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Columba’s treasure

· Helen Kyung Soo Kwon tells the story of a martyr from the first Korean Catholic Community who will be beatified by Pope Francis ·

“Columba Kang Wan Suk, catechist and martyr of the first Catholic Korean community, was born in 1761, in the province of Chungcheong”.

These are the words of Helen Kyung Soo Kwon, an elegant woman of gentle ways who speaks English extremely well and is so involved in her community that took two months to fix an appointment with her. A brief look at her cv gives one and idea of the breadth of her involvement. She was President of the Archdiocese of Seoul’s Catholic Women’s Organization; Vice-President for the Archdiocese of Seoul’s Council for Laity; a Member of the Lay Apostolate’s Sub-Committee on Women; President of the Organization for Korean Catholic Women; Member of the steering Committee for Pro-Life activities for the Korean Bishops’Conference; and currently a member of the permanent Council for the World Union of Organizations of Catholic Women.

There hasn’t been much written on the history of Christianity in Korea, even less on the role played by women. Why? “For a long time, until the opening of the country at the end of the 18th century,”Helen Kyung Soo Kwon tells us, “Korea was a very closed society; it’s no accident that in the West it was called the Hermit Kingdom. Society at that time was regulated by a political ideology, i.e. Confucianism, which did not allow many opportunities for women at the social level, especially if the women belonged to the wealthy class”.

Helen Kyung Soo Kwon

Colomba Kwang Wan Suk will be beatified by Pope Francis this August. Can you tell us her story? “Columba was an illegitimate child but she belonged to a nobile family. She married Hong Ji-yeong, who already had a son from a prior union. It wasn’t until this time,”Helen Kyung Soo Kwon explains to us, “that Columba became familiar with the Catholic religion through reading books written by Jesuits and those who had come from China. During the first persecution in 1791, she tended to the health of Christians who had been imprisoned. She had her adopted son learn about Catholicism; later, he too would be martyred during the first great persecution. Her husband, on the contrary, constantly criticized her religious passion and ultimately preferred a concubine over her. At this point Columba moved to Seoul where she’d hear Christians were very numerous. Here - after making contact with the community of the faithful thanks to her social status and therefore to her strong economic power - she decided to “sponsor”the sending of messengers to China in order that priests might finally come to Korea”.

At that time, Helen Kyung Soo Kwon continued, “there was no truly organized Catholic community. It was only with the arrival to the county of Fr. James Zhou Wen Moe, i.e. the first priest to step foot in the Choson Kingdom, that the first baptisms began to occur through the hands of an ordained priest: Columba was among the first to be baptized. She was then chosen to by Fr. James to be a catechist, and in fact she spent the whole of her life teaching the catechism. She also hosted Fr. James at her home in Seoul during the long period when the priest was being persecuted by the local authorities who had found out about his presence in the city. At the time, inspections in homes whose owners were women was prohibited. That is how the first priest to enter Korea managed to escape a sure death sentence for many years”.

The decision to host a man at her home, even a priest, was a strong break with the conventions at the time, especially when one considers that nobile women could not even leave their homes during the day. They waited until evening when the streets were deserted. As late as 1897 Elizabeth Bird wrote that at around 8pm the great bells in central Seoul would ring. That was the signal for men to retire to their homes, and for the women to go out.

Helen Kyung Soo Kwon smiles: “Of course, Columba was a true leader and precursor for women’s emancipation. I also think of her decision to leave a husband, who preferred a concubine to her. Many women at the time silently endured the presence of another woman in their home. It was through her great charism, together with the work of Fr. James, that the royal family entered the Catholic Church”.

Helen Kyung Soo Kwon continues: “The half-brother of the King, Mary Song and her adopted daughter Mary Sin - also relatives of the royal family - all received baptism from Fr. James. With Christianity then came the first female presidents of the Catholic associations. Even before the Korean Church had a structured hierarchy organized by the foreign missionaries, women had created their own associations with a woman at the head. These were the first signs that female emancipation was possible”.

We already know the end of the story, but we ask Helen Kyung Soo Kwon to recount it for us. How did Columba die? “During the Sinyu persecution in 1801, Columba was reported for her religious activities. She was arrested on 6 April, together with other faithful who were in her home. She was tortured at length in an attempt to make her reveal the location where Fr. James was hiding, but she didn’t give in. On 2 July of the same year, she was condemned to death. She was beheaded outside Seoul’s western door. She had just turned 40”. (Cristian Martini Grimaldi).

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