▲ Citations on the wall at Columban House, where Father Jerry Cotter lives, honor three Columban brothers interned by the Japanese. Photos by Darryl Coote
The history of Catholicism on Jeju Island encompasses more than 100 years and is a tale of strife, persecution and power.
In 1801, when Jeong Nan Ju was exiled to Jeju, it was said that she was the island’s first Christian. “There were probably other Christians here too,” said Father Jerry Cotter, a retired Catholic Priest who has lived in Korea since 1955, “because anyone who was on the wrong side of the government ended up in Jeju.”
“In the 1780’s,” Cotter said, “Korea was the hermit kingdom, where no Koreans were allowed out and no foreigners were allowed in. If a foreigner did happen to come here, first they chopped off their heads then asked them why they came. The first Christian converts were all from the nobility, because it was a do-it-yourself correspondence course.”
During that time, the only contact Korea had with the rest of the world was through an annual delegation in Beijing from which ambassadors would bring back the latest books published in China that year. Among the books were some deemed to be “some Western philosophy,” Cotter said, which were bequeathed to the philosophical to study.
“It kind of blew their minds,” Cotter said, “that everyone should be equal and it didn’t matter if you were rich or poor. So they decided they would practice this.” The books were not copies of the bible, but digests about individual Catholic beliefs or practices.
Those who were studying the books decided that they required a missionary. One of the group members, Hwang Sa Yeong, wrote a letter to the bishop in Beijing requesting a priest to be sent so they could have a more in-depth practice. The letter was intercepted by the authorities and he was beheaded. His wife was Jeong Nan Ju.
As punishment, Maria, Jeong’s Christian name, was exiled to Jeju while the couple’s young son, Gyeng Han, was left on the shores of Chuja Island. His descendants can be found there today.
There is conflicting information on whether or not she practiced Catholicism openly on the island. According to the Diocese of Jeju, she “enlightened ignorant inhabitants with her profound learning and was praised as ‘Seoul Old Lady’ by neighbors.” Cotter said. “She was a very devout believer, but it had to be a completely private thing. On Jeju she did not try to convert.” Maria Jeong died on Feb. 1, 1838, and her grave in Daejeong was reconstructed and consecrated in 1999 for the Catholic Church’s centennial anniversary.
Though there were minor instances where Jeju’s shores were brushed by Catholicism, the next major interaction occurred in 1857 when Hamdeok native Kim Kee Ryang was sailing his small trading boat off the coast of Mokpo and a storm blew him off course, landing him in China. From there he was sent to Hong Kong in hopes of receiving assistance from the small Korean community and he met French missionaries who taught him Catholicism and baptized him. Kim wanted to stay with his new brethren, but was told by the French missionaries to go back to Jeju and spread what he had learned.
According to Cotter, Kim returned to Jeju in 1857 and became the first Korean missionary by converting the willing along his trade routes. Eight years later “in 1866,” Cotter said, “there was the biggest of the biggest persecutions.” “It was more political,” Cotter said, than religious. King Gojong, of the Joseon dynasty, was crowned in 1863 but being only 12 years of age during a time of strict Confucian ideology, his father reigned over the country. He was “completely ruthless,” Cotter said. “He stamped out everything he thought might take away from his power and he issued an edict against Christianity and anyone who was [Christian], was put to death.”
This is how Kim came to his end. On an island off the coast of Busan, “he made the mistake of asking if there were any Christians around there and he lost his head,” Cotter said. During this persecution many people were beheaded and not only Christians. Cotter claims that all was needed was an accusation that someone was a believer. There were no trials, only the sharp edge of the sword. A few French missionaries were able to escape the brutal slayings via China, resulting in a defeated French attack on Korean soil.
Between 1871 and 1900, Korea experienced relative freedom of religion. Jeju by then had three Catholic churches, two in Jeju City and one in Seogwipo, several French priests, and the faith was gaining members. Then the Lee Jae Su uprising occurred. “It wasn’t country-wide,” Cotter said, “but only in Jeju in 1901. This was a persecution not instituted by the government, but an uprising against the very unfair taxes the government was imposing here.”
Many of the tax collectors were Catholic and were chosen by the government specifically because they had been trained by the French and should be reliable. “So there was a spontaneous uprising against the tax collectors and against the Christians.” Some of the tax collectors, Catholic and non-Catholic, were able to flee by boat, but this only moved the populace’s anger solely on to the Catholics. About 200 people were killed, Cotter said.
The government sent in armed support to help retrieve the back taxes. Several of the rebels were executed and, “the French priests demanded recompense from the Korean government, which the Korean government did for the sake of good relations. With that money they [The Paris Foreign Mission] were able to build rather more impressive buildings. That is when the Catholics began to increase again.”
In 1934 during the Japanese occupation of Korea, the Columban Fathers, Cotter’s organization, became responsible for the advancement and supervision of the Catholic faith on Jeju. “They [the Japanese] weren’t against Christianity as such,” Cotter said, “but they kept a very tight rein on things. If the priest wanted to go visit the outside missions, he would have to get permission.”
Under Japanese rule, evangelism was slow, due in part to the fear of Koreans congregating. Then, during the Pacific war, Japanese suspicion, particularly of foreigners, escalated. On the mainland, foreigners were either put under house arrest or strictly monitored, while on Jeju it was a different story. “The Japanese could not see any reason why a Westerner would come to this godforsaken island unless they were spying on the Japanese.” Cotter said. “So they were arrested as spies. ... During the war, except the Germans, all the foreigners were arrested.”
Those who were not part of a prisoner exchange orchestrated by the Red Cross were subjected to hard labor. Three members of the Columban Brothers were interned on Jeju. Citations of honor for their resistance against the Japanese from the Korean Government now hang on the wall of Cotter’s home.
As of a 2005 census by the National Statistical Office there are 54,764 Catholics on the island. Cotter said that, currently there are 27 churches all staffed by local clergy.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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