Born in Cumberland, Maryland, Walsh received his missionary calling in 1912, when he came across a copy of the Maryknoll magazine, Field Afar. He became one of the first six students to enroll in the seminary at Maryknoll, New York, founded by the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, which itself was founded for the express purpose of being the overseas missionary wing of the U.S. Roman Catholic Church.
In 1918 he was among the first four Maryknollers to leave for the missions. He had been in south China barely one year when he was chosen to become the leader of this pioneering effort, and was soon responsible for a mission territory one and one-half times the size of his native Maryland. His early years in China were filled with tense events as he was captured by bandits and caught in bloody local wars. In 1927, at the age of 36, he became Maryknoll’s first bishop, and in 1936 was called back to the United States to become the first superior general to succeed James A. Walsh (not related), the founder of Maryknoll, who had just died.
During his ten-year term he supervised Maryknoll’s first mission efforts to Latin America and Africa. He then returned to China, to accept the post of executive secretary of the Catholic Central Bureau, an agency newly founded to coordinate all missionary; cultural, welfare, and educational efforts of the Catholic Church throughout China. After the fall of Shanghai in 1949, the Communist authorities put the bureau under increasing surveillance and finally ordered it closed. Even though he knew his arrest was inevitable, he chose to stay and not desert his flock.
In 1958 he was apprehended for alleged crimes of espionage and conspiracy and, two years later, sentenced to 20 years in prison. In July 1970 he was released before the expiration of his sentence. At the age of 79 he became the last missioner expelled from China.
To Walsh the successful missionary was one who “has ceased to be an American and has become Chinese.” His years of imprisonment were a long, purifying test of his adjustment and total dedication to the Chinese people as reflected in his writings on the necessity of adaptation, the power of prayer, and the place of suffering in a missioner’s life. He died at Maryknoll, New York.
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.
- Walsh’s major published works include Mission Manual of the Vicariate of Kongmoon (1937), Maryknoll Spiritual Directory (1947), The Church’s World Wide Mission (1948), Blueprints of the Missionary Vocation (1956), and Zeal for Your House (1976). Biographical accounts include Robert E. Sheridan, Bishop James E. Walsh As I Knew Him (1981); Frank Paul Le Veness, “Bishop Walsh’s China: The Life and Thought of an American Missionary in China,” Chinese Culture 14 (June 1973): 21-36; and Jean- Paul Wiest, “The Spiritual Legacy of Bishop James E. Walsh of Maryknoll,” Tripod 5l (June 1989): 21-28, 56-67.