An Extraordinary Christian Life in China

One November evening in 1902, a teacher in a school in the west of Ireland received a telegram from a missionary in a remote town in northeast China asking her to marry him.

So began a new and extraordinary life in Manchuria that was to last until 1942, when she and her husband were expelled by the Japanese after the attack on Pearl Harbour.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI), to which they belonged, has just discovered the account which Annie O’Neill wrote of her early years in China. It describes a life of isolation, with no telephone or postal system, bitter winter and danger from bandits, warlords, foreign armies, kidnappers and epidemics.

It took her a year from the arrival of the telegram to reach Fakumen, the small town in Manchuria which she was to call home. She left Belfast on August 23, 1903 and took a North German Lloyd steamer to Shanghai, where she married her husband in the city’s cathedral on October 7.

They traveled much of the way by horse-cart and the drivers did not dare travel after dark, for fear of bandits and the bitter cold. Fakumen was a small market town, set in rolling hills, 100 km north of the provincial capital of Shenyang, then called Mukden.

The couple arrived in Fakumen on a Thursday night: the following Monday she began to study Chinese, three hours in the morning and three in the evening.

“Fred (her husband) told me to keep out of the kitchen and study as I was of no use until I learnt to speak Chinese.”

She learnt from her husband how close he had been to death three years before during the Boxer Rebellion, which aimed to rid China of Christian missionaries and their Chinese converts.

“Our church had been burnt, his house and all its contents. Fred escaped from Fakumen dressed in a Chinese outfit and coolie hat.” He joined Chinese Christians and Russians in an exodus on large carts to the north. Some were killed or died of illness on the road. Fred reached Khabarovsk, from where he took a boat to Vladivostok and went down with typhoid.

After the rebellion was put down, Fred was able to return to Fakumen, via Japan and Tianjin, and build a new church, with a plaque in honor of the martyrs who had been killed.

Annie began her new life as the wife of a missionary — teaching at the mission school, helping with church services, meeting members of the congregation and examining candidates for baptism.

She went with her husband on a tour of mission stations in winter, when temperatures fell to as low as minus 18 degrees Centigrade. “I remember the tea in our little bowls freezing and the towel we dried our hands on stiff as a board soon afterwards.”

Meanwhile the Russians and the Japanese had gone to war over control of Manchuria. “Banditry became rife and it was hard for everyone … We had Russians in the town and many officers, some of whom had their wives with them, who became our friends and shared our meals.”

Annie’s first son, Patrick, was born in January 1905: he was to die of dysentery three years later and is buried in Fakumen. A fellow missionary gave her a revolver, not to kill people, but to fire in the air and frighten bandits.

That month, the Russian commander in Port Arthur, close to what is now Dalian, surrendered to Japan. The Russian soldiers left Fakumen, which briefly fell into the hands of local bandits, before the Japanese arrived.

“How different from the happy-go-lucky Russians! They were so correct. Britain and Japan were on good terms then. If we invited them for a meal, they would arrive punctually and leave when the meal ended. Conversation was difficult. They asked us if we had met any Russians. We heard from outside that Fred was a Russian spy!”

In the summer of 1905, Admiral Maresuke Nogi, the victor of Port Arthur, established his headquarters in Fakumen, bringing a large number of soldiers and foreign military attaches to the town.

Nogi gave Fred and Annie his card, which saved them from arrest after they were detained by Japanese soldiers outside the town.

That year a medical missionary named Isabel Mitchell arrived from Ireland. They established the first modern hospital in Fakumen, where Dr Mitchell worked until her premature death in 1917, from an illness she acquired from a patient.

In January 1906, the couple began a visit home. This meant ‘a very severe cart-journey in a cutting wind to Tieling. There we took a goods train. The floor of our carriage was covered with small scarlet blankets and a charcoal brazier was lighted. The noise of the train and the gale was terrific.”

From Dalien they took a boat to Hiroshima and from Yokohama across the Pacific to Vancouver, across Canada, then New York and home to Ireland. They stayed with missionary families along the route. They left Ireland in early 1907, returning to Fakumen via India.

Fred and Annie remained in Manchuria for the next 35 years. They had five sons, of whom two died and are buried there and three grew to adulthood. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, they were detained as enemy aliens and held for six months in Shenyang and six months in Nagasaki, before being exchanged with Japanese prisoners of war in Mozambique, a colony of Portugal, a neutral country.

After the Communist conquest of Manchuria, they were unable to return. Fred died in Belfast in October 1952 and Annie in Belfast in November 1957.

Their work was not in vain. Estimates by Chinese members of the Protestant church in the three northeast provinces, formerly called Manchuria, put the current number of its members at 300,000, more than the size of the mother PCI which founded it.

“The story of the missionaries is one of extraordinary sacrifice, hard work and achievement,” said John Dunlop, 68, a minister of the PCI who has visited Manchuria. “People wondered if the church had survived during the Cultural Revolution, when there was hardly any news. Now there are thousands of Christians. It seems like a miracle.”

Annie O’Neill was the writer’s grandmother.