Alice O’Sullivan from Clonmel was not only the first Irish woman Catholic missionary in China, she was also among the first modern martyrs there.
She joined the Daughters of Charity in Paris and arrived in China in 1863 at the height of national and religious tensions. The Catholic Church was associated with the French who were involved in imposing the ‘Unequal Treaties’ on China, giving Westerners free access to the country. From Shanghai she went to Beijing, Jiangxi (a Vincentian Vicariate) and finally Tianjin were the Sisters ran an infirmary and orphanage. It the middle of a cholera epidemic and extreme poverty the Sister took in sick and abandoned babies, main girls. Many died in their care.
In the tense anti-Western atmosphere, a rumour spread that the Sisters were kidnapping children and extracting their organs to make medicines. There was talk of digging up the children’s graves to find proof. A mob attacked the orphanage on 21 June, 1870 and killed all ten Sisters in the community. In the ensuing riots the Cathedral and four British and American churches were burned. In all 60 people were killed.
Today Tianjin has a fast-grow Catholic diocese but monuments stand as reminders of that tragic incident. In Ireland today there seems to be little awareness of the sacrifices of Sr Alice and her companions as popular media accuse Religious Sisters of misusing the institutes they established to help the weakest in society and talk of digging up children’s graves to prove their suspicions.