Bishop Francis Xavier Ford, M.M.

Encouraged direct evangelization by religious women

bishop francis x ford 1951Francis Xavier Ford was born in Brooklyn on January 11, 1892, the son of Austin and Elizabeth Rellihan Ford.  Ford attended St. Francis Preparatory School in Brooklyn and Cathedral College in Manhattan.  In 1912 he was the first student to apply to the seminary of the recently established Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America (Maryknoll).  Ordained in 1918 he was among the first four priests assigned to Yeungkong, China.  The others were Thomas Frederick Price, who died suddenly in 1919, and James Edward Walsh and Bernard F. Meyer, who were as young as Ford.

In 1925 he was appointed superior of a newly created mission territory at Jiaying (Kaying) or Meixian (Meihsien) in northeastern Guangdon (Kwangtung) Province in south China.  The territory was about the size of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont combined.  Ten years later he was appointed bishop of this area.  His Episcopal motto was the word condolere, meaning "to feel with, to share with."

Central to his policy was person-to-person evangelization.  Bishop Ford would visit town and villages, inviting people to become Christians.  As he explained, "Hours spent in the chapel are not the only means of entertaining the Beloved Guest of the soul.  We can often please Him better when we are out in the highways and byways of China, offering to needy souls the hospitality of our Christian love."  Bishop Ford worked hard at establishing an indigenous Chinese Church.  His goal was a self-governing local church, unburdened by Western institutions, and financially self-reliant.  His plans envisioned not only well-trained local clergy and sisterhoods, but also well-educated laity able to give leadership and assume responsibility for building modern China.

Bishop Ford was one of the first Roman Catholic bishops to emphasize participation of women religious in the task of direct evangelization.  A small experiment begun with a few Maryknoll Sisters in 1934 became an important contribution to enhancing the role of women in mission and in the church.  Forsaking the regularity of mission centers, the Sisters traveled two by two for weeks or more visiting villages, often renting a room in which to stay, and accepting the invitations of Chinese women into their homes.  The Maryknoll sisters adopted this method and used it as the model for training Chinese women attracted to religious life.  This missionary method drew the official commendation of the papal office for missionary affairs in 1939.

Bishop Ford labored in China for 34 years, including during Japanese occupation and World War II.  After the war Ford hoped that China could be free of the violence from political factions and enjoy a new era of prosperity.  The postwar hopes were dashed as civil war broke out between Nationalist and Communist forces, ending with the Communist forces gaining the upper hand.  Persecution of the church began soon after and churches began closing in 1950.  Bishop Ford, as well as other missionaries, were seen as agents of American Imperialism .  In December 1950 the first Maryknoll priests and sisters were arrested and deported.  On December 23, the Chinese military closed the Kaying cathedral and announced there would be no Christmas services.  Ford was placed under house arrest.  Four months later he was pronounced guilty of alleged spying activities and incarcerated in the Canton provincial prison, where he died of exhaustion and illness on February 21, 1952.  Bishop Ford lived his motto of "feeling with, sharing with" the Chinese people, to the ultimate sacrifice of his life.