Vincent Lebbe  in the habit of a Brother of St. John the Baptist

FREDERIC LEBBE Frederic Lebbe was born in Ghent in 1877.  His mother was English and a convert to Catholicism; his father was a Belgian lawyer who recovered the practice of his Catholic faith through the encouragement of his wife.  Although born and raised in Flanders, young Frederic was an ardent supporter of things French and had no sympathy for the “Flemish Movement” [Lec 17-18].  This is important to bear in mind given his later stand against the French authorities in China: despite his later opposition to French colonialism, Frederick embodied from his early youth the spirit of French nationalism [ibid.].

   The Lebbe family took their Faith seriously.  Both Frederick and his younger brother Adrien entered religious life and became priests. Adrien became Dom Beda of Maredsous, later of Glenstal Abbey; while Frederick joined the Vincentians (Lazarists) and took the name of the founder of his chosen order, St. Vincent de Paul.

   The Vincentians were founded as a missionary Order in the seventeenth century, and had been active in China since 1703.  Following the supression of the Jesuits towards the end of the eighteenth century the Vincentians became the principal missionary Congregation in China.  Br. Vincent Lebbe had hoped since childhood that he might be given the opportunity of serving there as a missionary; and despite poor health he was sent to China in 1901, just after the Boxer Rebellion had ended.



Vincent Lebbe in Shaohhing - 1918

The Dowager Empress



   From the moment of his arrival in China Vincent Lebbe identified completely with the Chinese.  He quickly came to believe that the problems afflicting Catholicism in his “new homeland” were principally due to the attitudes and methods of European missionaries.  He was appalled at the low number of Chinese priests and the unwillingness of their European superiors to put them in positions of authority [Lec 59].  He adopted Chinese dress and manners, and began to think of the Chinese as his own people.  His Bishop, Mgr. Jarlin, agreed that the Church had been placed in a “false position” through centuries of questionable missionary practices; but he was much less optimistic than young Br. Vincent as to what could be done to rectify matters [Lec 62-63].  He ordained Vincent priest in September 1901; and, delighted with the young missionary’s remarkable success in his first assignments, he appointed Fr. Lebbe in 1906 to the important post of District Director in Tientsin, the second largest city in Northern China.

   In Tientsin Vincent founded a Catholic newspaper and quickly became involved in relief work, ecumenical charities, and near-perpetual preaching.  The number of converts to Catholicism rose dramatically as a result of his labors.  Like Matteo Ricci before him he was acutely sensitive to Chinese customs and traditions, which he successfully imitated even to the point of wearing a queue.  Unlike Ricci, however, he dressed and lived as a Chinese peasant rather than as one of the litterati.  The example of his simple life and the power of his personality won him friends and supporters at all levels of Chinese society.  In 1913 he was sent to Europe to give lectures and encourage vocations to the Missions; and on his return in 1914 he was made Vicar-General by the recently-appointed Vicar Apostolic of Tientsin, Mgr. Dumond.

   In Tientsin Vincent Lebbe began to dedicate himself openly to the projects which would occupy him for the rest of his life.  First was the question of an indigenous priesthood: Vincent not only felt that the number of Chinese priests was inadequate, but that the time had come for the system of missionary vicariates to be replaced by a Chinese hierarchy with Chinese bishops.  Second was the problem of the French Protectorate, which he longed to see replaced by a nunciature.  But the third issue was actually the central one, the premise from which the other two derived: namely, Vincent Lebbe’s utter devotion to the cause of Chinese nationalism.  The Chinese were now “his” people; he considered himself to be one of them.  Not only did the Chinese deserve their own clergy, hierarchy and Vatican representatives; Lebbe considered it essential that they love their country and dedicate themselves to the “Young China” which was then emerging from the rubble of the old Empire.  His passionate dedication to these issues endeared him to the Chinese but increasingly alienated him from his European colleagues and superiors.

Vincent Lebbe in Tientsin

The conflict between Chinese nationalism and the French Protectorate leapt into prominence in 1916 when Mgr. Dumond unwisely accepted the help of the French consul against the local Chinese authorities over the issue of land for the bishop’s new cathedral.  When Lebbe sided with the Chinese against the French he was sent on the first of a series of exiles which took him increasingly further away from Tientsin.  In each place where he was sent, roughly the same events took place: remarkable missionary success would thrust Lebbe into prominence; his views on the controversial issues (especially Chinese nationalism) would reappear; and he would consequently be sent to a yet more remote location.  Even in exile in the south of China where his northern dialect was incomprehensible he remained a source of irritation to his superiors, the more so since the papal encyclical Maximum Illud of Benedict XV which appeared in 1919 seemed to support his ideas completely.  In 1920 he was gently, quietly urged to leave China and return to Europe.


   Far from silencing him, this “exile” in his native land enabled Vincent Lebbe to exert a much greater influence on the subsequent history of Catholicism in China than would have been possible had he remained in his adopted land.  The reasons for this must be sought in the attitude of the Vatican towards the missions in the Orient.

   The need for an indigenous clergy and the problematic aspects of the French Protectorate were well-known in Rome.  The first modern pope to take seriously issues confronting the foreign missions was Leo XIII.  His  broad vision of the Church and its needs contrasted sharply with that of his predecessor, Pius IX, during whose long pontificate Rome had become almost the sole focus for initiative and authority in the Church.  Leo XIII was particularly interested in the oriental missions [Baumg-Jedin 536]; and in 1893 he commended the development of an indigenous clergy in India in his Encyclical Ad Extremas:


   “The preservation of the Christian faith among the Hindus will be precarious and its propagation uncertain as long as there is not a native clergy properly trained for priestly duties, not only to be of assistance to foreign priests, but also to be in rightful charge of the administration of the Christian Church in their cities...Now it was the practice of the select several from the psople...amd even elevate them to the episcopacy.  This example was followed afterwards by the Roman pontiffs.” {308]

   Thus Vincent Lebbe’s vociferous support of an indigenous clergy and hierarchy meant that he shared the concerns of Leo XIII [not only Leo but Prop Fidei in 1630, 1659, and 1687; Innocent XI in 1680 - Aubert 396].  As has already been described, Leo XIII had also also tried unsuccessfully to establish diplomatic relations with China, thereby curbing the power of the French Protectorate.  Thus Lebbe’s opposition to the French authorities was yet another example of his serving (although he did not realize it at the time - Lec 123) as a spokesman for Rome.

   Leo XIII died in 1903.  The pope under whom Lebbe labored in Tientsin was thus not the far-seeing author of Ad Extremas, but the holy (and insular) St. Pius X, whose pontificate was characterized by a return to the ultramontane ecclesiology of his namesake, Pius IX.  The foreign missions did not figure prominently in his vision of the Church [Baumgartner, 559; Holmes 27], preoccupied as he was with liturgical reform and the eradication of Modernism.  Directives from Rome on missionary questions during the pontificate of Pius X were not always helpful: for example, the title “apostolic missionary” granted to Europeans who labored in foreign lands was interpreted by some as implying a “category superior to that of the ordinary priest ministering in the country of his birth” [Aubert 401].  A definition issued in the name of Pius X in 1908 appeared to uphold this interpretation [Aubert 399], and was cited as papal support for the practice of allowing indigenous priests to serve only as assistants to apostolic missionaries, the pope’s “official representatives” [Aubert 401].

   The pontificate of Benedict XIV (1914-22) was a major turning point for Catholic missions in the Orient.  During his exile in Southern China Vincent Lebbe wrote to the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith detailing his concerns regarding indigenous clergy, the Protectorate, and Chinese nationalism.  His letters were read sympathetically by Mgr. Laurenti, Secretary, and Cardinal Van Rossum, Prefect for the Congregation: in fact, it has been suggested that Vincent Lebbe’s correspondance provided the basis for the great missionary encyclical, Maximum Illud [L. Levaux, LE PERRE LEBBE (Brussels 1948), 215-22].

   Maximum Illud supported each of Vincent Lebbe’s concerns.  The need for an indigenous clergy was reiterated: “The main care of those who rule the missions should to be to raise and train a clergy from amidst the nations among which they dwell...Nor should the indigenous priest be trained for the sole purpose of assisting foreign missionaries in a subordinate ministry [35]”.  Supporters of the French Protectorate also received an oblique rebuke in the encylical.  Like Leo XIII, Benedict XIV had attempted to establish a nunciature in Pekin in 1918 but threats from the French forced him to abandon the plan.  Thus in Maximum Illud, which appeared the following year, he reprimanded missionaries who seek “not so much to extend the kingdom of God as to increase the power of (their) own country [37]”.  Finally, he supported foreign patriotism by advising missionaries to “`Forget your people and your father’s house’“; and he condemned those who taught “that adhesion to (Christianity) implies submission to a foreign country and the loss of one’s own national dignity.” [ibid]


   Vincent Lebbe left China ostensibly to begin a chaplaincy to Chinese students studying in Europe.  In fact his departure had been recommended by the former bishop of Canton, Mgr. de Guebriant, who had been made Vicar Apostolic and had been entrusted with the task of “inquiring into the condition of the Church in China” in the wake of Maximum Illud [Lec 209].  He suggested that Lebbe travel with him back to Europe to begin the “important work among the students”; and he promised to summon Lebbe to Rome to speak personally with the Holy Father [216].

  The work with the students went very well.   Many had been violently anti-foreign and anti-Christian on their arrival: they wanted only to learn the secrets of the West so as to free China from foreign domination.  Vincent Lebbe was able to convince many of them that there were individuals and institutions in the West sympathetic to China.  Some students were converted to Christianity, one of the more notable being An-Yuen Yong, a student at Louvain who later became Dom Thaddeus of Saint-Andre, Brugge; and was thus the first Chinese to become a Benedictine.

   But the summons to Rome did not arrive.  Mgr. de Guebriant returned to China, leaving Vincent Lebbe under the authority of his Vincentian superiors who approved neither of his theories nor of the methods he had used in China.  With the help of his brother Beda at Maredsous he contacted Cardinal Mercier, whom he had met in 1913 and who then called him to Rome in 1920.  Cardinal Mercier arranged meetings with Cardinal Van Rossum and the pope; and to his great delight Lebbe was asked to recommend the names of Chinese priests who might be raised to the episcopate.  He returned to his work with students overjoyed, content to watch from Europe the changes which the Vatican was slowly introducing in China.

   Benedict XV died in 1922.  Within six months of his accession Pius XI, later known as “The Pope of the Missions”, sent an Apostolic Delegate to Pekin, ignoring the objections of the French Government [Holmes 24].  The Delegate, Mgr. Constantini, set himself against what he referred to as “territorial feudalism”, the tendency on the part of European missionaries to regard their assigned jurisdiction as “religious colonies belonging to this or that institute [quoted in  Aubert 395].”  He moved quickly, appointing two Chinese priests as prefects apostolic in 1923 and 1924 [Aubert 403]; and in 1924 the problematic title “Apostolic Missionary” was abolished by the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith [ibid 401].  Finally, in 1926, six Chinese bishops were consecrated in St. Peter’s by Pius XI.  Vincent Lebbe was there; and he was invited by Mgr. Sun, one of the newly-created bishops and a fellow-Vincentian, to return with him to the bishop’s new diocese of Lihsien in Northern China.



On his return in 1926 Vincent Lebbe requested and was granted Chinese naturalization: China thus truly became his own country.  His superiors in the Vincentian order remained suspicious and attempted to confine him exclusively to Mgr. Sun’s new, remote diocese.  Mgr. Constantini intervened, however, and the authority of the Apostolic Delegate enabled him to widen his sphere of influence [Lec 258, 261].  He preached widely; he wrote for the newspaper he had founded in Tientsin; and he founded parish, diocesan, and student organizations devoted to the spread of Christianity and the cause of Chinese patriotism.

Ardent Nationalist - with a queue

Little Brother of St. John the Baptist


   The implementation of Maximum Illud in China had been widely resisted and was ocurring only slowly.  Thus Pius XI promulgated another missionary encyclical, Rerum Ecclesiae, in which he reiterated the points raised by his predecessor in Maximum Illud and turned to another issue, the question of religious life in mission lands.  He discouraged the “missionary feudalism” Mgr. Constantini had described, and recommended instead that members of one order “not hesitate to summon to your aid as your co-workers missionaries who are not of your own religious family [70].”  He recommended that indigenous Catholics be encouraged to join not only the active missionary Congregations, but the “older congregations” as well [65].  He particularly recommended the contemplative orders, specifically mentioning the Carthusians, and the Chinese Trappists near Pekin [66-67].  Finally he suggested the possibility of founding new congregations “such as may answer better the genius and character of the natives, and be more in keeping with the needs and spirit of the country [65].”

   Vincent Lebbe again became an instrument for carrying out the recommendations of the pope.  In 1928 he founded in Ankwo the “Little Brothers of St. John the Baptist”, an order intended to combine principles of Trappist life with active service to the local diocese.  The Little Brothers kept a full monastic regime and lived in true Chinese poverty, thus enduring austerities unknown even in the strictest European monasteries [Lec 262-3; Neve Loeuvre mon. pp. 1-3, BM 12/37]  Yet they placed themselves at the disposal of the local bishop and undertook whatever work was needed in their local Christian community.  In 1927 the “Little Sisters of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus” were founded as the apostolic women’s counterpart to the Little Brothers.  In 1933 Vincent Lebbe solved permanently the problem of conflicts with his Vincentian superiors by joining his newly-approved Congregation as its first superior.

   For the remainder of his life until his death in 1940 Vincent Lebbe was intensely involved in the political turmoil of his adopted nation.  Japan had invaded Manchuria in 1931, and the question of Chinese nationalism which Vincent Lebbe championed became progressively more acute throughout the fifteen-year war which followed.  In 1933 He organized the Little Brothers and other Christian volunteers into a corps of stretcher-bearers which served the wounded at the front lines.  After six years he was able to turn over responsibility for this heroic group to Fr. Vincent Martin, a Belgian monk from the Benedictine monastery at Si’Shan.  Thus Vincent Lebbe was free to accept an assignment given him by Chaing Kai-shek, that of doing propaganda work for the Republic behind Japanese lines in areas then controlled by the Chinese Communists.  During the course of this work he was imprisoned by the Communists in Honan; but he was released six weeks before his death and died, probably of cancer, surrounded by friends in Chungking.

[Note denial by Vincent Martin that Lebbe was working for Chaing in Footnote 66 on p. 38 (footnotes to pages 245-246) in Ecclesiastical Colony: China's Catholic Church and the French Religious Protectorate Ernest P. Young OUP USA, Apr 25, 2013

Obtain Also: Vincent Martin, "A Travers Ie Chine en Guerre Avec Ie Pere Lebbe", Cahiers, V~ Avril, 1941, 21-28.



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