Fifty years ago I baptized a dying girl, calling her Magdalene.

Saturday, 4/2/16

Fifty years ago in my parish in Korea we had packs of teenaged girls with no money for schooling. They moved around together, lighting here and there like flocks of crows. Many of them, with good minds, took to the task of memorizing our Korean catechism that was a translation of our old Baltimore catechism.

If they came to Mass every Sunday for six months, and if they memorized a hundred and seventy catechism answers, we’d baptize them. But there was one hitch. Their fathers had to promise they would not take money from a married man who wanted a second, young wife.

The father of Choon Ja, our brightest girl, would not give up on selling her, so she stopped coming around except for Sunday Mass. She came up one day a year later with word that her brother was dying of TB. Following her down to her house, I found that the family had put up a lean-to where the boy could await death without contaminating the family. An embroidered sheet tacked to the wall of the house bore, in English, the words “Home Sweet Home.”

It was the kind of thing that a poor girl would bring in her trousseau, so I asked the boy if he was married. He said, “I was, but I sent her away to live, because I have to die.”

After a month of my visits the boy died as a happy convert. His dad dug a hole for him on a neighbor’s land. After that I heard that Choon Ja’s dad had sold her to an army officer, and that seemed to be the end of the story. Then, three years later a man came up, telling me that a girl in his village was dying, and she wanted to see the priest. I followed him to the same house, but this time it was Choon Ja lying in the lean-to, dying of TB.

To keep her from soiling anything, they had left her naked, but she reached up and wrenched the “Home Sweet Home” sheet over her. She asked me to read the Bible story about Mary Magdalene, then she asked to be baptized Magdalene.

Coming out from Mass the next morning, I saw the men laughing, and asking the cause, I was told that Magdalene had died. When I chided them for laughing at the dear girl’s death, they assured me that wasn’t it. “Father, she scared her dad by telling him if they didn’t pay for her to have a church funeral, she would come back and haunt them, and she scared the old skinflint  into paying for it”

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