French Indochina, Then and Now

By Christine Niles

In 1620, after an arduous journey from Europe, two Jesuits set foot on the shores of Indochina—a peninsula four times the size of France, bordered by China in the North and India to the West. Although Portuguese missionaries had come to these same shores a century earlier, they had made little headway among the natives. But the courage and dedication of these French priests—Fr. Alexandre de Rhodes and Fr. Antoine Marquez—was blessed by God and would result in the conversion of more than 6,000 souls in seven years.

Thousands more would come to the Faith in the next forty years such that the newly established Society of Foreign Missions in Paris—founded with the aim to evangelize pagan lands—felt the need to send their men overseas. The first Vicars Apostolic were sent, charged with overseeing the spiritual administration of Tonkin and Cochinchina (present-day North and South Vietnam, respectively). Under their care, parishes and seminaries were founded and native clergy trained to serve their own people.

The local monarch, however, was hostile, and forbade Catholic worship. This was the start of persecutions on and off for the next two centuries, resulting in the torture and slaughter of many thousands of Catholics.

The author, left, with her mother and brother, 1974

Fr. Pierre Joseph Pigneaux, sent from France in 1765, can be credited with perhaps the most far-reaching impact on the Faith in Indochina. Within a mere six years, his zeal won for him not only many souls but also an appointment as Vicar Apostolic of Cochinchina and bishop of Adran. Bishop Pigneaux helped restore the deposed prince of Annam to his throne—and by that act obtained the freedom of Catholic worship throughout the southern region. The Faith flourished for more than half a century.

But such felicitous circumstances would not last long. Successors to the throne did all in their power to stamp out every vestige of Catholicism. In 1833, Catholics were ordered to renounce their faith, and as proof they had to trample on a crucifix. Death was decreed for all priests.

Like the hunted Jesuits in Reformation England, these missionaries went into hiding, going from place to place in secret to offer the consolation of the sacraments to the faithful, sheltered in the homes of native converts loyal to their pastors. And like their forebears, captured priests faced torture, dismemberment, and beheading. Prison cells overflowed with Catholics, many who died there—but rare was the case of apostasy. Even among those who renounced the faith amidst tortures, they were quick to repent and be reconciled to the Church.

In 1841, the emperor—claiming Catholics were conspiring against him—ordered that all foreign priests be drowned in the rivers and all native clergy be cut in half. By 1855, Catholicism was outlawed throughout the land, and the massacre began in earnest.

The blood of many Catholic martyrs would soak the Indochinese soil for the next seven years.

Government officials showed no mercy. Hundreds of convents and Catholic towns were burned to the ground and their inhabitants slaughtered or imprisoned. One third of all native clergy were wiped out. Among the 300,000 faithful who dispersed, 40,000 succumbed to death from sickness and starvation.

All told, 600,000 Catholic faithful died in the persecution.

France, outraged by the attack on its people, sent ships to seize Turan and then Saigon. The emperor, out of fear of his enemies’ strength, signed a treaty in 1862 handing over portions of Cochinchina to French control, and promising freedom of worship.

The persecution ended—for a time. It was then that the martyrdoms of before bore fruit: the Faith spread rapidly, and the Church opened her arms to tremendous numbers of converts. Baptisms tripled between 1865 and 1869, and the once-razed parishes and convents formed the foundation of new structures where the faith would once again find a home and thrive.

The freedom enjoyed in the South was not mirrored in the North. Catholics suffered harassment by local mandarins, while government officials looked away. In response to this breach of the treaty, France intervened and seized town after town along the northern peninsula. Reprisals were savage and swift: Annamite soldiers raped, pillaged, and butchered the faithful. The number of Catholic martyrs would again reach into the many thousands.

The persecution finally came to an end with the Franco-Annamite Treaty of 1886, which placed all power in the hands of France. French Indochina was thus born—an amalgamation of four French protectorates: Annam, Tonkin, Cochinchina, and Cambodia.

This period of colonial rule saw the greatest flourishing of the Catholic faith in the entire history of Indochina. Catholicism held favored status, and around the turn of the century the average number of converts per year numbered a stunning 50,000. Native clergy were more numerous than in any other missionary country in the world.

Evil never rests, however, and this time of good fortune would see a swift end in the mid-twentieth century, when Ho Chi Minh declared himself president of the Democratic National Republic in the North, taking over the South some years later. French rule would cease completely in 1954.

Under the communist regime, the Faith was placed under interdict, and the Catholic population quickly dwindled, until it is now only a fraction of the populace.

But France’s presence is everywhere felt, whether in the faith, language, architecture, dance, or food. It was Fr. Rhodes who latinized the Vietnamese tongue, transcribing the tonal language into the Western characters used by all Vietnamese today. And Saigon, the former capital of Indochina, evidences France’s influence in its European architecture, tree-lined streets, and public gardens. Ballroom dancing, a popular pastime among the Vietnamese, is a French import. And the French contributions to Vietnamese food are too numerous to recount, whether in their coffee, cheese, pastries, or main dishes.

The Eldest Daughter of the Church once had a cherished daughter in Indochina, who has now cast her off—even so, France’s spirit remains.

A WORLD DESTROYED: The Municipal Theater of Saigon in the 1950s.

STREET SCENE IN FRENCH INDOCHINA: Bittersweet memories of a time before Communist Vietnam.

A CATHOLIC COUNTRY: Motorcycles fly by the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Saigon, built during the time of French Indochina.

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