Mary Yi Seong-rye (1801-1840)
Mary Yi Seong-rye was born in 1801 in Hongju, Chungcheong-do. She was from the family of Louis Gonzaga Yi Jon-chang, a devout apostle in the Naepo region. Mary Yi was clever and had a strong personality. She married St. Francis Choe Kyeong-hwan when she was eighteen years old. She lived in Saeteo, Darakgol, Hongju (now, Nongam-ri, Hwaseong-myeon, Cheongyang-gun, Chungnam). She gave birth to their first son, Thomas Choe Yang-up in 1821, who later became the second Korean priest.
Mary Yi was a wise householder who knew how to create harmony and peace among relatives and neighbors. She respected her husband and obeyed him though he was younger than her, and made her family happy. Then she moved to Seoul with her family, but had to move again to Bupyeong, Gyeonggi-do by way of Gangwon-do, then to Surisan (now, Anyang 3-dong, Anyang-si, Gyeonggi-do) because of the danger of the persecution. Her eldest son Thomas Choe was chosen to be a candidate for the seminary by St. Maubant, a missionary priest from the Paris Foreign Missions Society. He was sent to Macao to study theology.
She accepted all the consequences of her faith such as poverty, frequent uprooting and other difficulties with a generous heart. When her young children complained of hunger, she asked them to be patient by telling them stories of Saint Mary and Saint Joseph who took refuge in Egypt, or of Jesus Christ who climbed Mount Calvary carrying a heavy cross on his shoulder. When they settled in Surisan, she helped her husband to set up the Christian village.
When the Gihae Persecution broke out in 1839, her husband Francis Choe took care of the martyrs‘s bodies and buried them by going back and forth to Seoul. He also took care of the believers. During that time Mary Yi supported her husband and raised their children. One day the police rushed into the village to arrest Francis Choe. Mary Yi testified to her Christian charity by offering them food and treating them well. Mary Yi, taking her little children, followed her husband and the police to Seoul.
When they reached the Police Headquarters in Seoul Mary Yi was separated from her husband and children, except for their new-born baby Stephen. On the following day she had to face interrogations and torture where all means were used to force her to betray God. Although her arms were broken and her body was all gashed from the torture, she bravely professed her faith in God.
Mary had to suffer more from her maternal love for her little child than from physical pain. Two-year-old Stephen was dying due to lack of milk. Her breasts were all dried up. Her husband was beaten to death and died a martyr. Seeing the desperate condition of her baby dying on the dirty prison floor began to shake her faith.
Mary Yi yielded to the earthly temptation and was set free, and returned home. However, she was arrested again because the authorities found out that her eldest son Thomas Choe was in Macao to study theology. She was taken to the Justice Ministry.
Then the Lord, in his infinite mercy, had pity on His poor servant and granted her His saving grace. Reaching the Justice Ministry, Mary Yi was greatly encouraged by her courageous fellow Catholics. She repented her mistakes deeply and presented herself to the judge. She bravely declared that she retracted what she had said earlier. With divine grace and the prayers of her Catholic companions Mary Yi overcame all the temptations. She felt at peace and happy that she offered her last son Stephen to the Lord. Her second son James Choe Ui-jeong took care of his mother and other Catholics for more than one month, visiting them in prison.
Mary Yi was sentenced to death after the final interrogation and torture according to the custom. She asked her children "not to come to the execution ground" because she was afraid of losing courage. She left the following testament to her children:
"Now, go home. Never forget the Lord and Holy Mary Mother of God. Love each other, and never separate from each other under any circumstances. Wait until your eldest brother Thomas returns."
On January 31, 1840 (December 27, 1839 by the Lunar calendar), Mary Yi was taken with six other Catholics to the Danggogae execution ground (now, Wonhyoro 2-ga, Yongsan-gu, Seoul), beheaded and died a martyr. Mary Yi was 39 years old. It is said that Mary Yi looked peaceful and happy up to the last moment.