20 August 2019

Ten modern martyrs
above the West Door
of Westminster Abbey

The ten martyrs of the 20th century above the West Door of Westminster Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

While I was standing at the west front of Westminster Abbey last week [12 August 2019], I spent some time thinking about ten modern martyrs whose statues stand above the Abbey’s Great West Door and who gave up their lives for their beliefs.

After the restoration of the western towers of the Abbey had been completed in 1995, it was decided to fill the 10 gothic niches above the west doorway with statues.

The lower part of the towers date from the 15th century and the tops of the towers were completed in 1745. The niches never had statues, although this was obviously the plan of decoration.

Instead of traditional figures of kings or saints, the abbey decided that martyrs of the 20th century should be remembered. Their statues were chosen to represent all those who have died in circumstances of oppression and persecution and they are drawn from every continent and many Christian denominations.

Four sculptors completed the statues, carved from French Richemont limestone. The Archbishop of Canterbury unveiled the statues in July 1998 at a service attended by Queen Elizabeth II.

The West Front of Westminster Abbey, with the statues of the ten martyrs above the West Door (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

These 10 statues are (from left):

Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941):

Andrew Tanser carved the statue of Maximilian Kolbe, who died as prisoner 16770 in Auschwitz-Birkenau, offered his own life to save a fellow prisoner, Franciszek Gajowniczek, condemned to death by the camp authorities after a successful escape by a fellow prisoner.

Kolbe was born on 8 January 1894 in Zdunska Wola. At 18, he went to Rome to study philosophy and theology. He returned to Poland to lecture at the Fransciscan seminary at Krakow. In 1930, he travelled with four of his brothers to Nagasaki in Japan.

He returned to Poland six years later Kolbe returned again to Poland. Soon after the Nazi invasion of Poland, he was sent to Auschwitz, where he was known to give his own food discreetly to other prisoners, to hear confessions and to celebrate Mass.

A prisoner in his own block escaped in July 1941, and now Kolbe stepped forward to make his sacrifice. In the starvation cell, six of the 10 who had been selected died within two weeks. Kolbe was still fully conscious when he was killed by lethal injection on 14 August 1941. The cell where he died is now a shrine.

Maximilian Kolbe was beatified by Paul VI in 1970 and canonised as Martyr by Pope John Paul II in 1982. A service to mark his 125th anniversary of his birth was held in Westminster Abbey earlier this year [13 January 2019].

Manche Masemola (ca 1913-1928):

John Roberts is the sculptor of the statue of Manche Masemola, a young woman of the Pedi tribe, lived in Sekhukhuneland, in the Transvaal in South Africa.

Manche Masemola was born ca 1913 in Marishane. She did not go to school, but worked with her family on the land and at home.

Father Augustine Moeka of the Anglican Community of the Resurrection established a mission at Marishane in 1919. When Manche Masemola heard Father Moeka preach, she began to attend classes twice a week, although her parents tried to discourage her.

Because she had defied them, her parents Lucia and Moeka took her to a lonely place and killed her on 4 February 1928, and she was buried on a remote hillside. A few days later her younger sister, Mabule, became ill and then died at the nearby Jane Furse mission hospital. Later, however, her father planted trees beside the grave, which became a place of pilgrimage, and her mother was baptised.

The name of Manche Masemola was added to the calendar of the Church of the Province of Southern Africa in 1975.

Archbishop Janani Luwum (ca 1922-1977):

The statue of Archbishop Janani Luwum is the work of Neil Simmons.

Janani Luwum was a young teacher when he was converted to Christianity in his village in Acoli, Uganda, in 1948. He became an evangelist and went to a theological college at Buwalasi in east Uganda where he trained as a catechist. He was ordained deacon in 1955 and priest in 1956.

He was appointed Provincial Secretary of the Anglican Church of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Boga-Zaire in 1966. Three years later, he became Bishop of Northern Uganda in 1969. His consecration was attended by the Prime Minister, Milton Obote, and the army chief of staff, Idi Amin.

Two years later, Amin deposed Obote in a coup. Luwum was elected Archbishop of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Boga-Zaire in 1974.

The Anglican and Roman Catholic churches increasingly worked together to frame a response to the political problems in Uganda. They were soon joined by the Muslims of Uganda. On 12 February 1977, Luwum delivered a protest to Amin against acts of violence by the security forces. Amin summoned Church leaders to Kampala and ordered them to leave, one by one. Luwum turned to Bishop Festo Kivengere and said, ‘They are going to kill me. I am not afraid.’

He was taken away and murdered; later his body was buried near St Paul’s Church, Mucwini. A memorial service for Archbishop Janani Luwum was held in Westminster Abbey on 30 March 1977.

Grand Duchess Elizabeth (1864-1918):

The statue to this modern martyr is the work of Sculptor John Roberts. Elizabeth of Hesse-Darmstadt was born on 1 November 1864. Her mother died when she was a child, and she came to England to live with her grandmother, Queen Victoria. Her childhood was Lutheran and her adolescence was Anglican.

Elizabeth married Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, the fifth son of Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1884, and joined the Orthodox Church in 1891. When her husband was assassinated in 1905, she gave away her jewellery, sold her most luxurious possessions, and opened the Martha and Mary home in Moscow. Elizabeth and 17 of her companions formally became nuns in 1909. They soon opened a hospital and began other philanthropic works.

The Tsarist state collapsed in March 1917, and the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917. Elizabeth was arrested with two sisters from her convent on 7 May 1918, and transported across country to Perm, then to Ekatarinburg, and finally to Alapaevsk. On 17 July, the Tsar and his family were shot dead. During the following night, Elizabeth, Sister Varvara, and members of the royal family were murdered in a mineshaft.

Elizabeth was recognised as a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in 1984 and by the Moscow Patriarchate in 1992.

Martin Luther King (1929-1968):

This statue is by the sculptor Tim Crawley. The Revd Dr Martin Luther King Jr was born on 15 January 1929. His father was the minister of the Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta, Georgia.

He was educated at Morehouse College, Atlanta, and Crozier Theological College. After he was ordained, his first church was at Dexter Avenue in Montgomery, Alabama. He was soon drawn into protests against segregation and racism and formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

After a Civil Rights march on Washington in August 1963, Congress passed a civil rights act in July 1964. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but was shot dead in Memphis on 4 April 1968. He was 39.

The ten martyrs of the 20th century above the West Door of Westminster Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Oscar Romero (1917-1980):

The statue of Archbishop Oscar Romero is by the sculptor John Roberts. Oscar Romero was 13 when he decided he had a vocation to the priesthood. He went to a seminaries in San Miguel and San Salvador, and then studied in Rome, and was ordained in 1942.

He became auxiliary bishop of San Salvador in 1970. Many people found him a conservative in views and by temperament. In 1974 he became Bishop of Santiago de Maria, a rural diocese, and in 1977 Archbishop of San Salvador.

He realised that the wealthy sanctioned the violence in which death squads committed murder in the cities while soldiers killed as they wished in the countryside. More and more, Romero committed himself to the poor and the persecuted, and he became the catalyst for radical moral prophecy. His church began to document human rights abuse, and Romero was accused of allying the church with revolutionaries.

He visited the Pope in May 1979, and presented him with seven dossiers of reports and documents describing the injustices of in Salvador. But he was isolated in the Church as the threats against him mounted. On 24 March 1980, he was shot dead while celebrating Mass in the chapel of the hospital where he lived.

Oscar Romero was beatified in 2015 and canonised on 14 October 2018. A special Evensong for the Canonisation of Saint Oscar Romero took place in Westminster Abbey on 17 November 2018.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945):

This statue is by the sculptor Tim Crawley. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born on 4 February 1906 in Wroclaw (formerly Breslau), and grew up in a comfortable professional home, where his family was nominally Lutheran. At the age of 13, he decided to study for ordination.

He studied at the University of Berlin, at the age of 18 visited Rome, and studied at Union Theological Seminary, New York (1930-1931).

Following the rise of the Nazis in 1933, Bonhoeffer saw Nazism as a counter-religion and a danger to Christianity. In October 1933 he became the pastor of two German-speaking parishes in the London area, and began his friendship with Bishop George Bell of Chichester.

On his return to Germany, Bonhoeffer ran the seminary of the Confessing Church at Finkenwalde, which was shut down by the police in 1937. He went to New York in 1939 but chose to return to Germany, aware of the costs that lay before him and fearing a Nazi victory would destroy Christian civilisation. For Bonhoeffer, true discipleship now demanded political resistance against the criminal state.

He was arrested in March 1943 and survived as a prisoner until 9 April 1945. He was executed only a few days before the end of World War II.

The Rose Window in the North Transept of Westminster Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Esther John (1929-1960):
Neil Simmons was the sculptor of the statue of Esther John. She was born Qamar Zia, one of seven children. While she was reading Isaiah 53, she was suddenly overtaken by a sense of conversion to Christianity. With the partition of India, she moved with her family to Pakistan.

Her Christian faith grew privately and secretly. She ran away from home, fearing a forced marriage to a Muslim husband. For a while she worked in an orphanage in Pakistan and took the name Esther John.

She fled again in 1955 to Sahiwal, in the Punjab, where she lived and worked in a mission hospital, stayed with the first Anglican Bishop of Karachi, Chandu Ray, and trained as a teacher.

She was brutally murdered in her bed in Chichawatni on 2 February 1960.

Lucian Tapiedi (ca 1921-1942):

The statue of Lucian Tapiedi is by Tim Crawley. Lucian Tapiedi was born in 1921 or 1922 on the north coast of Papua. His father was a sorcerer, who died when he was still young. He was taught at mission schools and in 1939 he entered Saint Aidan’s teacher training college, where he joined the staff as a teacher and evangelist in 1941.

The Japanese invaded Papua on 21 July 1942. Lucian Tapiedi was determined not to abandon the missionaries he was working with. But Tapiedi was murdered near a stream by Kurumbo village, and the other members of the group perished soon after, six of them beheaded by the Japanese on Buna beach.

A shrine marks the place where he was murdered. His killer later converted to Christianity, and built a church dedicated to the memory of his victim.

Wang Zhiming (1907-1973):

This statue is the work of the sculptor Neil Simmons. Wang Zhiming, a Miao pastor, was educated in mission schools, and then he taught in one of the schools for 10 years. He was elected chairman of the Sapushan Church Council in Wuding in 1944, and he was ordained in 1951. There were 2,795 Christians in Wuding county in the mid-1960s, and Wang Zhiming lived among them as a pastor.

During the Cultural Revolution, between 1966 and 1976, churches were closed and Christians were forced to meet secretly. At least 21 Christian leaders in Wuding were imprisoned between 1969 and 1973.

Wang Zhiming was a known critic of the local Red Guards, and he and other family members were arrested in May 1969. Four years later, he was condemned to death. He was by then seen as an old man of 66.

Wang Zhiming was executed on 29 December 1973 at a mass rally of more than 10,000 people. His wife was jailed for three years, two of his sons for nine years, and a third reportedly died by suicide while he was in detention.

Wang Zhiming was ‘rehabilitated’ by party officials in 1980, and his family was offered compensation.

A well-known prayer by the West Door of Westminster Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

1 comment:

Kevin Comerford said...

A good read. I did not know about these statues and will look for them on my next visit, hopefully in the coming years as my girls get a few years older. They would be ever so interested in the "sorcerer" unfortunately so l'd leave it out to them or perhaps add the disclaimer of "suspected" ahead of it and await their distraction. I'll also have to brush up on a few of the place names, however the context in these descriptions gives them good placement. Thank you Patrick, a nicely written piece that many will be interested in knowing more about.