A Priest of Saint Bernard in the Mountains of Taiwan—Father Gabriel Délèze
Esther Tseng /photo byJimmy Lin /tr. byPhil Newell
“Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.”
—Prayer of St. Francis
Hsincheng Catholic Church in Xincheng, Hualien County (photo by Jimmy Lin)
We visit the Hsincheng Catholic Church in Xincheng, Hualien County one morning in early autumn. Passing through the tall Japanese gate (torii) and ascending the gradually narrowing path of worship (sandō), we arrive at the small plaza where once stood the hall of worship (haiden) of this former Shinto shrine. Standing here, surrounded by tall and vigorous ancient pine trees, you realize that this is the center of the sacred ground. When you gaze at the dignified statue of the Virgin Mary before you, your mind is suddenly at peace and free of worries.
“This path of worship is a path guiding people back to God,” says Father Gabriel Délèze of Hsincheng Catholic Church. “This was once a bloody battlefield, but now it is a place of prayer. I hope the Blessed Virgin can ensure peace in Taiwan and throughout the world.” A fresh wind blows by, rustling the pine branches, as if they were chiming in with the prayer of Father Délèze.
Wearing a wooden crucifix of the Congregation of Great St. Bernard around his neck, Father Gabriel Délèze has dedicated himself to God’s work in Taiwan for 40 years. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
Historic sites are alive
Since 1959, the Congregation of Canons Regular of Great St. Bernard has dispatched friars to Taiwan to preach the gospel. In 1964 Father Alphonse Savioz of the Congregation of Great St. Bernard bought the site of the former Xincheng Shinto Shrine in order to construct a church and dormitories for priests.
Taiwan came under Japanese colonial rule in 1895. In 1896, when the Japanese military set out to subdue the Truku indigenous people, they met with strong resistance from tribespeople protecting their homeland, leading to an event known to history as the Xincheng Incident, in which 13 Japanese soldiers were killed. In the nearly 20 years of conflict that followed, close to 100 people died.
In 1914 Japanese forces launched combat operations against the Truku, in a campaign known as the Truku War. After the campaign was successful, the Japanese military erected a memorial to commemorate the 265 Japanese soldiers and police officers killed in the Xincheng Incident and subsequent battles. In 1937, the colonial government built the Xincheng Shinto Shrine.
After Taiwan came under the control of the Republic of China in 1945, the government was anxious to “dejapanize” Taiwan, and wanted to remove all symbols of Japanese rule. But for the local people, this was a bloody battlefield and mass grave site, and based on traditional customs no one wanted to go near it. However, the Swiss missionaries saw the the former Shinto shrine as a historic site that sustains history and culture and relates memories of life. It was only through the persistent efforts of Father Délèze, including his interventions with the county government, that historic structures such as the torii (Japanese gate, the tōrō (stone lanterns), the tamagaki (fence surrounding the main hall), the aragaki (wall around the grounds) and the memorial to the 13 Japanese soldiers killed in the Xincheng Incident were preserved.
Today, the memorial to the dead soldiers can be seen from the garden of the church. The church’s altar stands on the site of the stone memorial to the 265 Japanese soldiers and policemen killed during the Truku conflicts, which was torn down. The crumbling main hall (honden) of the Shinto shrine was replaced by a shrine to the Virgin Mary. In 2005, the old site of the Xincheng Shinto Shrine was listed as a county historic site.
Thanks to the efforts of Father Délèze, this former battleground has been preserved as a sacred site of historical importance.
A photo of Father Délèze (left) when he was young. (courtesy of Gabriel Délèze)
A calling from God
Over the last 40 years Father Délèze, who first arrived in Hualien in September of 1976, has transformed from a young friar with curly brown locks into an elderly priest with wispy white hair. He believes that God specially called him to come to Taiwan.
Originally christened René Gabriel (and known to his family as Gabriel), Délèze reveals that when Father François Fournier, who came to Taiwan as a missionary in 1959, returned to Switzerland to report on his work, he happened to go to Délèze’s school, where he showed a movie of himself driving around in a jeep in Taiwan to preach the gospel. Fournier asked the students present whether any of them wanted to go and be a missionary in Taiwan. Like many other students, the then ten-year-old Gabriel raised his hand, but in his heart there was a clear voice that said: “They won’t go, but I will!”
Délèze prayed to God to guide him to his future path, and decided to join the Congregation of Great St. Bernard to become a friar. Several years after that he departed for his first overseas mission, which was to Taiwan.
Liu Hui-chen, an associate professor in the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at National Dong Hwa University, explains that the Congregation of Great St. Bernard was founded in the Swiss Alps in the 11th century. From their hospice at the Great St. Bernard pass, the members of the congregation assisted local people and pilgrims to get through the mountains in winter, and rescued those in danger, later with the help of St. Bernard dogs. They also cultivated their spirituality in the mountains, seeking their place in the universe and their peace with God.
Father Délèze was the last friar from the Congregation of Great St. Bernard to come to Taiwan. He and fellow congregation members such as Fr. Charles Reichenbach and Fr. Jean-Claude Fournier, inspired by the order’s missions of helping travelers and cultivating their spirituality in the mountains, used funds raised in Switzerland to help build 15 churches in indigenous mountain communities in Hualien.
The Hsincheng Catholic Church, completed in 1966, has become a spiritual center for local residents. (courtesy of Gabriel Délèze)
Father Délèze baptizes Huang Xiangru, a third-year student at Shiu-Lin Junior High School. He also baptized Huang’s grandmother, father, and mother.
Saving children from sexual exploitation
Délèze, whose mother tongue is French, had to learn Chinese from scratch. He recounts with a laugh that in order to learn Chinese pronunciation, he first studied English for three weeks to understand the Yale and Wade‡Giles Romanization systems, but ultimately he learned Chinese using Mandarin Phonetic Symbols (“Bopomofo”). Today he reads local Hualien Chinese-language newspapers every day, and he preaches and holds mass in Chinese, preaching different sermons according to the needs of different congregations, including those in Xiulin and Xincheng. But although Délèze uses Chinese vocabulary when he speaks Chinese, he has a marked Truku accent, and after all these years he still thinks in terms of French grammar.
In 1979 Father Délèze began holding summer camps for young people. In the morning they sing hymns, listen to sermons, and hear mass, while in the afternoon they go hiking in the mountains. This has continued uninterrupted for 40 years.
In the early 1980s, many human traffickers were going into Aboriginal villages in the mountains and tricking indigenous parents into debt, then forcing them to hand over their daughters as collateral. The human traffickers then sold the girls into underage prostitution. In 1982 Father Délèze paid to buy back one girl, but before long she was sold again by her parents. He later hid the girl in his summer camp at Tianxiang, but soon afterward she was once more found by the human traffickers and was sold again.
At a loss what to do, and filled with sorrow and anger, while praying Father Délèze recalled how much Taiwan cares about its international reputation, and thought to use foreign pressure to change things. In September of 1984 he submitted an article to a Swiss newspaper via a friend, and one Sunday the Lausanne-based Le Temps published a front-page report entitled: “Taiwan’s Indigenous People—Sex Slaves.” Wang Shaw-lan, publisher of Taiwan’s United Daily News group, happened to be in Switzerland at the time, and saw the article. The very next Tuesday the United Daily News published this information in Taiwan, causing a public outcry. Reporters descended on Xiulin Township en masse, and soon Christian churches, the women’s rights movement, and local human rights organizations sprang into action, taking steps to rescue child prostitutes from locations such as Taipei’s notorious Huaxi Street red light district.
At that time, Taiwan’s foreign affairs police threatened to have Délèze deported, and pressed him to turn over information. “Although at that time I was very much afraid that I would be expelled, I simply wanted to fight for right and justice, because the values of right and justice must be practiced in daily life!”
Young churchgoers sing hymns with heavenly voices.
The histories of Hsincheng Catholic Church and the Xincheng Shinto Shrine are displayed on a bulletin board to help visitors understand this place.
Fighting for his ideals
Zhu Tianfu, who has served for ten years as deacon of the Church of the Assumption of Our Lady in Xiulin, sees Father Délèze as an eccentric with a strong personality. Délèze lives very frugally, wearing worn-out shoes so as not be a burden on his parishioners. He detests injustice and has a clear sense of right and wrong. For example, he will definitely not approve of borrowing money to fix up the church. As he always tells his parishioners, “I only want truth and justice, I don’t want or need anything else.”
Though he lives very simply, Father Délèze adhered to the highest standards when building churches. While the main structure of Hsincheng Catholic Church is built of reinforced concrete, the lower parts of the walls are faced with Hualien marble. To the two sides of the cast-iron crucifix are two statues that he had made to order in Italy: one of the Virgin Mary and the other of Jesus’ adoptive father, St. Joseph. The bells in the bell towers of the Xiulin and Hsincheng churches, and the 14 stained-glass windows in the upper part of the Hsincheng church, were all specially ordered by Délèze from Switzerland, where professional craftsmen made them by hand. They are very valuable, and Délèze installed them himself.
Look carefully, and you will see that on one of the stained-glass windows, in front of the knee of the Virgin Mary there is a pearl in the shape of Taiwan.
“The church is like my eldest daughter, of course I wanted her to look beautiful!” he says, unconsciously ending his sentence in the rising tone typical of indigenous people’s speech.
Father Délèze often sits in the church and prays. When sunlight filters in, amid the bright stillness his heart and mind become quiet, and he realizes that love and forgiveness can transcend history and time, transforming an abandoned site into a sacred space, and providing a force for progress.
From the decoration of the church and the historic stone memorial to Japanese soldiers killed in the Xincheng Incident, at this place of intersection between religion and history one senses the importance of harmony among humans, and between humans and God.
Everything arranged by God
Father Délèze, who always carries a long walking stick, looks from afar like a mountain hiker. The reason he carries the stick is that he has had hip surgery four times.
Because the church and the priests’ dormitory are located within the grounds of the historic site, due to problems with documentation submitted by the diocesan administration they have been unable to carry out needed repairs. When it rains the ground turns muddy, which has caused Délèze to fall many times on the uneven ground outside the dormitory. After two unsuccessful hip replacement surgeries back in Switzerland, finally Délèze turned to the Tzu Chi Hospital, where his pain issues were at last resolved after the sugeon replaced his hip with the largest size artificial hip joint available. This procedure also drew praise from Délèze for the high quality of medical care in Taiwan.
After enduring these painful hardships, Délèze says adamantly, “Everything is arranged by God!” In mass, he exhorts believers, “Don’t crave success, fame, or money in this world; in the end, these things are nothing but dust.”
“Each day I pray for you all that you will diligently face up to the challenges in your lives, and that no one can take away the peace in your hearts.” Father Délèze’s prayers are like his efforts to protect historical sites and artifacts: Following God’s call, he acts as shepherd to the people of the indigenous communities in his care, comforting all those in need of solace.
At Father Délèze’s side there are no St. Bernard dogs, but rather nine capricious and independent stray cats.
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama