For a long time, friends and colleagues of mine have urged me to write a book about China. “You lived in China for nearly three decades,” they say. “Surely you have something to say.”
My standard reply has been that there are so many books written about China each year; I don’t want to write one until and unless I have something new to say — some angle or perspective or story to tell that hasn’t been told.
In March 2012, I travelled with my friend Noël Piper to Sichuan Province. We dubbed our trip “The Esther Expedition” because we were researching the life and work of Esther Nelson, a woman from our church who had served as a missionary in that region from the 1920s to the 1950s. It was during that trip that I stumbled onto an untold story.
It was the story of an 126-year-old American bell hanging in the steeple of a church in a remote city of Sichuan. If you were reading my blog then, perhaps you remember my post about that discovery.
In the months between that discovery and moving back to Minnesota, I travelled around China looking for more bells. I found bells from Germany, France, and Russia hanging in Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox churches.
When Joann discovered a 126-year-old bell hanging in a church in southwest China she knew that there was a story to tell. Who had decided to ship it? How had it been transported? How had it survived the political turmoil of the 1950s and 1960s? She also knew that if there was one bell, there must be others. Over the course of eight months she travelled around China looking for old church bells, finding ones from France, Germany, Russia, and the United States. This book is a collection of stories about those bells. But more importantly, they are stories of God’s faithfulness to his church in China.
It is now available on Amazon in both print and kindle editions.
Additional photos and information can be seen at my public Facebook page. Click on over and give it a “like.”
Besides the fact that the romanization is obviously not Pinyin, and that some of the pronunciations seem to be based on Sichuan dialect, a glance at the table of contents reveals just how much things have changed:
As those of you who have been following this blog for awhile know, one of the unexpected discoveries of my trip across Sichuan with Noel Piper in March, was the existence of two airplanes, the St. Paul and the St. Peter, which were used by the Lutheran World Federation to transport missionaries around China in the 1940’s. I wrote about these planes in a post titled “The Flying Lutherans.”
While I was in Minnesota this summer, I had the chance to meet with a woman who had been a missionary in China in the late1940’s and who had flown on the St. Paul. As you can imagine, I wanted to get her story. This is how she told it to me:
Our ship, the “Marine Lynx” deposited us all in Shanghai. My husband and I didn’t know a soul in that dark, complicated, crowded and unknown Chinese city. Our supervisor up in Qingdao had sent word by telegram that he had not been able to finalize arrangements for our arrival, that we were on our own, but “in God’s hands,” of course. Not having access to the instant communication that we have today, you can imagine what a helpless feeling it was to receive such news.
Some of our fellow passengers from the ship made arrangements for us to stay with their co-workers in Shanghai while we awaited our luggage to be off-loaded from the ship and cleared through customs. Every day for a week my husband, along with the other passengers, would go down to the harbor to try to locate our luggage in the area known as the “go-down.”
There are two things I remember about our time in Shanghai. One was the bitter cold. My toes began to swell and hurt and I even developed ‘chilblains,’ something I had never experienced before.
The other thing I remember was the hospitality of the people who took us in. Even though we were in a foreign country, we were together with brothers and sisters. In the evenings we had lively times of singing, and they fed us better than we could have ever dreamed.
Once we secured our luggage from the ‘go-down,’ the next question was how to get to Qingdao, our planned destination? My husband learned that the Lutherans owned 2 small planes named the St. Paul and the St. Peter, which transported people around the country.
One of the planes (the St. Peter?) had actually crashed the week before while trying to land in Qingdao, a city on the coast surrounded by mountains. Everyone on board perished. Unbeknownst to us, my parents and friends in Minnesota had heard about this crash and assumed that we had been on board. Some friends even said, “well, it is too late to pray for them; now we need to pray for their parents.”
But we were safe.
We finally made it onto the St. Paul, along with 2 other families and flew north together marveling at the wonderful friendships and shared experiences that God had blessed us with.
While doing research in preparation for the Esther Expedition that I did with Noel in March, I read a book called “Mission Impossible,” by Ralph Covell. It is a history of the work of a particular Baptist group in Sichuan in the late 1940’s.
Among the more interesting stories he tells in the book, one in particular caught my interest, that of trying to fly from Chongqing to Xichang. The flights on CNAC (China National Aviation Corporation — one of 2 airlines in China at the time) kept getting cancelled. Here’s what he writes:
“In the midst of all this frustration, the chance came for me to give up on the uncertain CNAC flights and go to Xichang by the chartered Lutheran plane, the St. Paul. This Lutheran-sponsored DC-3 was the work horse of the missionary enterprise. Licensed in 1947 to operate in China, it had flown missionaries of every denomination to every province in China. In addition to its human cargo, it had carried freight, UNRRA relief supplies, hospital equipment, pumps, and jeeps. As the crisis worsened in China, the United States Consulate asked the Lutherans to use the St. Paul to evacuate missionaries from north China. The price tag of $200 for each flying hour was not prohibitive in view of its carrying capacity of of 5,000 pounds. Particularly was this true of the formidable terrain where our group wished to go.
The James Broomhall family had also been waiting in Chungking [Chongqing] to go into Xichang. When the St. Paul showed up for them rather unexpectedly one noon, Jim and Janet very graciously invited me to go along with them.”
Wait! The Lutherans were flying an airplane around China in the 1940’s? And that airplane was named St. Paul?
Earlier this week, while I was in Wuhan doing a bit more Esther Nelson research, I came across a book titled “The History of the Chinese Lutheran Church,” by Harold Hsiao, which had this to say about the airplane:
“Something unique [that] happened during this period (late 1940’s) — and its importance should not be ignored but properly recognized –was the purchase of the St.Paul. In June 1946, [at the urging of] Dr. Nelson, the LWC (Lutheran World Federation) bought two small, old C-47 airplanes at a US Air Force war surplus liquidation sale. They were the St. Paul and the St. Peter, the latter being used for spare parts only. At the time, travelling in China was almost impossible as most of the roads had been destroyed during the eight-year Sino-Japanese War. Thus, the St. Paul became the ‘thriftiest, the fastest, and the safest’ means of travel within the country, bringing missionaries to and from their fields, transporting mission materials, and assisting the Chinese churches’ reconstruction in many ways.
The St. Paul begain flying on 4 July 1946, and in its first year alone made over 200 flights, serving not only the Lutheran churches in China but also the 24 Protestant denomenations and the Roman Catholic Church. The St. Paul transported fify tons of Bibles and one thousand tons of medical supplies to many parts of the country…
The St. Paul was’retired’ in 1950, when private airplanes were no longer allowed to fly in mainland China after the political change. ” (p. 154, 155)
So, the Lutherans had not one airplane, but TWO, and they bought them at an Air Force surplus liquidation sale! You can’t make this stuff up!
The plane eventually became part of China Air Transport, a CIA-run airline, which was the precurser to Air America. One aviator wrote about his experience with the St. Paul:
“During our China Mainland days we often saw an olive drab C-47, which was brightened with the flaming cross logo of the Lutheran World Mission. Its name was Saint Paul. The Saint Paul’s original pilot, Dick Rossi, claimed he answered control towers, “Amen, Brother”, instead of “Roger”.”
One site says that it crashed in the Gulf of Siam, near Hua Hin while in a training mission in 1954. Another site indicates that the plane was eventually sold to South Vietnam and was shot down in 1961.
It’s late Monday night and I find myself back in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, looking for evidence of Esther Nelson.
When Noel and I were here in March, we learned that an institution in town has an extensive archive of pre-1949 mission agency documents. A friend of a friend of a friend has secured permission for me to spend the day poking around the archives, which I plan to do tomorrow.
I will be looking for information on Esther, a bell, and an airplane. (You’ll have to stay tuned to hear more about that.)
Here’s another photo from our trip in March — of the old city of Huili, Sichuan. Take away the motorcycles, the emergency shelter sign and the security camera keeping watch over the citizenry, and Esther probably would recognize the intersection.
On Sunday morning we attended a service at the church in Huili. The choir (all women), decked out in suits and ties, led the congregation in the singing of traditional songs for an hour and a half before the service began. Then the service itself lasted another 2 and a half hours!
We were blessed.
After the service, we had a quick lunch at the Fuyin Xiaochi (Gospel Cafe), located in the building in front of the church, before setting off back to Xichang.
We also discovered that the house where Esther used to live was located right where the platform of the new church is now.
Xichang is the capital of the Da Liang Shan (Big Cool Mountain) Yi Minority Autonomous Prefecture. The Yi are one of China’s 55 ethnic minority groups, with communities primarily located in Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces.
On Friday afternoon Noel and I walked around the old city of Xichang, and ended up in a “park” along the “river”. It was a gloriously warm afternoon so everyone was out. We also quickly discovered that it was a “hang-out” place for quite a few people dressed in their traditional garb.
This old woman was shocked to see Noel in her short-sleeved shirt (which meant bare arms!), and spent the next few minutes following us and grabbing Noel’s arms and chattering.
I couldn’t understand what she was saying, but I’m quite sure that she was giving Noel a good scolding.