James Kwon Sang-yeon (1751-1791)
James Kwon Sang-yeon was born in 1751 to a renowned scholarly family in Jinsan, Jeolla-do. He was essentially a man of letters. From the time he learned the Catholic doctrine from Paul Yun Ji-chung he abandoned all other study. He accepted the Catholic teaching and became a Catholic. It was around 1787.
James Kwon devoted himself to studying the Catholic teaching and to practicing it. In 1790, Bishop A. Gouvea of Beijing issued a decree prohibiting Catholics from practicing the ancestral rites. Himself and Paul Yun complied with the order by burning the family ancestral tablet. Also, when his aunt, mother of Paul Yun, died in the summer of the following year he held the funeral ceremony according to the Catholic rite instead of the Confucian ancestral rite.
At that time he thought, “Worshipping a piece of wood like the ancestral tablet was absurd and of no value. Therefore I would prefer to choose the punishment of death rather than violate the Church`s teaching." Very soon, a rumor was spread by relatives that James Kwon and Paul Yun did not offer the funeral ancestral rite and, that they had burned the ancestral tablet. When the rumor reached the royal court it was furious. After a while the royal court ordered the magistrate of Jinsan to `arrest Yun Ji-chung and Kwon Sang-yeon.`
Upon hearing the news, James Kwon took refuge in Hansan, Chungcheong-do and Paul Yun in Gwangchoen, Chungcheong-do. Then, the magistrate of Jinsan detained Paul Yun`s uncle instead of them. When James Kwon and Paul Yun heard this news they left their hiding places, and surrendered themselves to the Jinsan government office. It was around the middle of October, 1791.
At first the magistrate of Jinsan tried to persuade them to renounce their faith. But they said that they could not renounce their faith under any circumstances. They emphatically asserted that the Catholic teaching is the true teaching. The magistrate, on realizing that he could not change their minds, ordered that they be transferred to the Jeonju governor`s office.
James Kwon and Paul Yun were interrogated from the day after they arrived in the Jeonju governor`s office. The governor tried every means possible to get the names of other Catholics from them, but his effort was in vain. They were determined to defend their faith and did not utter even one word that would do harm to the Church or to other Catholics. They were already prepared to die for God. Their only answer was; "We serve God as our `Great Father`, therefore, we cannot worship Him by disobeying His Commandments."
The governor of Jeonju finally made them write their final statements and submitted them to the royal court. Once again these upset the royal court and tension ran high. The ministers of the royal court claimed that "Yun Ji-chung and Kwon Sang-yeon should be beheaded." The king accepted the opinion of the ministers, and finally permitted the execution. The following is an excerpt from the governor`s report to the royal court:
"Though the bodies of Yun Ji-chung and Kwon Sang-yeon were covered all over with blood, they did not even groan. They refused to renounce their faith in God saying, `God`s teaching is very strict, so we cannot disobey Him, though we may disobey our parents and the king.` They said that it is a great honor to die for God under the blade of a knife."
As soon as the judicial decision reached the Jeonju governor, James Kwon and Paul Yun were dragged from their prison cell and taken outside the South Gate of Jeonju. James Kwon, though he was completely exhausted, called once in a while on Jesus and Mary.
Arriving at the execution ground, Paul Yun was beheaded first. Then James Kwon was beheaded while he was praying to Jesus and Mary. It was on December 8, 1791 (November 13, by the Lunar calendar). James Kwon was 40 years old.
The families had to wait for nine days to get permission from the governor to release the bodies of Paul Yun and James Kwon for burial. They were surprised to find that both martyrs looked as if they had just been decapitated and the blood stains seemed bright and fresh. The faithful soaked handkerchiefs in the blood of the martyrs and sent some of them to Bishop A. Gouvea in Beijing. Also, some sick people in danger of death, were restored to health on touching these handkerchiefs.