Freinademetz was born in Abtei, near Badia, South Tyrol, Austria (area ceded to Italy in 1919). He was ordained in 1875 and entered the Steyl mission house of the Society of the Divine Word (SVD) in 1878. Zeal for souls moved him to abandon his beloved Tyrol, his family, and his position as assistant priest and go off to China in 1879. He and J. B. von Anzer were the first SVD missionaries. After working in Hong Kong for some time in 1881 he moved to South Shantung (Shandong), which had been assigned to the SVD. At that time there were only 158 Catholics among a population of 12 million.
Freinademetz devoted himself wholeheartedly to his people and mission. His tenderness counterbalanced the rather hotheaded personality of Anzer. From 1886 to 1900 and again from 1903 to 1908 Freinademetz was the provicar of the mission. Good catechesis and the training of catechists was a top priority, and for this purpose he prepared catechetical material in Chinese. He also availed himself of every opportunity to promote the cause of a Chinese clergy. Another of his great concerns was the spiritual care of missionaries; as provincial from 1900 to 1908, he established a central house in Taikia near Tsining (Jining) to foster renewal. He was also convinced of the crucial importance of prayer for the success of the Chinese mission and was himself a man of prayer. When the missionaries left the danger zones during the Boxer Rebellion, he remained with his people. He reacted calmly to ill-treatment, even death threats. Chinese Christians said of him “He is like Kungdse [Confucius], everything about him is good, everything perfect: he is always friendly, modest, humble.” In 1907 he was made administrator of the mission for the sixth time. While caring for typhoid victims during this period, he contracted the illness that led to his death. When he died, the South Shantung SVD mission reported 45,000 Catholics and almost as many aspirants for baptism. In 1975 he was beatified by Pope Paul VI.
This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright (c) 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of The Gale Group; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. All rights reserved.
- J. Baur, P. Joseph Freinademetz, 4th ed. (1956); Fritz Bornemann, Der selige P. J. Freinademetz, 1852-1908: Ein Steyler China-Missionar (1977; English trans., As Wine Poured Out: Blessed Joseph Freinademetz, SVD, Missionary in China, 1879-1908 ); A. Henninghaus, P. Joseph Freinademetz, 2d ed. (1926); J. Reuter, Das Schrifttum uber Arnold Janssen und Josef Freinademetz. (1990).