From an interview with William P. Warford of the Antelope Valley Press
reprinted from the Valyermo Chronicle, no. 183, Fall 1998
AS A YOUNGSTER he liked the social life, But once the decision was reached there was never any doubt. "I had very little hesitation that I wanted to become a monk," he said. So, firm in his choice and solid in his faith, Vincent Martin, the son of a physician from the small town of Namur in Belgium, became a monk. That was seventy years ago.
He joined the Abbey of Saint Andrew's in Bruges in 1928, made his first profession in 1930, became a priest six years later, and went on to live a life that could never be duplicated by anyone today.
Along the way, he has helped and befriended thousands of people. "I have a lot of good friends," he said the other day at an interview at his home, St. Andrew's Abbey in Valyermo. "Quite a few are now in heaven."
Father Vincent is 86 now. His walk is a little slower, but his mind is still quick. He remembers dozens of names of places and dates from the wonderful story that is his life.
"I have vivid memories of the First World War," he said. "The celebrations at the end. I was 2 when the war started and 6 when it ended." Young Vincent's mother died when he was just 7. Even so, he did well in school and did a lot of traveling with his father. He had many friends and liked to socialize. Toward the end of what we would call junior college, "I started to think seriously about what I would do with my life."
He decided to join the monastery at Bruges, which at that time was the leader in the Benedictine missionary movement. They wanted to open a monastery in China, and Vincent hoped he could play a role.
He studied theology and Chinese in Louvain and was ordained a priest on July 25, 1936. The following September, together with Fr. Eleutherius, who had been his 'guardian angel' in the novitiate and with Fr. Wilfrid Weitz, his junior, the three left for far-distant Sichuan via Siberia, Beijing, and the awesome Yangtze gorges. They joined five confreres who in the little monastery of Xishan were trying to implant monasticism on Chinese soil to foster the encounter between Christianity and Chinese culture.
On the right is Fr. Vincent Martin, O.S.B. in China at the age of 25.
In the center is
Fr. Jehan Joliet,O.S.B.,
retired founder of the Xishan Priory; on the left is Fr. Raphael Vinciarelli, O.S.B., Prior of Xishan
PRISONER of WAR
IN HIS first two years in China, Father Vincent had his first brush with death. He became very ill and no surgeons in the region could help him. He was taken to Vietnam, where surgeons in Hanoi removed his appendix.
In 1938 he joined a group of 300 Christian volunteers gathered together by the legendary Fr. Vincent Lebbe, which became the Medical Company of the Chinese 3rd Army, 12th Division. In those years Japan had invaded China; and the two countries were engaged in horrible fighting. Soon after Fr. Lebbe had been transferred as head of a new project, Fr. Vincent was appointed commanding officer. "I did my best," Fr. Vincent remembers. In two and a half years I saw eleven fierce battles in very tough conditions.
At the same time he was serving as a chaplain to 500 Christian soldiers in the division. The Japanese repeatedly came close to breaking through the Chinese lines, but every time the Chinese resisted, At one point, Father Vincent and the Chinese hunkered down in caves dug by peasants in the famous loess soil of North China; and that saved their lives when the bombs fell.
In May, 1941, after a month of heavy fighting on the front lines, Father Vincent was ordered to go with a small group through enemy territory. They had little food and nearly starved. Then the Japanese captured them.
Father Vincent was tried as a spy. "The trial was three days - Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. They told me I would be shot on Thursday." Through the grace of God, or just plain luck, a higher-up in the Japanese military overturned the decision and ordered a new trial. They came to get Father Vincent that Thursday morning, but instead of shooting him, they took him back for another trial.
This time he was sentenced to a prison camp. He was transferred to yet another camp where he made the most of his austere surroundings learning English and Russian from other prisoners.
"It's all in your attitude," he said.
An unexpected blessing during these years of captivity was to meet the famous French Jesuit paleontologist who discovered Peking Man and opened tantalizing vistas in Fr. Vincent's understanding of the spiritual evolution of man. During one year when Fr. Vincent was recuperating from Beri-Beri and other illnesses in Central Hospital, Beijing, he was able to visit Fr. Teilhard de Chardin every Tuesday afternoon by ricksha. These were the most challenging intellectual encounters of his life.
COMING to AMERICA
AT THE war's end, Father Vincent took on new duties. He was asked to serve as Chinese liaison officer with the US 7th Marines. Then, in November of 1945 he was sent to a military hospital, where 2,000 Japanese officers and enlisted men were suffering from TB. "I became responsible for getting them back to Japan," he said. "I was trying to be careful, but I became infected." He was ordered to have six months of complete rest, and he recovered.
Next the monastery ordered him back to Europe to tell the story of what he saw in World War II. "I got back to Belgium on Christmas of 1946."
At this point, Father Vincent had no higher academic degrees, so he headed to America and enrolled at Harvard. He always believed he would eventually return to China. But by 1949, the Communists had taken over, and by 1951 time was running out for any chance to go back. "The door was closing. I wanted to go back, but I had to complete my degree. By the time I got my Master's degree in sociology in June, the door was closed. It was too late. I continued my studies towards the doctorate."
So he stayed in America, and the monks of St. Andrew's decided to open a monastery in this country. They thought California was the place. "From February to September of 1955 I did nothing but look for a place for the monks. I had only $50,000, a gift from our mother-abbey in Belgium." Father Vincent recalled.
His search was frustrating. He made hundreds of phone calls and found some places he liked, but they were out of his price range. Finally, he saw an ad in the Los Angeles Times for what turned out to be the ranch in Valyermo, then known as "Hidden Springs Ranch."." On the 30TH of September, 1955, I walked these grounds for the first time. I bought the place as Mr. Martin because in some places they would not sell to Catholics, or they would hike the price."
The horse stable became and remains the monastery chapel, the cow barn became cells for 10 monks.
ON the ROAD AGAIN
ONCE THE monastery was up and running, Father Vincent was off and running again. He returned to Harvard to finish his doctorate in sociology. He then spent 10 years in Jerusalem, first at Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion, and later as director of worship at the Tantur Ecumenican Institute. He wrote and published in 1995 A House Divided, the fruit of years of research on the parting of the ways between synagogue and Church in the first century. Recently he wrote a pamphlet entitled Israelis and Palestinians at a Crossroads, searching the roots of the conflict. "I have good friends on both sides. It is very difficult."
Back in the states, Father Vincent was much involved in the Jewish-Christian dialogue that led him to take on an unusual position. He accepted the invitation to start the chaplaincy at Cedars - Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Rounding out his career, he taught sociology of religion in the department of religious studies at the University of California in Santa Barbara.
In 1996, Father Vincent's dream of returning to China was realized. He led a tour of the Holy Land, and then went on to China for several months. Fr. Vincent still has many friends there, and while in China he visited the site of the monastery in Xishan, which after twenty-five years of occupation by the army, has been returned to the care of the local Chinese Catholic bishop in Nanzhong.
"There are many good Christians in mainland China," he said. "At the universities now, Christian culture is 'in'." There are about 140 Catholic bishops and 10 million Catholics in China. The growing pains of a tiny minority church are testing their faith and their dedication.
Now back at St. Andrew's, Father Vincent is busy with writing and keeping up with the everyday life of the monastery.
He's done so much and seen so much in a most remarkable period of history. "Not bad for a poor man," Father Vincent said.
Editor's Note: A little over one year after this article appeared, Fr. Vincent Martin died, quite suddenly but without any suffering, of a heart attack.He is buried in the monastic cemetery at St. Andrew's Abbey.