01/15/2022, 14.43
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Church by Scheut missionaries in Chongli, near the Olympics slopes

A small chapel was built near the ski resort, which will host some Olympic events, in the early part of the 20th century, a testimony to the work of many missionaries in Hebei province. For Fr Heyndrickx, this is an opportunity to strengthen 200 years of friendship.

Leuven (AsiaNews) – Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing political tensions, the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics are fast approaching, set to  open on 4 February. In addition to the athletes preparing to compete, one story has emerged that closely reflects the Christian presence in China.

The decision to host some Olympic events in Hebei has provided the opportunity to rediscover the province’s mountains, which had limited tourist appeal until recently; however, more than 200 years ago, they attracted European missionaries who came to carry out their apostolate until they were expelled by Mao's communist China.

Their story is the main subject of an article published a few weeks ago in Verbiest Update, a newsletter published by the Ferdinand Verbiest Foundation. Based in Leuven (Belgium), the charity keeps alive the friendship with China, nurtured by the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (CICM[*]), also based in Belgium, widely known as the Scheut Missionaries.

Author of the piece is Fr Jeroom Heyndrickx, one of the foremost historians of Christianity in China, who turns the spotlight on Chongli, a district about 50 kilometres from the great city of Zhangjiakou, which will host some sporting events such as cross-country skiing and biathlon.

Fr Heyndrickx notes that several delegations from Leuven have visited Chongli in recent years precisely in the name of the work carried out by Scheut missionaries in that area.

“We met with our friends and local authorities and witnessed how the intensive preparatory activities during the recent decade transformed the old isolated little village of Xiwanzi with its 3,000 habitants into a modern ski resort with its Athlete Village, a new modern city of 60,000 inhabitants living in dozens of newly built high rises.”

About “150 years ago, Xiwanzi already had its own Catholic church. In recent years, long before preparations for the Winter Olympics started, local Christians using their own means and techniques built a new church. It towers amidst the high rises with two high steeples like a beautiful cathedral”.

But “Near the newly built highspeed train station of Xiwanzi in the town of Qipanliang stands an old chapel built in 1904 by Dutch CICM missionary Hadriaan van der Heijden (born in Waalwijk). He died and was buried there in 1910.

“The old chapel” was “declared a monument of cultural exchange. It reminds us of centuries of intercultural exchange” and “friendship among people that took place in this remote village.

“What a disappointment that the Covid 19 pandemic has prevented our presence and celebration at the Games,” writes Fr Heyndrickx.

“We could have revived the old friendship by visiting together the old tombs of the pioneers at the cemetery and the old chapel of Fr van der Heijden. Old friendships never die. [. . .] COVID-19 will not stop [. . .] us from celebrating.”

“If we all join in celebrating the Olympic Games in this spirit, it will undoubtedly become the peak event in the 200 years Church history of Chongli, Zhangjiakou and Xuanhua, and [will] even [be] a historic moment of growth for the local Church.”

[*] Congregatio Immaculati Cordis Mariae

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