Visiting the home of the beatified 7 Catholic Martyrs at the Church of Our Lady of The Martyrs of Thailand Shrine in Songkhon
Alongside the Mekong River sits one of the most majestic European buildings in northeastern Thailand – home to Thailand’s seven Catholic martyrs, Church of Our Lady of The Martyrs of Thailand Shrine is also the largest Catholic church in Thailand.
During the darkness of World War II, an anti-French sentiment exploded across Thailand and it resulted in police officers murdering seven Catholics who were living in the French Catholic mission in the village of Songkhon.
Before the deaths of the seven Catholics at the mission, it’s worth understanding the 80-year build up of hatred for the French. It began when the Thais surrendered land to France in Cambodia in 1860.
In the late 1800s, French Catholic missionaries arrived in northern Thailand from Vietnam where they very quickly focused their attention on successfully freeing enslaved workers. Thailand was known as Siam at the time.
The fall of France to Germany in mid-1940 resulted in the Thai government launching its own attack on a weakened France. The military offensive, dubbed the Franco-Thai War, reclaimed Laos where large parts had joined the French colony between 1893 and 1906.
After the Laos victory and under the climate of World War II, a nationalistic sentiment swept across Thailand, and the country focused their attention on the French and the French Catholic missionaries that had been established in Thailand.
The French had brought Catholicism to Thailand and because of this there was a large distrust of Catholics in the northeastern region of Isaan.
An angry mob formed, called the Thai Red Blood Group, and their goal was to destroy Catholic churches and attack Catholicism.
The anti-French sentiment resulted in Thai authorities ordering churches to be closed in Sakon Nahkon and Nakhon Phanom.
As rumours spread that Catholics were spying for France, all Catholic missionaries were given notice on November 9th 1940 that they had 48 hours to evacuate Thailand.
A large plaque located at the Catholic church in Songkhon, titled ‘The Seven Blessed Martyrs of Songkhon’ explains the deadly incidents that occurred in December 1940:
“In 1940, Thai government was at war with their Indo-China neighbours. To achieve unity on the home front, the government expelled foreign missionaries and sought to pressure its Catholics into apostasy. The persecution was really strong especially at Songkhon, a Catholic village.”
“Living in Songkhon were two Sisters of the Congregation of Lovers of the Cross. They were Sister Agnes and Sister Lucia, together with an excellent catechist Philip Siphong. Since their pastor had been ousted on November 29, 1940, these three people felt responsible for the Catholic community.”
“Philip Siphong, a married man with five children, gave moral and spiritual support by speaking words of encouragement and strengthening their faith. The policeman decided to frighten the other parishioners into submission by executing him. On December 16, 1940, they took him outside the village and shot him dead. So Philip Siphong died for his faith and became the first of the Seven Blessed Martyrs. His death strengthened rather than weakened the faith of the parishioners.”
“On December 23, 1940, the policeman ordered the Catholics to assemble in front of the church. He told them that he had been commanded to suppress Christianity: therefore, he gave them a choice – between apostasy or death. At that moment, Cecilia Butsi, 16 years old, spoke out, “Die only one time for the faith, I am not afraid.” Actually, she was ready to accept death. The policeman did not seem to hear her.”
“On Christmas at night, Sister Agnes wrote a letter in her own name and the name of all who resided in the convent, declaring that they would die rather than abandon their faith. In the note, she prayed, “We ask to be your witness, O Lord, our God.” Sister Agnes gave the letter to Cecilia Butsi to deliver to the policemen.”
“On December 26, these policemen called at the convent and addressed the sisters and lay folk present. All reiterated their resolution not to apostatize.”
“They therefore had all of them escorted to the cemetery. All of them walked in line singing hymns and praying. As they arrived in the cemetery they knelt down beside a fallen tree trunk and prayed fervently, and then Sister Agnes addressed the police saying, “We are ready! Please do your duty.” Immediately, the police opened fire and left the cemetery.”
“As soon as the Church was granted freedom, the local Ordinary began setting up the canonical investigations on the case of these Seven Brave Servants of God. Sunday October 22th 1989, the Feast of the Propagation of the Faith was fixed by the Most Holy Father for the Solemn and Official Proclamation of the Beatification to be organized inside the Saint Peter’s Basilica. Deeply touched by their fidelity, the Most Holy Father quoted Sister Agnes’ letter to the policemen:
“We rejoice in giving back to God the life He has given us…We beseech you to open to us the door of heaven…you are acting according to the orders of men, but we act according to the commandments of God.”
“The feast of the Seven Blessed Martyrs of Songkhon is December 16, which is the anniversary of Philip Siphong’s death. And it is our Thai Catechist Day as well.”
“The names of the Seven Blessed Martyrs of Songkhon are:
- Blessed Philip Siphong, Catechist, 33 years old.
- Blesses Sister Agnes Phila, 31 years old.
- Blessed Sister Lucia Khambang, 23 years old.
- Blessed Agatha Phutta, 59 years old.
- Blessed Cecilia Butsi, 16 years old.
- Blessed Bibiana Khamphai, 15 years old.
- Blessed Maria Phorn, 14 years old.” - Source: Plaque erected by the Archdiocese of Tha Nong Seng, Thailand.
This tragic incident occurred at a time when Thailand was expelling foreign missionaries because the local population was required to convert to Buddhism. But the local Christians refused. The seven Catholics were shot dead by Thai officials in December 1940.
This is the full extract of the letter that was sent to the police on Christmas night in 1940, written by Sister Agnes Phila:
“To the Chief Police in Songkhon,
Yesterday evening you received your order to wipe out, definitely, the Name of God, the Only Lord of our lives and minds. We adore Him only, Sir. A few days earlier, you had mentioned to us that you would not wipe out the Name of God and we were rather pleased with that in such a way that we put away our religious habits which showed that we were His handmaids. But it not so today. We do profess that the religion of Christ is the only true religion. Therefore, we would like to give our answer to your question, asked yesterday evening which we did not have a chance to respond because we were unprepared for it. Now we would like to give you our answer. We are asking you to carry out your order with us. Please do not delay any longer. Please carry out your order. Please open the door of heaven to us so that we can confirm that outside the Religion of Christ no none can go to heaven. Please do it. We are well prepared. When we will be gone we will remember you. Please take pity on our souls. We will be thankful to you and will be grateful to you for it. And on the last day we will see each other face to face. Do wait and see, please. We keep your commands, oh God, we wish to be witnesses to You, dear God. We are: Agnes, Lucia, Phuttha, Budsi, Buakhai, Suwan. We would like to bring little Phuma along with us because we love her so much. We have already made up our minds, dear Sir”, – Sister Agnes Phila.
They have since been recognized by Pope John Paul II as martyrs, and entered Heaven at a Beatification ceremony in 1989. They were seven of the 1,340 martyrs who were beatified by Pope John Paul II.
Located across the road from the church is the cemetery of the seven martyrs, and a plaque details the history of the martyrs’ cemetery:
“Here is the resting place of the brave heroes of Songhon. They gave their lives in order to keep their faith. They were gunned down at this cemetery on the 26th of December 1940.”
“Their names are as follows:
- Sister Agnes Phila (Suphi) Thipsuk age:31
- 2. Sister Lucia Khambang (Sikhamphong) age: 23
- 3. Ms. Agatha Phuttha Vongvai age: 59
- 4. Ms. Caecilia (sic) Budsi Vongvai age: 59
- 5. Ms. Bibiana Khamphai Vongvai age: 15
- 6. Ms. Maria Phorn Vongvai age: 14
“The remains of the Catechist Philip Siphong, age 33, who was murdered earlier, December 16th, 1940, by the brook of Tumnok, near the Village of Phaluka, not far from Songkhon, were brought here to be re-buried together with the other 6 Martyrs.”
“December 26th 1982, the remains of the 7 Martys were transferred to their effigies that were installed in the Church of Our Lady Redeeming the Slaves, Songkhon which was renamed: the Church of Our Lady of the Martyrs on December 16th, 1995.”
“The plot of land where the Martyrs were gunned down was refurbished in 2002, to make it more presentable by putting the granite slabs on the tombs but the locations of the tombs were left untouched.”
The shrine was constructed in honour of the seven Christian martyrs in Mukdahan who sacrificed their lives to protect their religion.
During the leadership period of Archbishop Lawrence Khai Saen-Phon-On the seven martyrs were beatified and their gravesites were upgraded.
Visiting the Church of Our Lady of The Martyrs of Thailand Shrine
When you visit the Church of Our Lady of The Martyrs of Thailand Shrine you’ll discover:
The Church of Our Lady of The Martyrs of Thailand Shrine is known locally as Wat Ban Song Khon. Mass is held every Sunday at 7am. You’ll find the church located at this location in Ban Song Khon in Pong Kham sub-district, alongside the Mekong River.
In an excellent writing about the history of Catholicism in Thailand’s northern region of Isaan, Chansamone Saiyasak concludes that Catholicism is still perceived as a political group.