Our thrilling story begins in Songkhon, a Catholic village—the only Catholic village of Thailand—on the Thai side of the mighty Mekong River as it flows along the North Eastern border of Thailand. The people of Songkhon were all Catholics and since the beginning they have always been in the Archdiocese of Thare-Nongseng.
The Year 1940 was a time of fear and uncertainty in many areas of the world. Nazism was on the march in Europe and, in Asia, imperialism was spreading rapidly. In Thailand, people felt fearful and threatened and a foreign faith was an obvious scapegoat, although Catholicism had already been in Thailand over three hundred and fifty years. In this tense atmosphere the usually tolerant Thais forsook their normal friendliness and began a religious persecution.
So it happened that in the winter of 1940, the police moved into Songkhon. Their first hostile act was to banish and then deport the parish priest. With guns in their hands, they then went from door to door intimidating the good simple people of the village and ordering them to abandon their faith in Christ. Naturally the people were nervous and frightened but they remained quiet and steadfast.
Living in Songkhon were two Sisters of the Congregation of the Lovers of the Holy Cross: Sister Agnes and Sister Lucia. There was also an excellent Catechist, Mr. Philip Siphong. Since their pastor had been deported, these three good people felt responsible for Catholic community and were in charge of the village school.
Mr. Siphong gave both moral and physical support to the worried people by visiting each house, praying with each family and speaking words of encouragement and strengthening their faith. The police were naturally furious at this act of rebelliousness and decided to get rid of Mr. Philip Siphong.
So in early December 1940 the police sent a letter to Philip supposedly from the Sheriff of Mukdahan requesting him to go to Mukdahan to meet the Sheriff. The people were suspicious and they warned Philip about the false letter and not to trust the police. They also told Philip that the police had every intention of killing him. However this good man told the people that if that was the case, then he, Philip Siphon was prepared to die for his Faith. Eventually he set out with the police for Mukdahan. Actually when they got the poor man into the forest, the police shot him dead. So on December16th,1940 Mr.Philip Siphong died for his Faith and became the first of the Seven Holy Martyrs of Thailand.
When the two Sisters Agnes and Lucia heard the news of the death of their faithful catechist, they were both saddened and very frightened. Nevertheless they continued their care of' the school and their guidance of the community. Each day the children of the village came to the convent to be taught and catechised. The police on their part kept up their pressure on the Sisters and the local community. They tried to frighten everyone by firing their rifles in the air and by shouting at the people. They kept reminding the villagers of the murder of Philip by warning the people. "We'll get rid of all of you."
The children like everyone else were terrified of the police but the Sisters encouraged the children and themselves by saying that if the police killed them, they would be martyrs for Jesus.
On Christmas Day, Mr. Lue, the police officer in charge of Songkhon, came to the Sisters' house. On arrival he discovered the Sisters were instructing the children in their Catholic Faith. The officer was furious and berated the Sisters: "I've told you many times not to speak about Jesus. You must not mention God in Thailand, otherwise I'll kill you all." Sister Agnes who was the elder Sister, conscious of her role, in turn became indignant. She confronted the police officer saying: "Mr. Policeman, do you mean to say that you will kill us all because we are Catholics and loyal to our Catholic Faith. Do you really mean that, Mr. Policeman?" Mr. Lue replied : "Yes I do, I will kill all of you if you continue to talk about God like this." Sister Agnes with rising indignation and raised voice said to the officer : "Be sure you have sufficient guns and bullets."
"Oh yes, we have enough. guns and bullets to kill all of you." Mr. Lue retorted.
"Then be sure you polish the barrels of your guns ..lest the bullets get stuck." countered the brave Sister Agnes,
"Yes, we will." Concluded the, policeman.
On the evening of that same Christmas Day, the Sisters prepared some coconut oil and sent a small bottle of it to the police so that they could clean and polish their gun barrels. Then the brave Sisters began preparing themselves and their companions for their coming martyrdom, by prayers and hymns singing throughout the night.
Late that same night, our inspired Sister Agnes sat down and wrote a letter to the police. It is a document of utter simplicity and of a lively f àith.
“To the Chief Police In Songkhon
Yesterday evening you received your order to wipe out, definitely, the Name of God, the Only Lord of our lives and minds. We adore Him only, Sir. A few days earlier, you had mentioned to us that you would not wipe out the Name of God and we were rather pleased with that in such a way that we put away our religious habits which showed that we were His handmaids. But it is not so today. We do profess that the religion of Christ is the only true religion. Therefore, we would like to give our answer to your question, asked yesterday evening which we did not have a chance to respond because we were unprepared for it. Now we would like to give you our answer. We are asking you to carry out your order with us. Please do not delay any longer. Please carry out your order: We are ready to give back our lives to God Who has given them to us. We do not wish to be the preys of the devils. Please carry out your order. Please open the door of heaven to us so that we can confirm that outside the Religion of Christ no one can go to heaven. Please do it. We are well prepared. When we will be gone we will remember you. Please take pity on our souls. We will be thankful to you and will be grateful to you for it. And on the last day we will see each other face to face.
Do wait and see, please. We keep your commands, oh God, we wish to be witnesses to You; dear God.
We are: Agnes, Lucia, Phuttha, Budsi, Buakhai, Suwan. We would like to bring little Phuma along with us because we love her so much.
We have already made up our minds, dear Sir."
This letter is such a simple yet moving and powerful Gospel of faith that reminds us that the faith witnessed in the early Church in Roman times is still alive and potent in Thailand in our own time. The diocesean archives now have Sister Agnes 's wonderful profession of Faith statement.
The police reacted quickly. On the following afternoon of the December 26th, 1940 on the feast of St. Stephen the first martyr, they arrived at the convent and shouted: "Are you ready; Sisters? If you are, go straight to the bank of the Maekhong."
But Sister Agnes objected, "No, that is not the place for us to die for Christ. We must go to the cemetery, the holy place."
In line they walked to the cemetery singing hymns and calling to the people.
"Good bye, we are going to Heaven, we are going to become martyrs for Christ."
How these brave and noble women remind us once again of the martyrs of ancient Rome, joyfully entering the arena for the love of Jesus Christ.
Seeing the police marching the children and Sisters to the cemetery, the people of the village realized that the police were going to kill them there. They too followed the Sisters and their companions wishing to die with them. However the police brushed the people aside with their rifles, saying angrily;
"We only intend to kill those in the line."
A young girl named Suwan was one of those in the line. She was willing to become one of Christ's Martyrs but her father upon hearing what was happening rushed to the scene to rescue his little daughter. Suwan on her part clung to Sister Agnes begging him;
"Mother Agnes, help me please, I want to die with you and go to Heaven."
"But you are too young to die" said her father and he snatched her away and carried her back home where he locked her in a room.
On arrival at the cemetery the brave women knelt clown beside a fallen tree trunk. Then continued praying and hymn-singing in that crucial atmosphere.
Sister Agnes turned and addressed the police; "You may kill us but you cannot kill the Church and you cannot kill God. One day the Church will return to Thailand and will flourish more than ever. You will see with your own eyes that what I am now saying, will come true. So we thank you from our hearts for killing us and sending us to Heaven. From there we will pray for you."
Once again this noble woman demonstrated he true Christian spirit, full of faith and forgiveness. Once again her words echoed those of many great martyrs before her.
Then turning to her companions, Sister Agnes said; "My dear friends, we will soon be in Heaven. On the cross, Jesus said to the thief; ‘This day you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Lk.23:43)”
When all were ready, Sister once more addressed the police saying, "Mr. Policeman, we are ready, please do your duly."
Immediately the police opened fire and left the cemetery shouting to the people, "Bury them like dogs, for they are bad people:"
The poor villagers who were watching the scene from behind nearby bushes, rushed toward and began to shake the bodies to see who was alive or dead. They found that both Sister Agnes and Phorn were still alive but badly wounded.
Looking around, Phorn asked; “Where is heaven?” She understood from the Sisters' teaching that if one died a martyr one went straight to Heaven, but looking around Phorn saw not Heaven but a crowd of villagers. Sister Agnes on her part enquired;
"Where are the police"
"They’ve left already,"someone spoke out.
"Then you better call them back I’m not dead yet;" said the brave Sister Agnes
So one of the villagers returned to the village to inform the police that Sister Agnes and Phorn although badly wounded were still alive.
In the meantime another girl called Sorn who had knelt at the end of the line stood up and looking around exclaimed;
"Where is Heaven?"
Seeing that her clothes were spattered with blood the people enquired if she was hurt.
"I'm afraid not, I don't feel any pain," Sorn replied. She then examined herself more closely but found no bullet wounds. "You’d better run home” she was advised, “as the police will soon be back here." So the little girl ran home. (She lived for many years in Songkhon, and was also an excellent catechist. She died in the late 1990s’.)
In a short time the police returned to the cemetery and killed the wounded Sister Agnes and Phorn.
In all, six good and holy women were dead and the villagers buried them hurriedly, placing two bodies in each grave for they had not the time to make coffins. Thus were these brave arid noble women of Songkhon laid to rest.
Many eye witnesses including those who took part in the burial of our brave martyrs are still alive. They are proud and grateful to recall, the bravery, the loyalty to Christ arid the wonderful faith displayed on that momentous day December 26th, 1940 by the Holy Martyrs of Songkhon.
The Relics of the Seven Martyrs Behind the Altar
The persecution of the Christians went on for another four years and then religious freedom returned to Thailand.
As soon as the Church was granted freedom, the local Ordinary began setting up the canonical investigation in the case of these Seven Brave Servants of God. The reports were presented to the Sacred Congrgation of the Saints in Rome for consideration of their beatification and Canonisation as Martyrs of the Church.
They were finally beatified in Rome on October 22nd, 1989.
The full name of the Seven Blessed Martyrs of Songkhon are
Blessed Philip Siphong, catechist, 33 years old.
Blessed Sister Agnes Phila, 31 years old
Blessed Sister Lucia Khambang, 23 years old
Blessed Agatha Phutta, 59 years old
Blessed Cecilia, 16 years old
Blessed Bibiana Khamphai, 15 years old
Blessed Maria Phorn, 14 years old.