St. Joseph Freinademetz

In the spring morning of April 15, 1852, a baby boy was born to a farm couple in Oies, a village in the south Tyrolean Alps. On the same day he was baptized and named Joseph. He was the fourth child of his parents, and had twelve brothers and sisters, four of whom died soon after birth.

The Freinademetz family, as most of the people of that region, were good and dedicated Catholics. So Joseph grew up among hardworking farmers, and in close contact with the splendid surroundings of the Dolomite Alps. It was from those farmers, especially from his parents, that Joseph learned love and it was that gorgeous, severe natural world around him that formed him to be a tough, but at the same time very sensitive person.

At the age of six he started classes in the village school. Most of the days from November till April he traveled between the Freinademetz house built on a slope and the school down in the village. For the rest of the year Joseph had to help with the farm work. Then suddenly, amidst various events that came across his life, the ten-year old boy left his beloved peaceful Oies and set out on a long journey for the priesthood, which began with a day walk to the nearest secondary school in Brixen. It was exactly at that time that a strong missionary spirit was felt in Brixen, mostly due to visits of some missionaries from Africa.

But it took years before that missionary zeal was ripe in Joseph. In the summer of 1875, Joseph was ordained to the priesthood and began to serve in his beloved South Tyrol, both as a pastor and village schoolmaster. In the midst of his pastoral engagements, one day he suddenly found in the diocesan bulletin an article about the newly opened mission house in Steyl, Holland. The thought about the missions did not leave that young diocesan priest for quite some time, and an inner struggle ultimately brought him to the Society of the Divine Word. A year later, in 1879, Father Freinademetz already reached China in the company of another SVD, Father John Anzer. He left behind the family and Alps he loved so much, never returning there, and dedicated the rest of his life to the Chinese people.

After mastering the language, he eagerly engaged in missionary activity in South Shantung. Soon his missionary zeal was noticed, and he easily could have been appointed a bishop. But he refused, and remained a simple, humble priest till the end of his days. In the beginning he had some difficulties to adjust to his new "home", and had rather low esteem of the Chinese people. Yet in the course of time, it gradually changed even to the point that he would not accept any offensive expression against the Chinese in his presence. It was their stand for moral values, especially the respect for parents, as well as their hard work and ability for moderation that won his deep respect and appreciation.

In 1886 he already wrote to his parents: "I love China and the Chinese people, and gladly would die for them. Now that speaking their language is no longer a problem for me and since I have come to know the people and their way of life, China has become my homeland" Yet deep in his heart Tyrol was still present and the mountains of Shantung he just called "hills".

Politically speaking, the second half of the nineteenth century was a very difficult period for the Chinese empire. Injustice and evils done to the Chinese people by the foreign troops and diplomats caused a growing resentment toward foreigners, including missionaries and even Chinese Christians (seen as collaborators with the foreign powers). Some of those Christians became martyrs. The situation was already very tense when the spark that caused the blow came, two German SVD missionaries, Nies and Henle, were killed by the secret "Big Knife Society".

The reaction of German troops was almost immediate, and China was forced to pay a great price for that. After the Boxer Rebellion had been crushed, even more Chinese soil was seized by the foreign powers. Joseph never agreed with the unjust treatment China had to bear and, perhaps due to his firm conviction on this issue, he sometimes was called by other missionaries: "That foolish Freinademetz."

The primary conviction of Father Joseph was: "Love is the only foreign language that everyone understands." Perhaps that was why his love for the Chinese people never ceased, even when he suffered misunderstanding or mistreatment. In order to be with the Chinese themselves, he escaped the deportation of the foreign missionaries ordered by the government. In one of his letters he wrote: "I want to be a Chinese in heaven". Since he did not pay proper attention to his health, he was finally struck down by tuberculosis and died on January 28, 1908. He was buried in Takia on Chinese soil...

On October 19, 1975, he was beatified by Pope Paul VI and canonized by Pope John Paul II on October 5, 2003. Today he is known as St. Joseph of Shantung . Is he a Chinese or a Tyrolease now? Or perhaps both?