Tuesday, February 11, 2020


THE SEVEN THAI MARTYRS of SONGKHON.  In 1940 before the Japanese invasion of Thailand there was a reaction against things Western and foreign. In this atmosphere there were pockets of persecution of Christians. This led to the martyrdom of seven Catholics in the village of Songkhon in north-east Thailand. They were beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1989. Their feast is December 16.

Thailand is the only 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 to renounce their faith.

The persecution was especially strong at Songkhon. When the Catholic priests were ousted, they left the mission in the charge of Philip Siphong, who was a married man with five children and a teacher and 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 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 laity 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 . Four were laypersons: Agatha Phutta an elderly woman, now the convent cook; Cecilia; Bibiana Khamphai  age 15 and Maria Phon, age 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.”

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