Missionary ChinaIn 1892, as America was preparing to celebrate the 400th anniversary of its discovery, Austin and Elizabeth Ford were preparing for their sixth child. When a son arrived on January 11th, they considered naming him Christopher Columbus Ford. But Austin had just finished reading a biography of St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552), whom he had come to admire, so the baby boy was named for the great missionary saint whose unrealized ambition was to reach China.

A native New Yorker, Austin Ford published The Irish World. Born in Iowa, Elizabeth Anne Rellihan had moved East to write for the paper; within a year, she and Austin were married. Theirs was a comfortable, middle-class existence in Brooklyn. Young Frank had many career options ahead of him. When he was 12, an Irish priest visited his parish to raise money for the missions, and talked about his work in China. The seeds of a vocation had been planted; Frank Ford decided he would be a Chinese missionary.

But back then there were few opportunities for American Catholics to engage directly in missionary work. (Until 1908, the Vatican officially listed the United States as mission territory.) Frank enrolled at Cathedral College, a Manhattan school for young men considering the priesthood. In 1912, during his sophomore year, an opportunity presented itself when Fathers James Walsh and Thomas Price came to Cathedral looking for young men to join their new community, Maryknoll.

A year earlier, the two priests founded America's first missionary order in Ossining, New York, on a hill named for the Blessed Mother. Frank Ford was their first applicant. Of slight build, with black hair and striking dark eyes, he was shy, but no shrinking violet. In 1918, a few months after his ordination, he was one of the first Maryknollers assigned to China, at Guandong in the south.

Like his fellow priests, he knew little of Chinese culture and traditions. He would learn on the job. More experienced European missioners predicted that the Americans wouldn't last a year. It was indeed hard work. They faced rough, slow travel through terrible heat and humidity replete with mosquitoes. There was political unrest. Locals mocked their attempts at Chinese. Still, Ford wrote,

I'm only just now discovering the civilization of China and falling on love with it . . . To think that China was completely equipped with a literature and culture 3,000 years before our ancestors was a hard blow to an Irishman.

Too many Westerners, he noted, felt the Chinese were there to serve them. Later he would tell his own priests: "We come to China not to barbarians, but a civilization thousands of years older." Condescension, he insisted, had no place: "Our Lord never condescended; He never betrayed superiority in His dealing with others." For Ford, the encounter with the Chinese was to be one of "reverence, respect, and love, a meeting of brothers."

For many back home, there was glamour about the missions. But, Ford commented, "the routine is without glamour." There were warlords, bandits, and pirates. Communism under Mao Zedong was gaining ground, and there were anti-foreign demonstrations. For many Chinese, conversion to Christianity was a hard thing. It meant adopting a religion closely associated with the Westerners exploiting their country.