Francis X. Ford: Servant of God

Church studies sainthood cause for Maryknoll’s
first seminarian and pioneer missioner to China

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[googlefont font=“Cormorant Infant” fontsize=”20″]By Ed Wilkinson[/googlefont]

The name of Maryknoll Bishop Francis X. Ford is revered in his home Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y. Ever since his death in a communist Chinese prison camp in 1952, the story of his courageous missionary efforts and tragic death has been told to each new generation.

Bishop Ford grew up in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn and was baptized in Sacred Heart Church. He attended school and his family worshipped at St. Joseph’s Church in the Prospect Heights neighborhood.

A formal portrait of Francis X. Ford was taken for his appointment as Prefect Apostolic of Kaying, 1929. (Maryknoll Mission Archives)

A formal portrait of Francis X. Ford was taken for his appointment as Prefect Apostolic of Kaying, 1929. (Maryknoll Mission Archives)

The magnificent church, where he served as an altar boy, was recently renovated and now serves as the co-cathedral of the diocese. High above the rear window, a contemporary piece of art features modern saints and saints-to-be, including Bishop Ford.

Francis Ford, one of eight children, was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps as a crusading journalist, but instead he was attracted to the priesthood and eventually to the missions. He became the first seminarian for the newly established Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, later to become known as the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. In 1918, he was among the first group of Maryknoll missionaries to leave for China.

Maryknoll Bishop Francis X. Ford with students and teachers of Kaying Newman Hall, a hostel for Catholic high school students in Kaying (Meixian), China, circa 1940. (Maryknoll Mission Archives)

Bishop Ford with students and teachers of Kaying Newman Hall, a hostel for Catholic high school students in Kaying (Meixian), China, circa 1940. (Maryknoll Mission Archives)

Father John Vesey, who served with Maryknoll for 10 years in China, is now pastor to many Chinese immigrants at St. Michael’s parish in Flushing, Queens. A missionary at heart, Father Vesey has been a devotee of Bishop Ford for years.

“As a boy growing up in Brooklyn, I knew who Bishop Ford was,” said Father Vesey, who notes that less than 10 years after Bishop Ford’s death, a diocesan high school, now closed, was named in his honor in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. “Everybody knew his story. We were aware that he died as a martyr in China. And then the high school was named in his honor and even more people learned about him and his life of heroic virtue.”

Father Raymond Finch, the Brooklyn-born superior general of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, attended Bishop Ford High School and credits the story of the prelate’s missionary life with inspiring his own vocation.

Francis X. Ford, Maryknoll’s first seminarian, pictured at his priestly ordination in 1917. He was one of four Maryknoll priests sent to mission in China in 1918. (Maryknoll Mission Archives)

Francis X. Ford, Maryknoll’s first seminarian, pictured at his priestly ordination in 1917. He was one of four Maryknoll priests sent to mission in China in 1918. (Maryknoll Mission Archives)

Father Finch is also confident that Bishop Ford will one day become a saint. “I think it will happen in the not too distant future,” he said.

“Of course, he should be a saint. I have no question about it,” added Maryknoll Sister Betty Ann Maheu, who served in China. “He had all the qualities that would be expected from one who is extensive in virtue. I would canonize him right away. He died a martyr for what he believed.”

Bishop Ford’s approach to missionary work was revolutionary. He believed in becoming immersed in the culture of the people he served. He was passionate about the need for native vocations and immediately established a seminary for the Diocese of Kaying when he was named bishop there in 1935. He was the first to call for women religious to be sent to assist in the evangelization of families. He also wrote one of the only books about the Holy Spirit by a bishop in the 20th century. It is titled Come Holy Spirit: Thoughts on Renewing the Earth as the Kingdom of God.

From left, Father Bernard Meyer, Bishop James E. Walsh and Fathers James A. Walsh and Francis X. Ford, who later became bishops, at Maryknoll, circa 1929. (Maryknoll Mission Archives)

From left, Father Bernard Meyer, Bishop James E. Walsh and Fathers James A. Walsh and Francis X. Ford, who later became bishops, at Maryknoll, circa 1929. (Maryknoll Mission Archives)

During China’s communist revolution in the 1940s, the presence of foreigners there was discouraged. Bishop Ford’s work, as well as the presence of the Church, was looked upon with suspicion. Eventually, he was arrested and convicted on trumped-up charges of espionage. In 1952, he died as a martyr in a communist Chinese prison camp.

Bishop Ford has been named a Servant of God, which means that he has been officially designated by the Church to be studied for possible canonization as a saint.

The work of promoting the cause of Bishop Ford has been a joint venture between the diocese and the Maryknoll Society. The archives at Maryknoll in Ossining, N.Y., have been a treasure trove of information about the beloved missionary prelate and the repository of many of his personal belongings. The only known photo of Bishop Ford in the prison camp at Canton was discovered in a copy of a Chinese newspaper that had been preserved in the archives.

Father Vesey heads the diocesan committee that is promoting the sainthood cause. The committee is in the discovery stage of the investigation into the life of Bishop Ford and his qualifications for sainthood. Three priests of the Brooklyn Diocese have been tasked with reading all the writings of Bishop Ford to determine if there is any reason why he should not be considered a saint. Brooklyn Auxiliary Bishop Raymond F. Chappetto is coordinating the preparation of the documents that must be submitted to the Vatican.

The public phase in the process to make Bishop Ford a saint began in December 2017 with a Mass to mark the 100th anniversary of the priestly ordination of Bishop Ford. More than 600 people, including family members and local Chinese Catholics, gathered for the occasion at St. Joseph’s Co-Cathedral. It was in this same St. Joseph’s Church that the newly ordained Father Francis Ford celebrated his first Mass in 1917.

Concurrent with these efforts, Monsignor Kevin Noone, pastor of Our Lady of Angels parish in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, has been chairing the work of the Bishop Ford Guild that seeks to make the cause better known among the general public and to raise funds to support the work of the canonization process.

“The purpose of the guild is to raise awareness of who Francis Ford was,” said Monsignor Noone. “It’s to let people know of the heroism of his life and to create a sense of devotion to him.”

For more information about the Bishop Ford Guild, contact: Bishop Francis Xavier Ford Guild, c/o Office of the Vicar General, 310 Prospect Park West, Brooklyn, NY 11215 or go online to: https://tinyurl.com/Bishop-Ford-Guild-Membership
Featured Image: xxx

Featured Image: Father Francis X. Ford chats with Anthony Malone, whose brother was Maryknoll Father Thomas Malone, in 1929. Ford was later named bishop.

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About the author

Ed Wilkinson

Ed Wilkinson is editor emeritus of The Tablet, Brooklyn’s diocesan newspaper.