CATANIA, Italy — Fr. Gabriele Allegra, OFM, who devoted the greater part of his life to translating the Bible into Chinese, was declared “blessed” on Sept. 29 in the Cathedral of Acireale, Catania, Sicily — the town where he entered the Franciscan minor seminary as a young boy.
A Franciscan and a Scholar
Known as “the St. Jerome of China,” Fr. Gabriele was born Dec. 26, 1907 in a village in the province of Catania, Sicily, and entered the Order as a youth of 16. While he was studying theology at St. Anthony’s College in Rome, an academic conference was held there on the work of Giovanni of Montecorvino, a Franciscan who journeyed to China in the late 13th century.
Inspired by Giovanni’s attempts to communicate Christianity to the Chinese people, Gabriel sailed to Hunan Province shortly after his ordination in 1930, and as soon as he gained knowledge of the language, began translating the Bible into Chinese. This was a task that would consume the next 40 years of his life: facing many obstacles, he persevered, establishing the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in Beijing in 1945. Forced to move to Hong Kong in 1948, he and his friar collaborators completed the translation of the Bible into Chinese with full commentary in 1968. He died in Hong Kong on Jan. 26, 1976.
Although known primarily as a biblical scholar, Fr. Gabriele was well-read in other areas of theology, becoming an expert on the thought of John Duns Scotus and a friend of the Jesuit Fr. Teilhard de Chardin. He also carved out time to help the poor, victims of war, and the sick, especially a leper colony in Macau, where he often spent his holidays. Perhaps Blessed Gabriele might be venerated as the patron of workaholics. He was fond of saying: “The most enviable fate for a Franciscan who does not obtain the grace of martyrdom is to die while he is working. . . . Everyone thinks I’m sick! I can still work — so let’s go on!”
Holy Name Province and Fr. Gabriele
Fr. Gabriele lived and worked in fraternity with Holy Name Province friars in Hong Kong, especially the late Ralph Reilly, OFM, and Seraphin Priestley, OFM, and is remembered fondly by Pius Liu, OFM, who, at the age of 91, still has vivid memories of this great Franciscan:
“Sometime in 1952 or 1953, Fr. Allegra directed us seminarians for a heavenward retreat in Macau. Each of his talks seemed coming out from the fire of his heart and the warmth of his lips about the love of God; the truth, the goodness and the beauty of the Holy Bible accompanied by his admiration, joy and gratitude to Almighty God. His voice was low and weak, but his message was contagious, touching and enlightening, assuring us that he had listened to, meditated on, translated, and lived up to the words of spirit and of life!
“In September 1954, I happily came across Fr. Allegra and his entourage in Rome and Assisi. He was leading his helpers Frs. Anthony Lee, Ludovicus Liu, Solanus Lee, and Mark Chen, all OFMs, for biblical research in Germany and the Holy Land; I was traveling alone on my way to the USA. I forgot what happened exactly, but somehow Fr. Allegra kindly and warmly allowed me to be one of his entourage and to travel with them through Florence, Padua, Venice, and Milan. I would never have been able to see the holy treasures, and been treated so warmly by the Franciscans of those famous places if I had traveled alone!
“On July 2, 1965, on the summons of the Very Rev. Ralph Reilly, OFM, as Delegate General of Singapore, Macau, Hong Kong and Taiwan, I arrived in Hong Kong from the USA to be in charge of printing and distributing the Bible at the Branch Studium Biblicum in Taiwan. Although I stayed at our guest house on 133 Waterloo Road, Kowloon, I had yet to make a courtesy and business call on Fr. Allegra and his team at 70 Kennedy Road, Hong Kong. Fr. Allegra thanked me repeatedly for being so cooperative and insisted that I should stay at 70 Kennedy Road overnight. So I stayed. The next morning I found out that there was no extra room! Fr. Allegra had manifested such charity and made such a sacrifice because he had let me take his own room. This incident was a beautiful homily on Fr. Allegra’s charity and sacrifice, but rendered me a permanent remorse!
“In 1974 or 1975, one afternoon I was driving close by an intersection near the railroad station and our Franciscan House on 98 Kunming Street in Taipei City, when suddenly I noticed Fr. Allegra wandering calmly and peacefully on the same spot, wondering which direction to turn! Most likely after giving a retreat for the Italian Camillians in Lotung, he had returned to Taipei by train, and was now walking to 98 Kunming Street. I pulled over, asking: ‘Fr. Allegra, where are you going?’ — ‘Kunming Street, you are my guardian angel!’ This incident impressed me so deeply that it is still vivid. I saw that Fr. Allegra had such an inner peace that he had nothing to fear and nothing outside in this world could disturb him, because he believed that God was with him all the time, for he had accepted the words of spirit and of life!
“Pope Benedict XVI wishes that every believer professes the faith in fullness and renewed conviction, confidence and hope, and so he has set Oct. 11, 2012 through Nov. 24, 2013, as a Year of Faith. On the occasion of Fr. Allegra’s beatification, let us humbly ask him to pray for us that we may imitate him with a living faith and live up to the words of spirit and of life; thus we too will possess an inner peace, with nothing to fear and nothing to disturb us!”
— Fr. Dominic, Provincial Vicar of Holy Name Province since 2005, is a specialist in Franciscan history. Thomas Cole, OFM, director of the HNP Franciscan Missionary Union, contributed to this story.
Editor’s note: Information about Fr. Gabriele’s beatification can be found online.