Martyrs of Thailand

Executed 1940

Thailand (Siam) is the sole nation in southeast Asia not to have been the colony of another power. From 1940 to 1944 the Thais were at war with their Indo-China neighbors. To achieve unity on the home front, this officially Buddhist country expelled foreign missionaries and sought to pressure its Catholics into apostasy.

The persecution was especially strong at Songkhon. When the Catholic priests were ousted, they left the Songkhon mission parish in the charge of Philip Siphong. Philip, a married man with five children, was a teacher in the parish school and a topnotch catechist. Because he was so obviously a leader, the government authorities decided to frighten the other parishioners into submission by executing him. On December 16, 1940, they took him outside the village and shot him.

Philip’s death strengthened rather than weakened the faith of the parishioners. The sisters who taught in the school now took over the leadership.

On Christmas, 1940, the local 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, Cecilia Butsi, a 16-year-old, spoke out, declaring that she was ready to accept death. The policeman did not seem to hear her.

That same night, Sister Agnes Phila (1909-1940) 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 witnesses, O Lord, our God.” Sister Agnes gave the letter to Cecilia to deliver to the policeman.

On December 26, this officer called at the convent and addressed the sisters and layfolk present. All reiterated their resolution not to apostatize. He therefore had all six of them escorted to the cemetery and shot to death. Two of the six were nuns: Sister Agnes Phila and Sister Lucy Khambang (1917-1940). Four were laypersons: Agatha Phutta (a pious elderly woman converted at 37 in 1918, and now the convent cook); Cecilia; Bibiana Khamphai (a devout 15-year-old who often visited the convent) and Maria Phon, aged only 14.

After the execution, the chief of the village somehow got hold of Sister Agnes’ Christmas letter, an important testimonial to the true martyrdom of the six. When priests were readmitted to Thailand in 1943, the letter was handed over to Father Cassetta, the first of them to return. A church investigation was quickly started, and on the basis of this document and the other evidence, the Holy See issued a decree on September 1, 1988, declaring that Philip Sihong and the six women had indeed been murdered out of hatred of their faith.

On October 22, 1989, Pope John Paul II formally beatified the seven Thai Catholics. Deeply touched by their fidelity, the pope said that Blessed Philip (“the great tree” as he was called at Songkhon) exemplified the missionary zeal that is incumbent upon all of us by virtue of our baptism. He quoted Sister Agnes’ letter to the policeman: “We rejoice in giving back to God the life that He has given us…. We beseech you to open to us the doors of heaven… You are acting according to the orders of men, but we act according to the commandments of God.” Sentiments like these, said John Paul II, resembled those of the Christian martyrs of antiquity. Indeed, their very names were those of ancient saints: Agnes, Lucy, Agatha, Cecilia, Bibiana….

The Blessed Martyrs of Thailand, in “giving back to God the life that He had given them”, were therefore contemporary soldiers in the age-old “white-robed army of martyrs.”

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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