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Unsung at home honoured in his adopted land

CHANGZHI (SE): A report from the Japanese Imperial Army released in 1938 saying that Franciscan Father Aemilianus van Heel had committed suicide in Changzhi, a remote town in the interior of Shanxi province in China, left his family and friends in the Netherlands stunned, confused and shamed into silence.
Although unsung at home, in China, Father van Heel is remembered as a hero and on June 17 a 3.1-metre high gravestone was unveiled at his burial place during a ceremony attended by both Church and civic authorities in honour of the priest who had given shelter from the occupying Japanese forces to at least 2,000 refugees, mostly women and young girls.
Unveiled and blessed by Bishop Peter Wu Junwei, from Yunchen, the memorial stone stands at 3.1 metres in tribute to the 31 years the young missionary spent on this earth.
A strongly-built man, when a Japanese soldier entered his Church compound and tried to drag a woman away, Father van Heel knocked him to the ground.
On the following morning, 8 October 1938, the young missionary was found with his wrists slashed and several bullet wounds in his body.
On the face of the memorial stone an inscription reads, “Aemilianus van Heel, 8 June 1907 to 8 October 1938, may he be remembered for righteousness and bravery forever.”
On the back is a short biography, “Aemilianus van Heel, Franciscan missionary, born 8 June 1907 in Leiden, the Netherlands. In 1933 he came to China and from 1937 worked in the Church of Shitou (Changzhi) in Yuanqu. He protected thousands of refugees, particularly women, against Japanese military forces during the Japanese aggression and in retaliation was murdered on 8 October 1938.”
Roland van den Berg, who was the ambassador from the Netherlands to China from 1986 to 1992, spoke at the unveiling ceremony.
Van den Berg recalled that in 1990 he had received a letter from the interior of China asking him how people in his own country thought about the hero from Changzhi, Father van Heel.
“You might understand that I was very touched by this letter,” the former ambassador said in his reflection, adding, “This monument marks a proud page in the long history of the relations between the nations of China and the Netherlands.”
However, he said that he was in the dark, as he knew nothing of the missionary priest of an earlier era, but can now stand at his grave with great pride in the bravery of his fellow countryman.
At a Mass following the stripping of the red cloth covering the monument, Bishop Wu spoke of the gift of sweat and blood a missionary gives in life. He spoke of Father van Heel as a great gift of Christian life.
“Thanks to this young Dutch missionary, who dedicated his life to the Church in China and evangelisation in the country, we were able to have this wonderful gift of faith in Christ,” Bishop Wu said.
In the deepest and darkest hours of the night, Father van Heel would take a lantern and comb the hills in search of displaced people and offer them refuge. “I will protect you,” he would tell them.
The new gravestone was unveiled three days prior to World Refugee Day, which is marked on June 20, as a reminder of the millions of people who are displaced through the greed and ambition of others.
The Monsignor Schraven Foundation in the Netherlands says in a press release that the importance of this Dutch priest’s sacrifice reaches far beyond the happenings of 1938.
A tribute left on his grave reads, “We engraved the name of the murdered Father van Heel in stone as a role model so future generations can also learn from this. We inherit his legacy of service to the community.”
Just 110 years after his birth and 79 years since his death, flowers covered the burial site and a further message adds, “Buried forever in the arms of the Chinese land and forever in the hearts of the whole nation of China.”
A fitting tribute to the man who himself had written to his superior that he held a tremendous love for the Chinese people, a love to which he gave testimony with his life.

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