On July 17, 1950, darkness beyond that of the evening fell on the parish of Sanjeong Dong, which served as a parish and headquarters of the Columban missionaries in Chollanamdo province, Korea. Earlier in the day, the American consulate had informed Monsignor Patrick Brennan that U.N. forces could not hold the city from the advancing Communists; they advised him that all of the personnel of the mission should leave with the retreating U.S. forces.
Monsignor Brennan and the pastor Fr. Tom Cusack had no delusions of what would befall them as foreign missionaries if captured when the town fell; both had been prisoners of war when the Japanese occupied Korea in World War II. They now sat in a room with their fellow missionaries, the majority of whom were Irish or Irish American, who had pledged themselves to follow the example of the 6th Century Irish missionary St. Columbanus.
After a long silence, the mission’s superior, Monsignor Brennan, described as “a big humorous man and a natural leader,” stated that he was staying, saying, “It goes with the job.” As pastor, Fr. Tom Cusack also said he would stay. In a message to his mother, he wrote: “I would not be able to live with myself if I left and the Catholics were killed.” Cusack’s assistant Fr. John O’Brien would also stay after ordering all the others to evacuate
Monsignor Patrick Brennan had been born in Chicago on March 13, 1901. He had been ordained for the archdiocese of Chicago in 1928 before joining the Columbans in 1936 and being assigned to Korea in 1937. He had been captured by the Japanese and interred as a P.O.W. until repatriated to the U.S.A. in 1942. Upon his return, he immediately volunteered as a U.S. Army chaplain and participated in Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. Fr. Brennan was awarded the Soldier’s Medal for bravery
Fr. Tom Cusack was born in Ballycotton, Liscannor, Co. Clare, on October 23, 1910. He was ordained in 1934 and went to Korea in 1935. He had spent several years as a P.O.W. of the Japanese, before returning to his missionary duties in Korea.
Fr. John O’Brien was born in Donamon, Co Roscommon, on December 1, 1918. Ordained in 1942, he could not join the mission services due to the war. Instead, he volunteered as a British Army chaplain where he saw service in North Africa and Normandy, before finally reaching the Korean Mission in 1949.
On July 24, the North Korean forces captured Mokpo, and the three priests were arrested. An American soldier, who shared the same cell as the Columban’s, gave an account after the war of how the priests shared their blankets, lifted the spirits of the other prisoners, and sang a popular song of the day “Far Away Places.” The priest and other “valuable prisoners” (missionaries and local government officials) were transferred to the headquarters of the North Korean Forces in Daejeon. There they would be ordered to the roof of the building during air raids as human shields. Fellow prisoners later testified that when they heard a prisoner was being interrogated, “the three foreign priests went down on their knees and prayed throughout the night for that prisoner.”
In September 1950, the North Koreans had to abandon Daejeon due to the advancing U.N. forces. They executed some 5,000 the prisoners during the period of September 24-26, including the three Columban missionaries who stayed with their flock to the end.
Pope Pius XI once said of the Columbans “(They are) to be reckoned among those exceptional people whom Divine Providence is wont to raise up in the most difficult periods of human history to restore causes almost lost.” Certainly Frs. Brennan, Cusack, and O’Brien personify that sentiment. This Easter as we deal with our own “difficult period,” let us not focus on the darkness, but on the many points of light is our community and, in our own way, seek to contribute to their radiance.