Bl. Maurice Tornay

(1910-1949)

Pope John Paul II beatified this Franco-Swiss martyr on May 16, 1993. I was particularly moved to discover that he was born the same year as myself!

A native of Valais, Switzerland, and the child of solid Catholic parents, Maurice Tornay early showed a disposition to piety and prayer. After secondary school, he joined the Canons Regular of Grand St. Bernard. This is the order best known for its ancient Alpine monastery on the Swiss-Italian border, whose members are alert to rescue of snowbound transalpine travelers. It is they, of course, who breed as their “assistants” the famous St. Bernard dogs.

These canons-regular also engage in wider missionary work. In 1936 Maurice asked to be assigned to their Chinese missions. It was at Weixi, Yunnan, China, that he finished his theological studies and received training in the local languages.

Ordained a priest in 1938, Father Maurice was assigned to educate the boys of the minor seminary at Houa-Lo-Pa. To do this he had to become, as he wrote home, both a mother and father to the students, teaching them how to dress, how to kneel down, and how to pray. Back in Switzerland he had suffered from stomach ulcers and followed a special diet. Once in the mission field he skipped the diet and ate the same food as his pupils.

In the spring of 1945, Father Tornay, at his own request, was named pastor of Yerkalo. The Yerkalo parish was the only one in all mountainous Tibet. Tibet, at that date, was a self-ruling country. Strongly Buddhist, it was dominated both in religion and in politics by local lamas (Buddhist monks); and these were naturally not fond of Christian missionaries. Fr. Maurice nonetheless braved the dangers involved. He sought in every way to become a Tibetan among Tibetans, showing great zeal for his flock.

He had not been at Yerkalo many months when the local lamas struck out against him. They broke into his residence, confiscated the church and rectory, and forced him into exile.

Fr. Tornay took up temporary residence in Pame, China. Many of his parishioners came through Pame on business, so he was able to keep informed on the situation “back home”. Through them he learned, to his grief, of the persecution of his little flock. The lamas not only prevented them from assembling for prayer but tried to force them to apostatize from the Christian faith.

As a shepherd deeply grieved by the trials of his sheep, Father Maurice did his best to hearten and protect them. By messages sent back to them through travelers, he encouraged his Catholic Tibetans to stand firm in Christianity. He also asked the Apostolic Nuncio and authorities accredited to the government to give what help they could. Meanwhile he wrote to his confreres entreating their prayers for the people of Yerkalo. As Pope John Paul II observed in the beatification homily, Father Maurice “in the spirit of his order, in which everyone risks his life to save people from storms, tried every means possible to rescue these pilgrim Christians of the “Asiatic Alps””.

Finally, Father Tornay decided to go to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, to seek audience with the ruling monk of the country, the Dalai Lama. He intended to beg from him an edict of tolerance that would protect Tibetan Christians in their free exercise of religion.

Unfortunately, the lamas who had ousted Tornay from Yerkalo discovered his plans and determined to thwart them, ambushing him and his servant on August 11, 1949, and killing them in cold blood.

He had given his all for his beloved Tibetans.

Since Vatican II, there have been fruitful contacts between the Catholic Church and the Buddhists of Tibet. When China took over Tibet in 1952, there were some 4200 Tibetan Catholics: 3000 in China, 1200 in Tibet proper. Slim results; yet not without hope. As the Holy Father pointed out in the homily of beatification, a Tibetan Catholic man was lately ordained to the priesthood. He had been one of Father Tornay’s pupils.

Evidently Blessed Maurice is still working overtime on behalf of the Catholics of Yerkalo.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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