Gems of History

Chinese alumni of Letran in the 18th century

Fr. Juan Feng Shiming, OP

Not until we read Francisco R. Liongson IV’s 2017 work, Letran: An Untold History, vol.1: 1620-1872, did we know that the first Catholic bishop in China, Gregorio Luo Wenzao (羅文藻, 1616-1691), OP, was a product of the Philippines who came to Manila three times and studied theology at the University of Santo Tomas.
Luo was also alumnus of Colegio de San Juan de Letran, which will celebrate its 400th foundation year in 2020.
Through Liongson’s great work we also came to realize that eight other Chinese alumni in 18th century studied theology at Letran and became priests in China.
Both Letran and UST were founded by the Dominican order.
Allow us to quote lengthily from Letran: An Untold History about these eight Chinese alumni.

Eight Chinese students were admitted in Letran between 1736 and 1741. Francisco del Rosario (Francisco Lu, 1736) would not complete the course, while Miguel de los Angeles (Miguel Hang, 1741) and Matias de los Santos (Matias Ching, 1741) returned to China and became regular priests.
The remaining five would profess their vows and complete their studies at Letran and Santo Tomas. They were Juan Feng Shiming (馮世眀), (aka Juan Bautista Fung de Santa Maria, Juan de Santa Maria, Juan Fung, Fung Yo-han, Feng Shiming, 1736); Pedro Yan (Pedro Nien de Santo Domingo, Pedro Nian, Pedro Ngieng, 1737); Simon Luo (Simon Lo del Rosario, Simon de Santa Cruz, Pedro Lo, 1741); Pedro Mino (Pedro Mien de Santa Rosa, Pedro de San Francisco, Pedro Men-to, 1741); and Vicente Huy (Vicente Huy de Santo Tomas, Jorge de los Reyes, Jorge Hang, 1741).
These five Letran alumni would share common ties and experiences and their destinies would closely intertwine. The principal protagonists of their narrative are the venerable martyr Feng Shiming and the schismatic Pedro Yan.
Juan Feng Shiming was born in 1719 to Ambrosio Feng and Maria Dien in Sanyang [桑陽], (Shuangfeng) [雙峰], Fujian… He was 17 years old when he arrived in Manila and enrolled at the Colegio de San Juan de Letran on 8 July 1736.
The following year, Pedro Yan arrived and enrolled at Letran on 18 April 1737. Pedro was born in 1728 in Aupoa, Chanchiu [Zhangzhou 漳州] to Antonio Yan Teng-kua (Antonio Ngieng Tien, Anton Nien) and Maria del Rosario.
Both Juan Feng and Pedro Yan received their Dominican habits at the Santo Domingo convent on 2 July 1743 between the hours of 2 and 3 in the morning after the matins. Both were approved to profess on 4 May 1744 and made their vows on 3 June 1744 at 2 in the afternoon before P. Fr. Bernabe de Magdalena, OP, with their pair of and master of novices, P. Fr. Santiago Barreda, OP, signing the act together with the professed natives of the Empire of China. They assumed the names of Juan Fung de Santa Maria, OP and Pedro Yan de Santo Domingo, OP, respectively.
…Juan Feng was ordained a priest by the Archbishop of Manila, Pedro de la Santisima Trinidad Martinez de Arizala, and sang his first mass on the feast day of his patron saint, St. John the Baptist, at the Colegio de San Juan de Letran in 1747. On the insistence of the Vicar Apostolic San Pedro Martin Sanz de Jonda, OP, Feng departed immediately after for China.
Feng arrived in Zhangzhou on 12 November 1747. Henceforth, we will just focus on his martyrdom. After successfully eluding his captors during his years in solitude, Juan Feng was captured at the time when six other Dominican missionaries were currently working at the mission. In a letter dated 29 October 1754, Simon Luo wrote about Feng’s imprisonment. In March [1754], a cruel persecution started against the Catholic religion in Fogan (福安). During this period, P. Fr. Juan Feng de Santa Maria was imprisoned. It was on Holy Saturday… The original punishment decreed was three years of exile, which was then extended to perpetual exile in the province of Kiang-si [江西]… Before leaving, Juan went to confession to P. Fr. Pedro Nien, his classmate in novitiate, and then received communion from his hands. In his turn, P. Fr. Pedro Nien also went to confession.
On 25 March 1754, Juan left looking like a veritable prisoner with an iron chain around his neck, handcuffs and shackles on his feet. He was escorted by two soldiers and three Christians who wished to accompany him… Before arriving at the place of his exile, Juan had to appear before 36 tribunes. In chains and shackles, suffering from hunger, thirst and vagaries of extreme weather changes throughout the great distance, Feng arrived in June 1755 at his cramp cell in Kiang-si (Jiangxi) without the benefit of any rest or sleep.
The untold difficulties and sufferings did not, however, break his apostolic dedication. Loyal witnesses who accompanied him on his journey attracted to his robust display of joy and contentment; nobly declaring his willingness to suffer in the home of Jesus Christ. With his eyes transfixed on a rustic crucifix hanging on his prison cell wall, Juan Feng succumbed three days later on 1 July 1755 to an acute fever exacerbated by fatigue and the debilitating physical stress of the long journey.

The above story is indeed not only the little-told history of Letran but also that of Catholic history in China and its close relation with the Philippines through Colegio de San Juan de Letran.