Nearly Two Centuries Before the Coronavirus, Wuhan Smothered Its Martyrs

April 24, 2020

Should this be seen as a mere coincidence? The first martyr in China to receive the honor of the altars was a French priest, who died by suffocation in Wuhan, China, the city infamous for being the presumed place of origin of the pandemic of viral pneumonia caused by SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19).

Jean-Gabriel Perboyre (1802-1840) was from Quercy. Returning to the Lazarists, of which his older brother was already a member, the future martyr was ordained a priest in 1826, then became a professor of theology at the Saint-Flour seminary.

“Pray that my health will be strengthened and that I will be able to go to China to preach Jesus Christ and die there for Him,” said Fr. Perboyre to his seminarians. His wish was to come true a few years later.

Having entered the Middle Kingdom in 1835, his apostolic work attracted the wrath of the local mandarins. Betrayed by one of his catechumens, Fr. Perboyre was cruelly tortured before being condemned to death. He underwent martyrdom in Wuhan, September 11, 1840, by being subjected to the torment of strangulation on a gibbet in the shape of a cross.

Declared blessed by Pope Leo XIII, Fr. Perboyre would be the first of a group of martyrs from China to be listed in the catalog of saints. St. Teresa of the Child Jesus had a special devotion to him.

Wuhan, known to be the probable source of the coronavirus epidemic, was once an outpost for Catholic missionaries, who founded several dispensaries there to help the needy.

Because of his peculiar martyrdom of slow strangulation, many Chinese Catholics see Jean-Gabriel Perboyre as an ideal intercessor in the fight against the current pandemic which is causing death by suffocation.