A little more than half a century ago, Jesuit Father Charles J. McCarthy sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge on his return to San Francisco as one of the last two Jesuits released from prison in Communist China, a confinement he endured for four years following an earlier house arrest by the Japanese during WWII.
Waiting for him were his brothers, Walter, Alex, Robert and their families, including Walter’s 10-year-old daughter, Mary Jo, who would later chronicle the dramatic story that linked her father and uncle, a story documented in hundreds of letters written by the two men over more than 50 years.
The letters illustrate the history of China, from the Japanese occupation in World War II to the Communist takeover; they also reveal the devotion of brothers, a connection that endured despite distance and deprivation.
Aug. 2, 1952 – From Charles to Walter: Today is my 23rd anniversary as a Jesuit. It doesn’t seem that long since the family was all together. We certainly had some good times and lots of fun around the table. Dad was especially encouraging when I raised the vocation question with him, and he talked Mom out of the idea I was too young. The trip to Los Gatos was a step light-hearted enough for me, but I’m sure Mom and Dad felt deeply the first splintering of the family. Fortunately, though, there’s never been any real separation of our hearts.
In 1941, Charles sailed for Peking, where he studied Chinese for two years before the Japanese placed him and 29 colleagues under house arrest in Shanghai until the end of World War II. “He was able to send me letters via the Red Cross,” said Walter.
Upon his release, Charles taught theology in Shanghai until July 1946, when he returned to the U.S. to study journalism at Marquette University. He moved back to Shanghai in 1949, where he was appointed the superior of the Jesuit School of Theology in Shanghai, making him the highest-ranking American Jesuit in the Shanghai Jesuit Mission. He worked with Jesuit scholastics until his arrest by the Communists in 1953, when he was led away from his room at gunpoint, accused of “ideological sabotage” for giving harmful guidance to his students.
Dec. 1, 1950 – From Charles to his Jesuit superiors: Under present circumstances, the laity have a more than usually large part to fulfill in keeping the flame of faith and joy of Catholic life aglow in the hearts of Catholic families. Sometimes the Blessed Sacrament is brought from the mission centers to families in the countryside by devout lay people. The religious instruction of children has to be done in small groups, often by parents or zealous lay folk. The practice of gathering together for night prayers and the rosary is encouraged in the many places where priests cannot visit. In the cities, more intense study and exercise of the faith is necessary to counteract the torrent of atheistic propaganda, which official outlets pour out on us.
He spent the next four years being moved from one prison to the next – five in all. He shared one of those cells with 15 prisoners, all of whom had to take turns lying down to sleep. His third cell, which he shared with five others, was five and a half feet by eight feet. “We couldn’t stretch out full length at night, but were jammed head to toe, so that if one man moved, we all woke up,” Charles wrote in 1960 about his ordeal.
He was given so little to eat, including one ounce of meat once a week, that the six-foot-tall priest weighed only 107 pounds by the time he was released. He endured lengthy interrogations, sometimes seven hours at a stretch. “The real anguish was how they tried to use you to destroy your own worth, to accuse yourself of crimes you had not done.”
During his years in prison, the State Department and the Society of Jesus worked to earn release for him and his brother Jesuits. In 1955, they struck a deal with the Communist Party, but it wasn’t until June 15, 1957, that Charles finally left prison. “They said my attitude wasn’t positive,” he noted in a 1979 interview.
He returned to the U.S. by ship to give him time to recuperate. When he arrived in the Bay Area, he was greeted by all the McCarthy families and by reporters ready to tell his story to a public eager for news from the heart of the Cold War. He spent the next two years at the Los Gatos seminary as spiritual director, regaining his health and working with Jesuit novices.
Despite his more than six years as a captive of both the Japanese and Communists in China, Fr. McCarthy chose to return to Asia in 1959, this time to the Philippines where he worked with Jesuit seminarians. He stayed in the Philippines until his death in 1991.
For more on Fr. McCarthy’s amazing story be sure to check out “Church Militant: Bishop Kung and Catholic Resistance in Communist Shanghai” by Jesuit Father Paul Mariani.
To read more of Fr. McCarthy’s letters, check out the full version of this article which originally appeared in Genesis, the Alumni Quarterly of St. Ignatius College Prep in San Francisco. To download the full article and magazine, please click here.