Augustine Yu Hang-geom (1756-1801)
Augustine Yu Hang-geum was born in 1756 in Chonam, Jeonju (now, Namgye-ri, Iseo-myeon, Wanju-gun, Jeonbuk) to a noble family. He learned the catechism soon after Catholicism was introduced to Korea in 1784 and became a Catholic. He was the first Catholic in the Jeolla-do region. Both John Yu Jung-cheol and John Yu Mun-seok, who were martyred in 1801 were his sons. Lutgarda Yi Sun-i who was martyred in 1802 was his daughter-in-law and Matthew Yu Jung-seong was his nephew.
It was Francis Xavier Kwon Il-sin, his relative who lived in Yanggeun, Gyeonggi-do, who taught him the catechism. He learned the principles of Catholic doctrine at the house of Francis Xavier Kwon and embraced it as the truth. He received the Sacrament of Baptism from Peter Yi Seung-hun. Afterwards he returned to his hometown and began to proclaim the Gospel there, especially to the members of his own family, relatives and servants.
He was all things to all people without distinction. All people, whether rich or poor, were equal. He gave good example by putting the teaching of the Church into practice. He showed compassion and gave alms to poor neighbors as well as to his servants.
Augustine Yu was possibly appointed pastor of Jeolla-do region when, in the spring of 1786, the leaders of the Catholics including Peter Yi held a meeting and appointed clergy at their own discretion.
Afterwards, Augustine Yu returned to his native place and celebrated Mass and administered the Sacraments to the faithful. However, after a while, the leaders of the Catholics understood that such an act was a sacrilege. As soon as this was brought to his attention he stopped immediately.
From that time, the leaders of the Catholics were actively preoccupied with sending a secret envoy to Beijing to invite priests. Augustine Yu participated actively in the project and donated the money to send Paul Yun Yu-il to Beijing at the end of 1789.
When Monsignor A. Gouvea, Bishop of Beijing, issued a decree prohibiting Korean Catholics from performing the ancestral rites in 1790, Augustine Yu buried the ancestral tablets in the ground. But when his cousin Paul Yun Ji-chung was arrested on charges of abandoning the ancestral rites, he went into hiding, temporarily. Later he surrendered himself to the Jeonju governor`s office but was released after he apostatized, as a matter of form.
When Father James Zhou Wen-mo came to Korea at the end of 1794, Augustine Yu sent his younger brother Yu Gwan-geom to meet him and invited him to visit the Jeolla-do region. At that time, the royal court sent out a warrant for the arrest of Father Zhou. To avoid danger, he began making local pastoral visits. Father Zhou went to the house of Augustine Yu in Jeonju by way of Gyeonggi-do and Chungcheong-do. He administered the Sacraments to the believers there.
Later on, when Father Zhou planned to request Bishop Gouvea of Beijing to send missionaries to Korea on a Western ship, Augustine Yu took a leading role in helping him. The plan did not materialize. Besides, the Shinyu Persecution broke out in 1801. Prior to that Augustine Yu allowed his eldest son John Yu Jung-cheol and Lutgarda Yi, the daughter of Matthew Yi Yun-ha, to marry and to vow to live as a `virgin couple`.
When the Persecution broke out, Augustine Yu, who was recognized as the head of the Church in the Jeolla-do region, was first to be arrested. He was taken to Seoul from Jeonju where he underwent interrogation and torture at the Police Headquarters, the Justice Ministry and the Supreme Court. The persecutors, who recognized Augustine Yu as the one who planned to request missionaries to come on a Western ship, tried to force him to confess the whole truth. However, since he was already determined to die a martyr, he neither betrayed the other believers nor said anything that would harm the Church.
The persecutors, despite all their efforts, could not get any of the information they were looking for. So they charged him with the crime of treason and ordered that he be executed. With this decision, Augustine Yu was transferred back to Jeonju. He was taken outside the South Gate in Jeonju on October 24, 1801 (September 17, by the Lunar calendar). There he was hacked to pieces. Augustine Yu was 45 years old.
Later on, Bishop St. Daveluy wrote the following regarding the question of the apostasy of Yu:
"The question of the apostasy of Augustine Yu is denied by the majority of people, therefore, I do believe that he will receive the palm branch of martyrs before God."