St. Joseph Freinademetz, SVD

Maybe it was while dreamily looking over the magnificent view of the deep valley from the ancient little Holy Cross Chapel perched 2000 meters above sea level on an outcropping above his home in the Dolomite Mountains of South Tyrol…or possibly during the daily family rosary…or through the encouragement of family and friends, but somehow, the young man, Joseph Freinademetz, was inspired to become a missionary to proclaim Christ’s word in a far-off land.

St. Joseph Freinademetz, SVD, was born on April 15, 1852, the fourth child of Giovanmattia and Anna Maria Freinademetz. The family eked out a living on their poor and simple small farm as did their neighbors. Years later, the little farm house and quiet hamlet of Oies in the Gader Valley changed when Joseph Freinademetz, SVD, was beatified in 1975 by Pope Paul VI and then canonized a saint in the Roman Catholic Church on October 5, 2003, by Pope John Paul II in Rome. Pilgrims regularly find their way to pray at the small parish church of St. Martin where Joseph served as a curate for three years. Or they visit the little mountain chapel high above the family farm or visit his ancestral home. It is a surrounding that seems to speak of prayer and devotion.

Joseph’s early years were uneventful. He helped with the farm chores, attended daily Mass at his local parish and, on the advice of the parish priest, attended a school some eleven hours walk from his home. He eventually entered the major seminary and was ordained a priest for the Brixon Diocese in 1875. His initial assignment was to be a teacher. But soon an article in the local diocesan newsletter about the new Mission House at Steyl, Holland, founded by Fr.Arnold Janssen caught his attention. Joseph went to visit the Mission House. The visit was enough to convince Joseph that this is where he could follow his vocation to be a missionary priest. He joined the fledgling group at Steyl in 1878, and barely a year later he received his mission cross along with Fr. John Baptist Anzer, SVD. He had one more brief visit to his family home to say goodbye for the last time, as he would never return to his homeland again. He was to be a missionary in China. In 1881, the Mission House had received its own mission territory, the Province of Shandong. Joseph was so devoted to his mission that, except to recover from an illness, he never left Shandong.

One thing you might notice when looking at a picture of Joseph is that he looks Chinese. He so enculturated himself to China that he took on a form of dress similar to the local Chinese spiritual leaders. He most frequently repeated words were, “I would like to be Chinese in heaven.” He truly loved the Chinese people with whom he lived and worked, and Joseph was especially energized by the local clergy and catechists. He promoted the idea that they should become the leaders in the local Church before Rome was quite ready for this. It was decades later that Rome appointed the first Chinese bishops and also the first non-white Cardinal, Thomas Tien, SVD.

As so many missionaries have discovered, the grounding of their mission work is first supported by a strong personal prayer life. Joseph had promoted this amongst the clergy along with the words, “Do you imagine you can become holy without meditation, something no saint was able to do? Without meditation life is lost.” He said his daily Mass and prayed his Divine Office with the same intense dedication as he did with his missionary work. Joseph had unwavering hope and belief in the power of God and the sacraments. During such difficult times as the Boxer Rebellion in which two young Divine Word Missionaries were martyred, he remained at his mission post. Well before his death, the Chinese people and others with whom he worked recognized him as a saintly man for his humility, for his firm yet gentle approach to his work, and for his total love of his people. Toward the end of his all-too-few years, he was appointed the Provincial for the Society of the Divine Word, a post he held until his death from tuberculosis in 1908 at age 46.

Here’s a brief outline of St. Joseph’s life:

  • April 4, 1852 – Joseph Freinademetz is born.
  • 1858 to 1862 – German public school and Philosophy/Theology at Brixen.
  • July 25, 1875 – Joseph is ordained a priest.
  • 1876 to 1878 – Joseph is a curate and teacher in the Gader Valley.
  • 1878 – Joseph joins the SVD at Steyl, Holland.
  • March 2, 1879 – Joseph says good-bye to friends and family, leaves for China.
  • 1879 to 1881 – Missionary in Saikung, Hong Kong.
  • 1882 – Arrival in Puoli, South Sandong.
  • 1890 to 1891 – Mission Administrator.
  • 1895 to 1897 – Director of the major seminary.
  • 1900 – Appointment as Provincial Superior of the Society of the Divine Word.
  • January 28, 1908 – Death of Joseph Freinademetz in Taikia, South Shandong.
  • October 19, 1975 – Beatification of Joseph Freinademetz by Pope Paul VI
  • October 5, 2003 – Canonization of Joseph Freinademetz by Pope John Paul II.