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Historical Preliminary Notes

Historical Preliminary Notes:
The Benedictine Abbey of Tokwon, North Korea
–Its Founding¬–Growth¬–Dissolution–

The Missionary Benedictines of St. Ottilien were called to Korea in 1909 to support the French missionaries in the school sector. They began with a teacher’s training school in Seoul. However, the Japanese who had subjugated Korea raised an objection to it. The Koreans were not allowed in such high positions. Right at the beginning a trade school was founded with the monastery and it developed well. St. Benedict’s Monastery in Seoul received sufficient members from the Bavarian monasteries of the Ottilien Congregation and in 1913 became an abbey. The First World War, of necessity, led to a certain standstill. However, the abbey survived this difficult period.

In 1920 the Apostolic Vicariate of Wonsan was erected in the northeast of Korea and handed over to the Missionary Benedictines. In 1921 the vicariate was expanded by adding territory in Manchuria, China. Detached from several ecclesiastical territories, it was now an area that ran from the thirty-eighth to the forty-eighth parallel, 1100 km to the confluence of the Amur and Ussuri Rivers in Manchuria. The monks gained a foothold, but then the large territory was split up. In 1928 the northern territory in Manchuria was separated as the Mission “Sui Juris” of Ilan. In 1934 it was handed over to the Tyrolean Capuchins. The southern part of the Manchurian section, with Yenki as the center, became its own independent territory, the Apostolic Prefecture of Yenki. (It later became a vicariate in 1937 and a diocese in 1946). In Yenki, as an independent mission territory, an abbey was erected as a monastic center for the missionaries. This became a victim of communism in 1946, three years before Tokwon.

When the Vicariate of Wonsan was erected in August 1920, Abbot Boniface and the missionaries lived in Seoul, some 350 km from the southernmost point of the territory. Therefore, the possibility of transferring the abbey to the vicinity of Wonsan was considered. This took place in 1927. A new monastery came into existence in Tokwon. It served as a monastic center for the Vicariate in northeastern Korea.

In 194o the Vicariate of Wonsan itself experienced a reorganization. In the southern section of the vicariate, the Territorial Abbey of Tokwon was created to which three mission stations were assigned. The remaining territory extending to the 42nd parallel and with Hamheung the provincial capital as its center became the Apostolic Vicariate of Hamheung (It became a diocese in 1962). For the time being Bishop Sauer remained the ordinary of Hamheung as well that of the Territorial Abbey of Tokwon.

On 8 August 1945 Russia declared war on Japan and immediately invaded Manchuria and Korea.  This meant military activity in various places including Hoiryong City near the forty-second parallel. The mission personnel had to flee along with the local population. Nevertheless, the superior of the station, Fr. Witmar Farrenkopf, returned again as soon as possible. But he was killed the following night by the communists—it was on 22 August. He was the first missionary to be killed for the sake of the faith. Religious freedom had been proclaimed but the communists generally responded in a hostile manner to Christianity. Fr. Witmar was the victim of one such hostile attack.

But when the Russians had to withdraw eight months later, the Korean communists took their place. They forbade any kind of missionary work and suppressed everything with brutality. There was an election in September 1948. The communists drew up a single list of candidates and so gained the victory. This was the founding of the so-called Democratic People’s Republic. With this a new period of mission activity began. The schools in Manchuria and Korea were already nationalized in 1944. Now there were even official obstacles to missionary work proper, though it varied regionally, according to the attitude of the respective authorities. The missionaries were more or less under police surveillance and their freedom of movement was restricted.

Since a new feeling of nationalism awoke after the yoke of Japan was shaken off, the missionaries, as foreigners, had to feel an antipathy that was also carried over to the Christian message. In addition the missionaries were obviously in no way ready to encounter communism with any sympathy. Their anti-communist position could not be tolerated. In May 1949 the situation was such that the communists began a general attack. A well-prepared program was drawn up. It was promptly put into action by a radical annihilation of all missionary work. It began with the suppression of the Tokwon Abbey. Unfortunately there is a lack of records from the time leading up to the suppression of Tokwon. Overseas correspondence, including Europe, was subject to censorship—even in Manchuria.


During the night of 9–10 May 1949 the Korean communist secret police occupied the monastery of Tokwon and immediately arrested all the superiors of the monastery and seminary. Two days afterwards, the entire community was arrested and led off to prison. There were some seventy people, twenty of them Tutzing Sisters.

The first group arrested were killed after harsh imprisonment and torture. The second group was relocated and imprisoned in an internment camp. The surviving members were released in November 1953 and were deported home to Europe.

In the Pyongyang prison the following were executed in October 1950, presumably after a trial and various tortures (Asian cruelty): three European priests, three European brothers as well as four Korean priest-monks of Waegwan. Father Maurus Kim of Yenki Abbey, who was apparently arrested with the community of Tokwon, was executed in Wonsan on 8 October 1950.

The Tokwon community was in various prisons in Pyongyang. The twenty Tutzing Sisters were close by. Part of the brothers were moved to the internment camp of Oksadok on 25 June, the greater part only set out on this journey from Pyongyang on 5 August. The Tutzing Sisters were also en route by train. Two Tutzing Missionary Benedictine Sisters were among those who suffered and died in Oksadok. Among the most severe deprivations the internees were forced to perform was the extremely hard physical labor. They suffered that to the point of exhaustion for the sake of the faith.

For the Korean monks of Tokwon and Yenki a new monastic base was able to be established after the Korean War. In this way the foundation of the monastery of Waegwan was laid which European missionaries helped to build up. Today it is a fully Korean monastery under a Korean abbot.