Today, 28 Jul 2012, is the anniversary of the martyrdom of St Melchior Garcia Sampedro, (a.k.a. St Melchor de Quiros) one of the martyrs of Vietnam. St Melchior served God as a Dominican, a missionary and as a bishop in the 19th century.
St Melchior Garcia Sampedro was born in 1821 at Cortes in Asturias, Spain. Later the family moved to San Pedro Arrojo, where Melchior made his first Holy Communion. He was a talented student who excelled in Latin. In his spiritual life Melchior had a particular devotion to the Passion of Jesus and the Sorrows of Mary. At the University of Oviedo he prepared for the diocesan priesthood by studying philosophy and theology, and did well enough to be employed as a tutor at the College of St Joseph. Towards the end of his studies Melchior felt the further calls to follow Jesus as a religious and as a missionary. So he applied to join the Dominican Order at Ocana, Toledo, Spain.
Following his ordination in 1847, Melchior was sent to Manilla in the Philippines to teach philosphy. Arriving there around October 1848 after a 5 month sea voyage, it wasn’t long before Melchior expressed to his superiors his desire to be more a missionary than a lecturer. Accordingly he was sent to Vietnam (then called Kin Tung) to learn the local language and the culture. Being adept at languages, it didn’t take him long to learn Annamite well enough to be able to preach and hear confessions in that language.
Now Vietnam at that time was a risky place for a missionary to be, due to the waves of persecution that kept coming. In this climate it was necessary that the Bishop always have a coadjutor, so that in the likelihood of the Bishop being martyred the Eastern Vicariate would still have the coadjutor bishop to take his place. Melchior’s talents in administration, ministry and zeal made him an obvious choice as coadjutor, a post he accepted willingly despite the high risk of martyrdom it carried with it. His episcopal ordination took place in 1853.
Life in Vietnam for a missionary priest and bishop was far from easy. To get from Christian community to Christian community they had to travel in disguise, go barefoot or in little boats, teach catechism very late at night and celebrate Mass well before dawn. Melchior wrote in one of his letters, ‘Drenched from head to foot, covered with mud; with neither coat or clothes to change into, we deemed ourselves happy … and I forget the pains of my feet to praise the Lord… Rarely do we have greater joy than during the strongest tribulations.’ An aspect of his ministry which distressed him beyond measure was having to witness the martyrdom of priests and laity, while himself remaining concealed. Persecution, civil war and extreme hunger were daily companions for Vietnamese Christians in those days.
When the bishop was martyred in 1857, Melchior took his place and as was necessary appointed a coadjutor bishop. Even though the threat of martyrdom was ever present, it was something that Melchior wrote about and was always ready to welcome. He wrote to his brother saying that if the next letter found him alive, that would be good, but if Our Lady of Alba obtained the grace for him to shed his impure blood for the sake of the faith, Heaven would be better. In a letter to his parents he said, ‘ (May the many martyrs whose martyrdoms I have witnessed) help me with their prayers to wash my sins with my blood and to obtain the palm of martyrdom.’
As a bishop, and as a very effective bishop in obtaining conversions, Melchior was a wanted man. On 8 July 1858 with two companions he was arrested and imprisoned in horrible conditions ; fed little and weighed down with heavy chains on his neck and feet. The emperor wanted to make a public example of Melchior’s death, so he had him brought in chains to the capital of the province. For having illegally come into the country to preach about Jesus Christ, Melchior was to undergo the Vietnamese equivalent of being hanged, drawn and quartered. Firstly his body was stretched and his arms and legs dislocated by being tied to stakes. Then his arms and legs were cut off with a dull ax, taking many hits before being severed through. Finally the contents of his stomach were opened with a weapon and his head decapitated on 28 July 1858. As a final indignity his severed head was smashed until unrecognisable and then thrown into the sea.
He was only 37 years old, and his parents were still alive to hear the news of his martyrdom. Of the relics of his body that were reclaimed by the faithful, some are in Vietnam and the rest were returned to the cathedral of Oviedo, Spain some 30 years after his valiant death. In 1951 Pope Pius II declared him blessed and in 1988 Blessed Pope John Paul the Great canonised him together with 116 other martyrs of Vietnam. Additionally the Pope named him a patron of Vietnam.
St Melchior Garcia Sampedro, pray for us.