St. Francisco Fernandez de Capillas was proclaimed Protomartyr (First Martyr) of China on 16 September 1748 by Pope Benedict XIV. Two centuries later, Pope Pius X was to beatify him on 2 May 1909. Almost another century after his beatification, he was canonised by Pope John Paul II on 1 October 2000. His feast is celebrated on the 15th of January.
Angelic, penitential and mortified, it was declared that even if he had not been martyred, he could still have been beatified. The saint who was the first to shed his blood for Christ in China was born in Baquerín de Campos in Palencia, Spain, on 14 August 1607. He eventually entered the Dominican Priory of St. Paul of Valladolid. In February 1632 he arrived in Manila and was ordained to the priesthood. He then ministered for several years in Cagayan de Oro, Philippines.
In 1641, at the Provincial Chapter in Manila, he asked permission to evangelise in the Celestial Empire (China). This was granted and he left with his friend, Father Francis Díez, for Formosa, where they stayed at the House of All Saints in Jilong. In March 1642 they crossed to Fujian, where Father John García welcomed them. Due to persecution, he was the only Dominican priest left in China.
St. Francisco de Capillas began his pastoral ministry at once, and these years, 1644-1646, are called the Golden Age of the mission. Along with Father Díez, he founded the Lay Dominicans in China. He also converted huge numbers of Chinese in all the towns and villages. Especially worthy of mention were his highly virtuous life and conduct, which won him the love and respect of all whom he met. On 4 November 1646 Father Díez died, assisted by the gentle saint. On that same day, the Tartars entered the city, destroying, looting and killing, and with an Imperial edict to kill the missionaries.
The apostolic works undertaken by St. Francisco de Capillas were innumerable. One witness testified that “when he was on the road, he had such a great desire to help souls that to climb the steep mountain roads seemed easier than to walk on level roads.”
One year after Father Díez’s death, St. Francisco de Capillas was captured. He had gone without fear at the height of a local riot to a small village on 13 November 1647 to administer the Sacraments to a sick person. Upon his capture he was taken with a rope tied around his neck to the Mandarin tribunal. Put in the worst jail, he was subjected to the torture of crushing the ankles while being dragged all over the floor. Then he was flogged and incarcerated for two months, condemned to death and enduring patiently the horrible torments inflicted on him.
While in prison, he wrote: “I am here with other prisoners and we have developed a fellowship. They ask me about the Gospel of the Lord. I am not concerned about getting out of here because here I know I am doing the will of God. They do not let me stay up at night to pray, so I pray in bed before dawn. I live here in great joy without any worry, knowing that I am here because of Jesus Christ. The pearls I have found here these days are not always easy to find.”
On January 15, 1648, the judge came and ordered that he be flogged again and put into the sentry box of the city wall. He was ordered to step down from the box, and as he did so, the executioner beheaded him, separating his head from his body with a heavy blow of the sword. His body was thrown outside the city wall and found two months later. It was preserved incorruptible for two months, and was left untouched by a fire that reduced to ashes the house where his coffin was kept. Of the many relics of St. Francisco de Capillas which have been preserved, the most important remains his head, which is found in the convent of St. Paul of Valladolid, where began his religious life.