Several groups of martyrs were slain for the faith in Vietnam from 1798 until 1861. Between 1798 and 1853, sixty-four were martyred, receiving beatification in 1900. Those who died in a second group, between 1859 and 1861, were beatified in 1909. There were twenty-eight courageous men and women who died for the faith during a long period of persecution.
A Portuguese missionary arrived in Vietnam, once called Annam, Indo-China, Cochin-China, and Tonkin, in 1533. An imperial edict in Vietnam forbade Christianity, and it was not until 1615 that the Jesuits were able to establish a permanent mission there, in the central region of the country.
In 1627, a Jesuit went north to establish another mission. By the time this missionary, Father Alexander de Rhodes, was expelled from the land in 1630, he had baptized 6,700 Vietnamese. In that same year the first Christian martyr was beheaded, and more were executed in 1644 and 1645 . Father Rhodes returned to Vietnam but was banished again in 1645. He then went to Paris, France, where the Paris Seminary for Foreign Missions was founded. Priests arrived in Vietnam, and the faith grew.
Between 1798 and 1853, a period of intense political rivalry and civil wars, sixty-four known Christians were executed. These were beatified in 1900. In 1833, all Christians were ordered to renounce the faith, and to trample crucifixes underfoot. That edict started a persecution of great intensity that was to last for half a century. Some twenty-eight martyrs from this era were beatified in 1909. The bishop, priests, and Europeans were given “a hundred wounds,” disemboweled, beaten, and slain in many other grisly fashions. For a brief period in 1841 the persecution abated as France threatened to intervene with warships.
However, in 1848, prices were placed on the heads of the missionaries by a new emperor. Two priests, Father Augustin Schoffier and Father Bonnard, were beheaded as a result. In 1855, the persecution raged, and the following year wholesale massacres began. Thousands of Vietnamese Christians were martyred, as well as four bishops and twenty-eight Dominicans.
It is estimated that between 1857 and 1862, 115 native priests, 100 Vietnamese nuns, and more than 5,000 of the faithful were martyred. Convents, churches, and schools were razed, and as many as 40,000 Catholics were dispossessed of their lands and exiled from their own regions to starve in wilderness areas.
The martyrdoms ended with the Peace of 1862, brought about by the surrendering of Saigon and other regions to France and the payment of indemnities to France and Spain. It is now reported that the “Great Massacre,” the name given to the persecution of the Church in Vietnam, resulted in the following estimated deaths:
Eastern Vietnam – fifteen priests, 60 cathechists, 250 nuns, 24,000 Catholic lay men and women. Southern Vietnam – ten priests, 8,585 Catholic men and women. Southern Tonkin region – eight French missionaries, one native priest, 63 cathechists, and 400 more Christians slain – in all, an estimated 4,799 were martyred and 1,181 died of starvation. Some 10,000 Catholics were forced to flee the area. Pope John Paul II canonized 117 Martyrs of Vietnam on June 19,1988.