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by Jerry Circelli
North Texas Catholic
HURST — For more than 2,000 years, since Christ first instructed His apostles to be proactive in spreading the Word of God and baptizing the believers, countless missionaries have followed His directive.
In the case of the Korean Catholics, however, evangelizers took a reverse route. The first Christians in that nation ventured outside their own borders, discovered Christ and His Good News in a foreign land, then brought it back home.
“Our Korean Catholic history is very unique,” said Youngha Ryu, a parishioner of Korean Martyrs Church in Hurst.
“Instead, our faith started from the bottom up, not from the top down,” said the longtime parishioner of the church and professor of biochemistry at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.
To understand Ryu’s point and the very name of the Korean Martyrs Church, an important part of the Diocese of Fort Worth, it is necessary to look back to the year 1784.
That year, some Koreans, who had heard about the Catholic faith from people with whom they had contact in China and Japan, sent a Confucian scholar to Beijing, China, to learn more. The scholar, Yi Seung-hun, was baptized in China, christened with the name “Peter,” and returned to Korea to establish a Catholic community there. This marked the start of the Catholic Church in Korea, not by a foreign missionary, but by a Korean grassroots effort and native son who ventured forth and carried the Good News back to his people.
It was not easy for early Catholics in Korea to worship Christ, as their government considered their faith to be in opposition to Confucianism and the king himself.
By 1836, French missionaries arrived in Korea, surprised that many of the native people were practicing Catholics. By 1845, the first Korean-born Catholic priest, Andrew Kim Taegon, was ordained in Macau, China. He returned to Korea to spread the Word of God. The next year, at the age of 26, Kim was executed after trying to bring more missionaries into Korea.
In 1925, nearly 80 years after Kim’s death, Pope Pius XI beatified him. In 1984, Pope John Paul II canonized Kim and 102 other Korean martyrs. Saint Andrew Kim Taegon is venerated today as the patron saint of Korean clergy. September 20 is the saint’s feast day.
On May 6, 1984, the day Pope John Paul II canonized the 103 martyrs in Seoul, South Korea he said:
“Yearning for an ever greater share in the Christian faith, your ancestors sent one of their own in 1784 to Peking, where he was baptized. From this good seed was born the first Christian community in Korea, a community unique in the history of the . . . Church by reason of the fact that it was founded entirely by lay people. This fledgling Church, so young yet so strong in faith, withstood wave after wave of fierce persecution. Thus, in less than a century, it could already boast of some ten thousand martyrs.”
Through his insightful words and actions, St. Pope John Paul II inscribed the martyrs in the litany of Catholic saints and strengthened the faith among Koreans worldwide.
Locally, the Korean Catholic Community was strengthened by a growing group of faithful eager for a church inside the Diocese of Fort Worth. For several years, they had been attending St. Andrew Kim Church in Irving.
In July 1989, 30 adults and 10 children assembled to form a local Catholic community. Three months later, Father Inacio Kim from the Archdiocese of Seoul, South Korea, celebrated Mass in the home of one of the faithful. Then, on Aug. 5, 1990, Diocese of Fort Worth Bishop Joseph Delaney presided over a Mass at St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Fort Worth for a new Korean Catholic parish in formation.
Over the next several years, Archbishop Stephen Kim Sou Hwan, from the Archdiocese of Seoul, Korea, visited and celebrated Mass for the community.
Finally, in May 2003 the Korean Catholic faithful moved into their own church building in Hurst.
St. Andrew Kim Catholic Church, near Washington, D.C., donated many of the interior furnishings for the local church, including an altar, a tabernacle, an ambo, a confessional, Stations of the Cross, statues, and other religious items. Originally the site of a Baptist church, the 17,000-square-foot house of God was remodeled and furnished to become the new home for local Korean Catholics.
The worship facility, with seating capacity for 375 people, was named Korean Martyrs Catholic Church in July 2003. A few months later, on Sept. 29, 2003, Bishop Delaney celebrated Mass for the new Korean Martyrs Parish in the Diocese of Fort Worth.
In 2014, Fort Worth Bishop Michael F. Olson joined parishioners in celebrating their 25th anniversary as a Catholic community. The number of faithful has grown from 40 people in 1989 to nearly 300 parishioners today.
The year 2014 also marked an historic occasion for Korean Catholics, not only in the Diocese of Fort Worth, but around the world.
In August of that year, Pope Francis made a five-day visit to South Korea, where he beatified 124 martyrs.
In his homily, the pope said “the martyrs call out to us to put Christ first and to see all else in the world in relation to Him and His eternal kingdom.”
Today, the hundreds of parishioners at Korean Martyrs Church in Hurst continue to live out those words of Pope Francis.
They hail from all walks of life, including college professors, such as Youngha Ryu, to students, small business owners, laborers, and many others seeking a better way of life in the United States. What unites them is a strong belief in Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church.
“In our parish, we have many dedicated Catholics,” Ryu said. “It goes way back to our family histories. I think it runs in our blood.”