Birth and Upbringing :
(The original is owned by Jeoldusan Martyrs' Museum)
Father Thomas Choe Yang-eop was born on March, 1821, in the Catholic
village of Saeteo, which was in the vicinity of Darakgol, Cheongyang,
Chungcheong-do, as the eldest son of Saint Francis Choe Kyeong-hwan
and the Blessed Mary Yi Seong-rye. Thomas Choe, who spent his early
childhood in this place, followed his father from place to place
as he tried to avoid the persecution and, finally, moved to Surisan
in Anyang, Kyeonggi-do. This village of Surisan was later transformed
into a secret Faith community through the coming together of Catholics
in ones and twos. Choe Sang-jong, <Personal History of Basil
Choe U-jeong> (Transcript), 1939,
Director, The Research Institute for Korean Church History.
At the time that the Surisan community was formed and growing, the
Paris Foreign Missions Society, which had been entrusted with the
evangelization of the Joseon Vicarate Apostolic, was attempting
to send missionaries to Korea. However, because border surveillance
was strict and, in addition, there was danger of persecution, it
was not easy for western missionaries to enter Korea. The very first
missionary to overcome the obstacles and to enter Korea was a priest,
Saint Peter Maubant, who had been born in France.
Towards the end of 1835, Father Maubant, who had been guided into
the country by the secret envoys sent by the Korean Catholic Church,
immediately began to travel around the Christian communities throughout
the country. In the beginning of the following year, he visited
the Bupyeong community and selected, as a seminarian, Thomas Choe
who was a fifteen-year-old boy with bright prospects.
On February 6, 1836, the chosen seminarian, Thomas Choe, arrived
at the house of Father Maubant in Seoul and began to receive Latin
language lessons. Francis Xavier Choe Bang-je and Andrew Kim Dae-geon,
also picked by Father Maubant as seminarians, arrived on March 14
and July 11, respectively, and they all lived together.
Studies in Macao and Order of Deacon :
On December 3, 1836, Thomas Choe and his fellow seminarians placed
their hands on the Bible, took an oath of Obedience and set off
on the road to study in Macao. They travelled south through the
mainland of China and reached the Far Eastern Headquarters of the
Paris Foreign Missions Society in Macao on June 7 of the following
year. From then on, they studied at the temporary seminary there.
His studies were to continue until 1842 but, in November 1837, he
was stricken by the death from fever of his companion, Francis Xavier
Choe. Then, in 1839, due to disturbances in Macao, he moved to Manilla
and continued his studies but returned to Macao at the end of the
In April, 1842, even before he had finished his studies, Thomas
Choe had to leave Macao because France, which wanted a trade agreement
with Korea, needed an interpreter on board its fleet. Father Napoleon
Libois, superior of the Far Eastern Headquarters at that time, who
was waiting for news of the Korean Catholic Church because contact
had been broken off due to a persecution, managed to get Thomas
Choe and Andrew Kim on board two different French ships. However,
the French fleet, after arriving at Nanjing, did not wish to proceed
any further north, so Thomas Choe and Andrew Kim disembarked and
went to Liaodong in order to find a route into Korea.
Thomas Choe then went to Sopalgaja in Manchuria and continued his
studies under the tutorship of Bishop John Ferreol, the Coadjutor
Bishop of the Joseon Vicariate Apostolic. In 1843, through Father
Libois, he joined the Paris-based French Order of the Immaculate
Heart of Mary (SS. Coeur de Marie). In the midst of all of this,
he heard news of the persecution and martyrdom which had occurred
in his homeland. At that time, he sent a letter to his former teacher,
Father Legregeois, who had returned to France, and expressed the
feelings in his heart as follows :
"Since I am not able to distinguish myself like my father and
brothers, my situation is very miserable. I could not get involved
like them in the glorious war as a soldier of Christ. I am truly
ashamed. They were my worthy compatriots, my brave fellow countrymen!
Yet, I am still left languishing with feelings of much weakness
Most gracious God, our Father! Please hear the cries uttered by
the blood of your servants! Have mercy on us. Show us your overflowing
compassion and the almighty power of your embrace! Will I, O God,
someday, be worthy to participate in the great challenge of the
priests and the suffering of my brothers, in order to make up for
what is lacking in the Passion of Christ and so complete the work
of Salvation ?"
Thomas Choe, who had continued his studies, received the Order of
Deacon, along with his companion Andrew Kim, from Bishop Ferreol
on about December 10, 1844. After Deacon Andrew Kim received ordination
to the Prieshood and left with Bishop Ferreol and Father Anthony
Daveluy for Korea, Thomas Choe, while staying behind at Sopalgaja
with Father Joseph Maistre, strove to discover another route to
Ordination to the Priesthood and Return Home :
While he was searching for a way to return home, Deacon Thomas Choe
met with secret envoys of the Korean Catholic Church and heard the
news of the 1846 Persecution and the martyrdom of his companion,
Father Andrew Kim. He wrote the following letter to his former teacher,
Father Legregeois, and conveyed to him the heartbreaking news of
his motherland :
"Finally, with the feeling of being released after a long captivity
and with hope of getting a welcome from my companions, I went in
an elated mood to Byeonmun (fortress gate on the Korea-China border).
However, when I reached Byeonmun, my hopes were shattered to pieces.
I was thrown into shock by the tragic news. I and my pitiful country
felt such grief that nothing could provide consolation. The news
of the death of Father Andrew, my dearest companion, will be a cause
of deep sadness for you also, Father."
Deacon Thomas Choe, on being restrained by the secret envoys of
the Korean Catholic Church, abandoned his intention of going home
and, on reaching the Far Eastern Headquarters which had been moved
to Hong-kong, he translated into Latin “The Achievements of the
Korean Martyrs.” At the same time, he kept seeking for a way to
return to his homeland and, in August 1847, he boarded a French
warship and, although he arrived at the shores of Korea, he could
not meet up with the secret envoys and so failed in the attempt
to reach home.
He then moved to Shanghai and was finally ordained to the Priesthood
on April 15, 1849 at Tsangkalou (or Kimkaham) Churh, The ordaining prelate was
Bishop Maresca, a member of the Society of Jesus and Ordinary of
the Jiang-nan Vicariate Apostolic.
After ordination, Father Thomas Choe left Shanghai in May of that
year and went to the area of Liaodong where he began pastoral ministry
under the direction of Bishop Saint Simeon Berneux. In November,
he once again met Father Maistre and, as a result of making an attempt
to go home, he met up with the secret envoys of the Korean Catholic
Church on December 3 and managed to return to his country. Because
of the danger of detection, Father Maistre was unable to enter Korea.
Pastoral Ministry and Death :
As soon as he arrived in his homeland, Father Thomas Choe, after
meeting with Bishop Ferreol and Father Daveluy, began to visit the
Catholics who were hiding in different locations. From the beginning
of 1850, during a period of six months, he walked over 5,000 lys
(about 2,235. 6 km) through five provinces and visited 3,815 Catholics.
After that he settled at the Baithi Christian Village, Jincheon,
the centre of his pastoral ministry.
He continued this type of apostolate for about 11 years and 6 months.
Not only that, he availed of resting periods to translate the Chinese
catechism and prayer book into the Korean language, assisted the
entry into Korea of missionaries, sent seminarians to the seminary
in Penang, Malaysia and collected data on the martyrs.
It was not easy, of course, to travel around the Catholics who were
scattered throughout the whole country. He was sometimes mistaken
for a foreigner and chased from the villages and constantly faced
the danger of death in raids by the police. Once, during his journeys
in 1859, he was detected and severely beaten by the police and non-believers,
chased from an inn where he had been staying and, half-naked, he
wandered through deep snow for the whole night. However, nothing
could strip him of his Faith and his love for his country and the
At the time of the Kyeongsin Persecution of 1860, Father Choe Thomas
and several Catholics were confined to a corner of Kyeongsang-do
and had to survive without contact with the Ordinary of the Vicariate
Apostolic, Bishop Berneux, and other missionaries. He wrote again
to his teacher, Father Legregeois, explaining his dire situation
and requesting help for the Korean Church :
"Save us from distress! An awful misfortune has brutally descended
upon us. The enemies are encroaching upon us. They are rushing to
destroy the inheritance which has been redeemed by your Precious
Blood. If you do not help us from on high, we cannot stand up to
Most reverend and loving Father (Legregeois), through your fervent
prayers, I beg you to please obtain help for us from Almighty God
and our Holy Mother.
This is, most likely, my farewell letter. No matter where I go,
I have no hope of evading the encircling net which is pursuing me.
I earnestly commend our poor and wretched mission field to the unceasing
concern and inexhaustible love of many priests."
Fortunately, Father Thomas Choe was able to escape from the place
in which he had been confined and he completed his pastoral visitation.
After that, he set off to give a report on his apostolic work to
Bishop Berneux. However, he contracted typhoid fever on top of exhaustion
and died at Munkyeong-eup or the Baithi Christian Village, Jincheon
on June 15, 1861. He was 40 years old.
On hearing the news, Bishop Berneux sent a letter to the Rector
of the Paris Foreign Missions Society's seminary, Father Albrand,
in which he eulogized Father Thomas Choe's Faith, zeal and the priestly
discernment which he had shown at all times, and expressed his deep
feelings of loss :
"Father Thomas Choe, because of his Faith, zeal for souls which
burned like a fire and his admirable sense of discernment in his
ceaseless and invaluable ministry, was a person who was very precious
to us. After administering the Sacraments of the bountiful fruits
of Salvation, our one and only Korean priest, Father Thomas Choe,
departed this life last June on his way to Seoul to give a report
to me on the progress of his work.
Father Pourthie, who first heard of the danger with which this kind
priest was faced, arrived early enough to give him the Last Sacraments.
However, Father Choe was unable to speak. The only two words which
escaped from his dying lips were the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary.
Father Choe, through very assiduously carrying out the duties of
a holy priest for almost 12 years, converted many people and did
not cease from striving successfully to save souls.
His death leaves me at a loss. It would be very difficult for western
priests to enter, without the risk of great danger, the area, which
covers many villages, where he carried out his apostolate. However,
the Lord who took him from our midst will provide us with what we
When Father Thomas Choe was on the brink of death at a place 170-180
lys (76.01-80.48 kilometers) from Baeron, Father John Pourthie,
who was at the seminary in Baeron, heard the news. He immediately
rushed to Father Choe's side. However, the only words he could hear
were the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary spoken with great fervour.
Five months after the death of Father Choe, Bishop Berneux celebrated
a solemn funeral ceremony and the remains of Father Choe were laid
to rest in a hill behind the Baeron seminary.