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This prefecture comprises the whole province of that name except the civil prefecture of Shin-hing, the three districts of Heung-shan, Yan-ping, and Yeung-tsun, which belong to the Diocese of Macao, and the three districts of San-on, Kwei-shin, and Hoi-fung, which belong to the Vicariate Apostolic of Hong-Kong.
St. Francis Xavier was the first missionary who attempted to penetrate the province of Kwang-tung (1552), but he died in the Island of Shang-sch'wan (St. John's Island), south-west of Macao, before he was able to preach Christianity there. In 1556 Father Melchior Barreto penetrated as far as Canton, where he discussed science and moral theology with the mandarins; other Jesuits followed, and in 1581 Father Ruggieri secured authorization to open a chapel. In 1582, the real founder of Christianity in China, Father Matteo Ricci , arrived at Canton. From Canton Father Ricci went to Shin-hing, then the capital of the province, and afterwards to Shin-chou, were he met for the first time the celebrated Sin, a native of Kiang-nan. He then travelled to towards Kiang-si and Nan-king, establishing on the way Christian settlements, which have persevered to the present time. Until 1658 Kwang-tung was dependent on the Diocese of Macao. In that year it was confided to Mgr de la Motte Lambert. The priests of the Missions Etrangères then preached there together with the Jesuits, the Franciscans, and the Dominicans. From 1682 to 1710, Mgr de Guéméner and Fathers de Cecè and Ducarpon established themselves at Canton and Shin-chou. The tomb of Mgr de Guéméner (d. 1704) is at Shin-chou as is also that of Père Lirot (d. 1720). When the persecution of Emperor Yong-chin broke out in 1742 there were 30,000 Christians in the province of Kwang-tung, but all the missionaries were then expelled.
From that time until 1844, when Mgr. de Lagrené e obtained the proclamation of religious liberty, the missionaries did not enter Kwang-tung except in disguise. The bishops of Macao had meanwhile regained jurisdiction over the province, but the number of Christians tended by native priests had fallen to 7000 or 8000. On 30 September, 1848, the Congregation of the Propaganda confided this mission to the Société des Missions Estrangères de Paris without removing all jurisdiction from the Bishop of Macao. Father Libois, procurator of the Société at Hong-Kong, was named prefect Apostolic, and Father Guillemin was the first missionary sent to the province. The progress was slow at first: there were 115 baptisms of adults in 1851, 214 in 1854. In 1853 Father Guillemin was named prefect Apostolic instead of Father Libois. A persecution broke out, and seven missionaries were arrested and thrown in prison. Difficulties having arisen with Macao, Rome put an end to them on 8 Aug., 1856, by nominating Father Guillemin Bishop of Cybistra in partibus infidelium, by giving him on 17 September, 1858, complete jurisdiction over Kwang-tung, Kwang-si, and Hainan. In 1856, Blessed Auguste Chapdelaine was martyred in Kwang-si with two companions, Blessed Laurence Pe-mu and Blessed Agnes Chow-kong.
As the result of the Anglo-French expedition, which ended in the taking of Peking, a treaty was signed on 25 October, 1860. This was a signal for wider liberty for the missionaries. In compensation for the churches which had been destroyed and the property which had been taken from the mission, the bishop obtained the site of the ancient palace of the viceroy, on which were built the seminary and the orphanages. With the assistance of Napoleon III and the Catholics of France was also built the fine cathedral of Canton, one of the most beautiful religious monuments of the Far East. A chapel in honour of St. Francis Xavier was built at Shang-ch'wan, and this island became a place of pilgrimage for the people of Hong-Kong, Macao, and Canton. Baptisms became more numerous, amounting to 740 in 1862 and to 922 in 1867. There were some troubles in 1868 and 1869. In 1875 the Province of Kwang-si was separated from the Mission of Kwang-tung, while the island of Hai-nan and the district of Heung-shan was ceded to the Diocese of Macao. These districts were given to the priests of the Missions Estrangéres de Milan, who were established at Hong-Kong. The mission then ministered to 15,000 Catholics ; in 1880 it had 23,730 under its care. In 1881, Mgr Guillemin, worn out with labour, left Mgr Chausse, titular Bishop of Capsa, in charge of the mission. In 1884, at the time of the war of Tongking, the missionaries were ordered to discontinue the mission, and had to stay at Hong-Kong for nearly a year. The Christian establishments of Canton were destroyed. The districts of Shun-tak, Sha-tan, Shin-hing, Tong-kun, were laid waste, but it is worthy to remark that the districts nearest Tongking suffered the least. In some of these the missionaries were able to remain throughout the hostilities. On the restoration of peace the missionaries and the Christians who had followed them returned to the country. No indemnity was granted either to the missionaries or the Christians, on the pretext that the French would not restore the vessels sunk at Fu-chau.
The report of 1889 gives 1 bishop, 43 missionaries, 7 native priests, 150 churches or chapels, 1 seminary with 30 students, 135 schools or orphanages with 2067 pupils, 28,852 Catholics. In 1894 and 1895, during the war between China and Japan, there were some disorders. A missionary was besieged for nine days in a Christian village by soldiers returning from Formosa, and the mandarin of the place had to pay several thousand dollars to induce the soldiers to raise the siege. After the war, there was a great conversion movemnet which lasted several years, especially at Kit-yueng and Tong-kun. In 1898, Father Chanès was slain with eight Christians in his district of Pok-lo. In 1900, during the Boxer uprisings, several missionaries were ordered by the viceroy, then the famous Li Hung Chang, to leave the province, but they all remained at their post. However, in September, when the troops of the allies had been in Peking a month, the chief Christian settlements of Shun-tak, Sha-tan, and Tong-kun were destroyed and the chapels burned by the populace. Mgr Chausse, who was ill, could not survive these disasters, and died a few days later. However, the arrival at Canton of European and American warships soon brought the pillagers to reason. In 1901 Mgr Mésel was named Bishop of Orcisto and Prefect Apostolic of Kwang-tung. In January, 1902, Father Julien was assassinated with his two servants at Ma-tez-han, a district of Chi-hing on the frontiers of Kiang-si. In 1905 five American Presbyterian missionaries were massacred at Lin-chou, on the borders of Hu-nan, by an infuriated populace. Since then peace has lasted. The inhabitants of Kwang-tung seem to have a decided leaning towards the things of Europe and America. Numerous students go to be educated in Japan, the United States and Europe. Mgr Mérel has founded the College of the Sacred Heart, to teach English and French to the Chinese without distinction of religion. The number of students exceeds 250.
In 1908 the mission of Kwang-tung ceded to the Diocese of Macao the civil prefecture of Shin-hing and the two districts of Yang-ping and Yeung-tsum, belonging to Shin-hing at the time of the fulmination of the decree of the Holy See, instead of which the Island of Hai-nan was given to the Prefecture Apostolic of Kwang-tung. But as Shin-hing contains more than 2500 Catholics while the Island of Hai-nan has only 300 or 400, it will be readily understood why the reports of the mission of Kwang-tung number less Catholics in 1908 than in 1907. The statistics for the two years are as follows: 1907, 65 missionaries, 20 native priests, 66 seminarians, 455 churches and chapels, 210 schools, 2050 pupils, 2037 baptisms of adults, 7000 baptisms of pagan children, 60,000 Catholics ; 1908, 73 missionaries, 24 native priests, 70 seminarians, 484 churches and chapels, 250 schools, 3500 pupils, 2214 baptisms of adults, 9586 baptisms of children of pagans, 58,917 Catholics to about 30,000,000 pagans.
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