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ST. JOSEPH FREINADEMETZ – First SVD Missionary to China

A brief biography of St. Joseph Freinademetz, Religious Priest of the Divine Word Missionaries in

Guiseppe (Joseph) Freinademetz was born on the 15th of April 1852 in Oies, a small hamlet of five houses situated in the Dolomite Alps of northern Italy. The region, known as “South Tyrol,” was then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He was baptised on the day he was born and inherited from his family a very simple but tenacious faith and a great capacity for work.

While Joseph was studying theology in the diocesan seminary of Bressanone (Brixen), he began to think seriously of the “foreign missions” as a way of life.  He was ordained a priest on the 25th of July 1875, and assigned to the community of Saint Martin (Martino di Badia) very near his own home, where he soon won the hearts of his countrymen. However, the call to missionary service did not leave. Two years his after ordination, he came into contact with Fr. Arnold Janssen, founder of a Mission House, which was soon to become known as the “Society of the Divine Word.”

With his Bishop’s permission, Joseph left for the Mission House in Steyl, Netherlands in August 1878. On the 2nd of March 1879, he received his mission cross and departed for China with Fr. John Baptist Anzer, another Divine Word Missionary priest. Five weeks later they arrived in Hong Kong, where they remained for two years, preparing themselves for the next step.  In 1881 they travelled to their new mission in South Shantung, a province with 12 million inhabitants and only 158 Christians.

The next two years were hard, marked by long, arduous journeys, assaults by bandits and filled with the difficult work of forming the first Christian communities. As soon as a community was developed, an instruction from the Bishop would arrive telling him to leave everything and start anew.

Soon Joseph came to appreciate the importance of a committed laity, and especially catechists, for first evangelisation. He dedicated much energy to their formation and prepared a catechetical manual in Chinese. At the same time, along with Anzer, who had become bishop, he put great effort into the preparation, spiritual formation and ongoing education of Chinese priests and other missionaries.

At different times he served as Administrator for the Mission, Rector of the seminary, Spiritual Director for the first group of Chinese priests, and as Provincial Superior. He always exercised his authority in a brotherly fashion, and the respect he received came more from his example and life witness than from the dignity of the office he held.

His life was marked by a desire to become more like a Chinese among the Chinese and in that vein he wrote a letter to his family saying: “I love China and the Chinese; I want to die among them and be laid to rest among them”.

In 1898, Freinademetz was sick with laryngitis and had the beginnings of tuberculosis as a result of his heavy work and many other hardships. At the insistence of the Bishop and the other priests he was sent for a rest to Japan, with the hope that he could regain his health. He returned to China somewhat recuperated, but not fully cured.

In 1900, after twenty years of dedicated work in China, Fr. Janssen invited him to travel to Steyl for the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Congregation. Fr. Joseph declined the invitation. It was the time of the Boxers Rebellion against the Europeans. The German authorities ordered the missionaries to retire to the port city of Tsingtao for their own protection. Joseph decided to stay at the mission station at Puoli, knowing well the risk that he was taking. At one point he sent a group of orphans from the interior mission to the coast of Tsingtao, where it was relatively secure. He wrote to the missionaries there: “They (the orphans) are absolutely destitute. Please have the kindness to do something for them.  With conditions as they are we must not hesitate to incur a few extra expenses in order to save what can still be saved.” He added: “I think it would be better to sell the horses”.

Whenever the bishop had to travel outside of China, Freinademetz would take on the added burden of the administration of the diocese.  At the end of 1907, while he was serving as Diocesan Administrator for the sixth time, there was a severe outbreak of typhus. Joseph, like a good shepherd offered untiring assistance, visited the various communities until he himself became infected. He went to Taikia, the seat of the diocese, where he died on the 28th of January 1908. He was buried at the twelfth station on the Way of the Cross and his grave soon became a site of pilgrimage for Christians.

Freinademetz learned how to discover the greatness and beauty of Chinese culture and to love deeply the people to whom he had been sent. He dedicated his life to proclaiming the Gospel message of God’s love for all peoples, and the formation of Chinese Christian communities. He animated these communities to open themselves in solidarity with the surrounding inhabitants.  He encouraged many of the Chinese Christians to be missionaries to their own people as catechists, religious, nuns and priests. His life was an expression of his motto: “The language that all people understand is that of love”.


Dioceses of Yanzhou and of Bolzano and Bressanone




Professed Priest of the Society of the Divine Word

(1852 - 1908)

Blessed Joseph Freinademetz was born on 15 April 1852 in the village of Oies in Val Badia, in the province of Bolzano. Ordained a priest in the diocese of Bressanone, he carried out his priestly ministry at San Martino di Badia for two years, and then obtained permission from his bishop to pursue a missionary vocation. In 1878 he entered the Society of the Divine Word, founded  by Blessed Arnold Janssen. From 1879 until his death he carried out an intense apostolic activity in China, serving the people there with great love, a spirit of sacrifice and Christian fortitude in difficulties and dangers. He concluded his earthly life at Taikiachwang on 28 January 1908. His Holiness Pope Paul VI beatified him on 19 October during the 1975 Holy Year.

In consideration of his canonization the postulator of his cause has recently submitted for the judgment of this Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the presumed healing of the young Japanese Jun Yamada who, on 16 February 1987, at the age of 24, following various disturbances, was admitted to a hospital in Nagoya (Japan), where he was diagnosed with acute leukemia a spinal tumor (type M2). Chemotherapy was given in an attempt to induce the remission of the disease; but the first cycle of treatment produced no positive results. Therefore another type of therapy was applied to cure the acute lymphoblastic leukemia. On March 9th of that year laboratory tests revealed a drop in white corpuscles and other blood cells, with a consequent immunodeficiency, despite the blood transfusions given. The patient then contracted severe pneumonia with pulmonary hemorrhaging, respiratory difficulties, and heightened hypoxia leading to cardiac arrest. Therefore he was intubated and placed on artificial respiration in intensive care, where he remained unconscious.

Meanwhile on 13th March1987, when the condition of the young man was critical and plans were being made for his funeral, a priest of the Society of the Divine Word, a teacher of the sick man, began a novena to Blessed Joseph Freinademetz to obtain from God the healing of his student. Another priest of the same religious institute repeatedly celebrated Mass for the same intention, begging the intercession of Blessed Joseph.

The young man began to improve on March 17th, on the 19th he regained full consciousness, and on April 10th laboratory tests verified the complete remission of the leukemia. However, there followed  mycotic and tubercular infections on account of his immunodeficiency. In the month of July 1987 a gradual recovery began, and on September 30th of the same year the patient was released fully recovered.

A diocesan inquiry into the case, which was considered miraculous, was begun at the Nagoya Chancery office; its juridical validity was recognized by a decree of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints on 14 April 2000. On December 10th of last year the Medical Consultation recognized that the healing was rapid, complete, enduring, and not scientifically explainable. On 18 October 2002 a special meeting of the Theological Commission was held. On 3 December 2002 an Ordinary Session of Cardinals and Bishops took place; present was the Advocate of the Cause, His Excellency Joseph Zlatnansky, titular bishop of Montefiascone. At both meetings, that of the Theological Commission as well as that of the cardinals and bishops, an affirmative response was given to the question of whether one could speak of a true and proper miracle.

A complete report of everything that happened was presented by the undersigned Cardinal Prefect to His Holiness Pope John Paul II. His Holiness received and ratified the votes of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and ordered that the decree of the above-mentioned miraculous healing be published.

That having been done, he summoned to himself the undersigned Cardinal Prefect, the Advocate of the Cause, me, the Bishop Secretary of the Congregation, and all those who usually attend, and he spoke thus to them: It is evident that we are dealing with a true miracle obtained from God through the intercession of Blessed Joseph Freinademetz, professed priest of the Society of the Divine Word, that is to say the rapid, complete, and enduring healing of the young man Jun Yamada from “acute hybrid leukemia, phenotypically established, with severe pulmonary complications, hypoxia from respiratory insufficiency and cardiac arrest, with micotic and tubercular infection through immunodeficiency.”

His Holiness wanted this decree to be published and transcribed in the acts of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

Rome, 20 December 2002

Giuseppe Card. Saraiva Martins

+ Edward Nowak
Titular Archbishop of Luni


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