Jean-Gabriel Perboyre was born in Montgesty, near Cahors, in southern France, on 6 January 1802 into a pious family which gave three missionaries of St Vincent’s Congregation of the Mission and two Daughters of Charity to the Church. In 1818 Jean-Gabriel was asked to accompany his younger brother to the seminary of the Congregation of the Mission, and as a result he decided to join himself. From 1818 to 1835 he was first a student and then, after his ordination, a teacher in the seminary. Then once again his brother’s vocation influenced his own. His brother had set sail for the missions in China, but died on the journey. Jean-Gabriel volunteered to take his brother’s place.
Jean-Gabriel reached China in August of 1835. After getting acclimated in Macau, he set off on a one thousand mile journey in a Chinese junk, on foot, and on horseback, which brought him after eight months to Ho-Nan in Henan in central China, where he set about learning the language. He then was transferred to Hou-Pé, which is part of the region of lakes formed by the Yangtze River. In one early letter written to his community in Paris he described himself as a curious sight: “my head shaved, a long pig-tail, stammering my new languages, eating with chopsticks.”
In 1839 there was a renewed persecution of Christians, perhaps related to the start of the “opium wars” between China and Britain. On 15 September of that year, at Cha-yuen-ken where Perboyre lived, a column of soldiers came to arrest him and his companions. They fled to the hills, but Jean-Gabriel was soon given up and captured. He was interrogated and tortured many times, but he refused to abjure his faith or to betray his companions.
His third trial was held in Wuchang. He was brought before four different tribunals and subjected to 20 interrogations. The questioning included tortures and mockery. For not trampling on the crucifix, John Gabriel received 110 strokes of a cane. He was also accused of having immoral relations with a Chinese girl, Anna Kao, he replied that women are respected rather than scorned in Christianity.
The cruelest judge was the Viceroy. Jean-Gabriel was by this time a shadow. When he told the judge for the last time that he would sooner die than deny his faith, he was sentenced to death by strangulation. Before his death he wrote, O my Divine Savior, transform me into yourself. Grant that I may live but in you, by you, and for you, so that I may truly say, with Saint Paul “I live – now not I – but Christ lives in me.”
After a failed appeal, and after almost a year in captivity, Jean-Gabriel was taken with seven criminals to the “Red Mountain”. As the others were being killed, he prayed quietly. When his turn came, the executioners stripped him and tied him to a post in the form of a cross. They passed a rope around his neck and strangled him. It was 11 September 1840. He was canonised by John Paul II in 1996. Chinese government officials refused to permit a public Mass to be celebrated to commemorate the new saint.