Father James Zhou Wen-mo (1752-1801)
Father James Zhou Wen-mo was born in 1752 in Su-Tcheou, Jiang-nan Province, China. His parents died when he was a young boy. He was brought up by his aunt. He believed himself, that the Catholic faith was the truth and embraced it. He entered the diocesan seminary in Beijing, where he was ordained a priest with the first graduates of the seminary.
At that time, Bishop A. Gouvea of Beijing was thinking that he should send a missionary to Korea. Father James Zhou, a man of profound faith and bearing resemblance to the Korean people was the first Catholic missionary to be sent by the Bishop to Korea. He vested in him the necessary faculties to carry out his ministry.
Father James Zhou left Beijing in February 1794. He met with two secret envoys from the Catholic Church in Korea, Saba Ji Hwang and John Pak, at an appointed place. But they had to wait until the Amnok River would freeze before they could cross it. Meantime, Father James Zhou visited the Catholics in the Liao-dong district. He met again with the secret envoys on the appointed date, at the border village. He entered Korea disguised as a Korean on December 24, 1794 (December 3, by the Lunar calendar).
Father James Zhou arrived in Seoul and stayed in the house of Matthias Choe In-gil, located in Gyedong (now, Gye-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul). There he studied the Korean language. He celebrated the first Mass with the Korean Catholics on Easter Sunday in 1795. But after a while his entrance to Korea became known, so he had to hide in the house of Columba Kang Wan-suk. However, his secret envoys, Paul Yun Yu-il, Matthias Choe, the owner of the house, and Saba Ji were arrested and severely punished. All of them were martyred.
Father James Zhou performed the holy offices very secretly, but very fervently. He went around administering the Sacraments and organized the Myeongdohoe, a gathering of the laity where doctrine and scripture were studied. He also carried out other activities. He even wrote a catechism.
Within six years of missionary dedication the number of Catholics in Korea grew from four thousand to ten thousand. However, everything changed with the Shinyu Persecution of 1801. When the Shinyu Persecution broke out, Catholics were arrested one after another. The persecutors interrogated and tortured Catholics to make them confess the whereabouts of the priest. Father James Zhou, thinking that Korean Catholics were being killed because of him, resolved to return to his country. However, he changed his mind. Instead he resolved to surrender himself saying, “I have to share the destiny of my flock and to mitigate their persecution and martyrdom."
On March 11, he appeared before the persecutors. His interrogation began immediately. In spite of harsh punishment, he kept a peaceful composure and answered with wisdom and prudence.
"The only reason I came to Korea, accompanied by Saba Ji, despite dangers I may face at the border, was because I love the Korean people. The teaching of Jesus is not evil. Doing harm to people or nation is prohibited by the Ten Commandments, therefore, I cannot report about Church affairs."
The persecutors could not get him to confess anything they wanted to hear. So they sentenced him to death according to the military law and hung his head high on the camp gate. Father James Zhou`s execution took place at Saenamteo, near the Han River. On May 31, 1801 (April 19, by the Lunar calendar), he was beheaded and died a martyr. Father James Zhou was 49 years old. It is said that the following extraordinary sign appeared at the moment of his decapitation:
"The clear sky suddenly darkened. A violent gale blew the rocks around. The visibility was only one inch due to a heavy rain-shower. As soon as the execution was over the clouds dispersed. A bright rainbow appeared high in the sky. Then it disappeared to the north-east sky."