in body and in soul. Finally, he was taken to Ou-Tchang-Fou (Wuchang Prefecture (武昌府), and after unparalleled tortures, was condemned to death. The sentence was ratified by an imperial edict, and on 11 September, 1840, Jean-Gabriel was led to death with seven criminals. The holy priest was strangled to death on a cross.” [Source: https://bit.ly/3hOPBnX]

He refused to renounce his faith. A year later, on September 11, 1940 he was condemned to death, by being subjected to the torment of strangulation on a gibbet in the shape of a cross.

It was in Wuchang, a central district of Wuhan, present-day capital of Hubei Province today, where John Gabriel Perboyre breathed his last.


The Opium Wars were two wars which were waged between the Qing dynasty and Western powers in the mid-19th century.

The First Opium War, fought in 1839-1842 between the Qing and Britain, was triggered by the dynasty's campaign against the opium trade.

The Second Opium War, from 1856-1860, was fought between the Qing on one side and Britain and France, on the other.

In each war, the European forces used advanced warfare technology to defeat the Qing forces and compelled the dynasty to grant favorable tariffs, trade concessions, and territory.

The wars and the subsequently-imposed treaties weakened the dynasty and forced China to open specified treaty ports (especially Shanghai and Guangzhou/Canton) that handled all trade with imperial powers. The concession of Hong Kong to Britain was a result of these wars.

Mark of missionaries in Wuhan

Catholic missionaries have founded Catholic hospitals in Wuhan, according Dr. Anthony Clark, a professor of Chinese history, who spent time in Wuhan researching St. Perboyre and St. Francis Regis Clet, as quoted by Catholic Focus.

Chinese Martyrs
Image Credit: https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09746b.htm

Outside of Wuhan Central Hospital, where coronavirus whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang died, is a statue of Italian missionary, Monsignor Eustachius Zanoli.

In 1886, Monsignor Zanoli, the first Bishop of Roman Catholic Church in Eastern Hubei, invited the Canossian Daughters of Charity to Wuhan to provide social service.

That same decade, they established the Hankou Catholic Hospital, which laid the foundation for the development of the Wuhan No. 2 Hospital (1955) and subsequently the Central Hospital of Wuhan (1999).

Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital, another coronavirus treatment centre, also traces its roots back to an infectious diseases hospital founded by Franciscan missionaries in 1926, the Father Mei Memorial Catholic Hospital of Hankou, Clark was quoted as saying.

Pope John Paul II canonised Saint Perboyre in June 1996. On October 1, 2000, the Polish pope also recognised 120 Catholics who died between 1648 and 1930 as its "Martyr Saints of China".

Of the group, 87 were Chinese laypeople and 33 were missionaries; 86 died during the "Boxer Rebellion" in 1900.

Beijing and the Vatican had their diplomatic relations broken in 1951. In September 2018, Beijing and the Vatican signed an agreement to regularise the appointment of bishops.

Pope Francis has encouraged Chinese clerics who operate in the unofficial church to join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, but said they could do what their conscience dictated.

3 paths of love
Image Credit: Franciscan media