As the spring rain poured down on Wuhan during the first week of February I was quite happy to delay my departure at the end of the evening meal with the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Hanyang. The possibility of waiting a little longer for a break in the clouds was partly facilitated by a local historian who was researching the historical details of church property in the area. His visit to the convent seeking old photographs led to one of the sisters inviting me to go to the nearby small office to contribute to the evening search with the sound of rain acting as background music to our conversations.
Our random searching for photographs through thirty years of Far East magazines published in Ireland by the Missionary Society of St. Columban led to a few items of interest for the local historian. The persistent rain seemed to encourage the search to continue for longer than originally planned. Leafing through the 1934 volume, a page in the March magazine attracted my attention, a page that had very little to do with the local historian’s area of interest. The title of the page was “A Trip through Palestine and Syria”, the article written by Fr. Peter Gabriel, a Columban missionary in this part of China at that time.
As early as the second paragraph he writes, “I was born in Syria but have lived in Australia for many years.” What follows is a beautifully written account of his journey as a newly ordained priest from Ireland to Port Said and then onwards to Jerusalem and northwards through Beiruit. Another magazine fills in the details of other parts of his journey with a description of his determination to reach Anto, the village of his own people in Syria, the first person he met on the village street coincidently turning out to be his uncle.
Although Peter Gabriel had left Syria with his parents as a toddler to emigrate to Australia, he was fluent in Arabic as an adult, a fact that surprised his extended family who were now meeting him for the first time in over thirty years. The curious differences that stood out for him during his two-day visit to Anto were reflected in the question asked by a few people who wondered how he could be a priest if he did not have a beard. However, the lack of an expected beard was no deterrent for the villagers to turn out in large numbers the following morning for the celebration of Mass in an area just a few miles from the renowned Cedars of Lebanon that were visited later in the day.
The eventual onward journey to China brought Fr. Peter to the modern day city of Wuhan where he ministered in Hanyang Vicariate with other Columbans. By 1937 he was struck down with tuberculosis and returned to Australia where he died in 1938. A missionary who had seen the Holy Land, the heights of Lebanon, the Syrian land of his birth and the central plains of China was also faced with the unwelcome cross of fatal sickness while still a young man.
This week the world has marked the painful tenth anniversary of the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, a war that has shattered a nation and its people. I wonder if Fr. Peter could ever have thought that such suffering would be possible in the land of his birth? Perhaps the closing words of the description of his visit to the Middle East can offer some hope even in this most complicated and tragic of situations, words that link different parts of the world, poignant words expressed by a person of faith who would eventually endure the excruciating pains of illness throughout his own body, almost a foretelling of the pain that would convulse his homeland. “So I retraced my steps and before long was once more on shipboard, bound for China and thanking God for having given me the opportunity of seeing a little of the country in which He Himself had traversed and that other land of Syria, so rich in Christian tradition.”