The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century – Blessed Jean Gabriel Perboyre

Saint Jean-Gabriel Perboyre holy cardArticle

We find a true example of a noble-hearted martyr in the Blessed Jean Gabriel Perboyre of the Congregation of the Lazarists. The Lord destined for him a crown of especial glory. By a holy life Perboyre made himself worthy and developed the strong character that befitted one who was to suffer so dreadful a passion. He was born at Puec, in the diocese of Cahors, on January 6, 1802; and even as a boy attracted the attention of all by his unusual piety and love of purity. By a singular dispensation of Providence he was sent to the little seminary at Montauban, and in December 1818, inspired by the appeal of an abbe for the heathen missions, he entered the novitiate of the Lazarists at the same place. After his ordination to the priesthood in 1825, he labored for ten years in his own country as professor, superior, and novice- master. Everywhere he left the repute of a saint. At length his heart’s desire was gratified and in 1835 he was able to set out for the mission of China. Every one was surprised that his superiors had granted his petition, since he was in such weak health that many feared he would scarcely be able to reach China alive.

On the journey Father Perboyre exercised a true apostleship by his great amiability and piety. The whole ship’s crew was charmed with him and at the end of the voyage declared aloud: “This man is really a saint.” Macao was reached in five months, but a further difficult and dangerous journey of six months was necessary before Perboyre could reach the field of his labor, the northern province of Ho-nan. A severe illness brought him to the brink of the grave. But it was not yet his time to die. With indefatigable zeal he traversed his. mission, everywhere to strengthen the old Christians in their faith and to gain new ones. We can see his zeal in a letter of this time, in which he writes:

“Wherever one goes he finds the earth devastated by sin and defiled by crime. There have been saints who died of grief because God is so offended by men. This may seem surprising, but to me it is far more surprising that all priests, called as they are to purify the earth of the dreadful poison of sin, do not die of grief at the sight of so many abominations.”

Unfortunately the holy missionary found his activity greatly limited by the vexations of inimical officials. In the beginning of 1838 he was sent by his superiors into the province of Hu-pe. It was a period full of danger and it was known that at any moment the hatred of the pagans against the Christians might again break out. But “a true Apostle,” writes Father Perboyre, “follows his path regardless of all danger as long as he has not the rope on his neck or fetters on his feet.” And after the example of the ancient martyrs he endeavored to strengthen his own courage in the Faith and that of his Christians.

The mission was suddenly attacked on 15 September 1839. The missionaries escaped, but a Christian, for the reward of Judas, betrayed the retreat of Father Perboyre. Before various tribunals he was obliged to undergo most painful examinations, during which he was made to kneel with bare knees on iron chains and was heavily beaten with clubs. When this did not succeed in shaking his steadfast faith, the mandarin subjected him for four hours to a most painful torture called “hang-tse,” a sort of gallows on which the victim is suspended by the united thumbs of both hands and the tightly stretched pigtail. Many of the onlookers were deeply moved by the firmness of the martyr. At a later trial the enraged judge ordered him to be given forty blows in the face with a thick piece of sole-leather. So violent were the blows that his jaw was crushed and his countenance beaten out of all human semblance. And after this Perboyre had again to endure for half a day the torment of the hang-tse. A short time later, with ten other Christians, cruelly fettered, he was dragged a distance of 140 miles to the capital, Wu-chang. What he had here to suffer, imprisoned with the most abandoned criminals for nine months, is beyond description. His hands and feet were bound so tightly that the blood burst from his fingers and one of his feet began to putrefy. The jailer was moved with compassion and wished to alleviate his torture. But the missionary begged the man not to do so, since it might bring him into trouble. When at length the hour of condemnation arrived, they questioned him anew, urging him to insult the crucifix and to forswear his Catholic faith. Perboyre’s invincible constancy roused the tyrants to extreme fury and every kind of pain and ignominy their diabolical malice could invent was visited upon the martyr.

Imperial approbation of the sentence of death arrived on 11 September 1840. He was immediately led to execution and was hanged on a sort of cross. His hands were bound to the cross-beams and his legs were drawn backward. They had chosen for him a slow and torturing death by strangulation and only at the third strain upon the rope was his sacrifice accomplished.

Father Perboyre’s strength of soul and the miraculous signs with which God glorified his dead body made a deep impression on the pagans and numerous conversions followed. All Christendom, too, was filled with admiration and astonishment at his heroic martyrdom. On 10 November 1889, Leo XIII inscribed the name of Gabriel Perboyre on the roll of the martyrs and it is expected that his name will soon be numbered among the saints.

MLA Citation

  • Father Constantine Kempf, SJ. “Blessed Jean Gabriel Perboyre”. The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century: Saintly Men and Women of Our Own Times, 1916. CatholicSaints.Info. 19 September 2018. Web. 18 January 2019. <>