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Pilgrimage to Jeoldusan

: a Fall Day’s Journey Along the Han River in Seoul


Sister Modesta is busy with preparations to take three of the residents from the Jeanne Jugan nursing home in Seoul for a fall outing along the Han River. Getting the three residents ready for the trip requires helping them, on shaky legs, navigate the step up on to the running board, sliding into the seat inside. There are also three wheelchairs to put in the trunk of the van.

This trip is a treat for these nursing home residents who have occasional outings but no longer have control over when and where they can go out into the world outside the nursing home. With prayers, as the custom usually is, the van departs from the Hwagok’ neighborhood’s multi-story “villa” streets and alleys and heads out into the 8-lane thoroughfare which leads to the highway. The prayers are in Korean, an Our Father, Hail Mary and Gloria, intoned in a level, chant-like cadence.

Sister Modesta drives the van.  She is in her fifties and wears a nuns’ gray robes, but she is very energetic and looks much younger. In the front seat is Susana, a Korean woman with bobbed hair who dresses like someone in their twenties and occasionally talks about her daughter. Then there are Anna halmoni, Katerina halmoni and Maria halmoni. They are three “halmonis,” which means “grandmother” in Korean. Anna is a quiet reserved woman in her eighties with wispy white hair who always asks if I had my breakfast and often sat for a long time holding my hand, which she said was to cold. At lunch she had a reputation for taking a long time too. Sadly as the months passed, she came to depend more and more on a wheelchair to get around the building. Then there is  Katerina, a seventy plus year old woman who once was a professor of English. A stroke the previous year left her in a wheelchair, unable to speak. Still, she always has an alert look in her eyes, and as the months went by, she regained partially her ability to speak and walk with the assistance of a four-legged cane. The day of the trip to Jeoldusan she still has not regained any mobility outside of the wheelchair, however. Finally there is Maria halmoni, often swaddled in blankets or thick sweaters, who had white hair and spoke in shrill, partial sentences and one of her hands, usually in a glove, tapped involuntarily without ceasing, save when she was asleep.

The van follows the highway along the Han River, which affords panoramic vistas of the nearby National Assembly Building and the rocky crags and forested slopes of Pukansan National Park across the river on the northern side of the city, beyond the rows of tower apartments facing the river, repeated forms that somehow escape systemization and homogenization in their spatial composition.

It is an early fall day, clouds with the hint of rain, which fortunately holds off for the morning. The air is just cool enough for a blouse over a tee shirt, or for long underwear and two sweaters if you are Anna halmoni.

On the way to Jeoldusan the van stops at a half-full parking lot at the Han River Park on Yoido, a broad, flat area along the river with walking paths, playgrounds and sports courts, ferry boat rides, and a large pole set up where a tightrope would be stretched across the river in coming weeks to support a tightrope walking contest across the river.

Sister Modesta, Susanna and I each push one resident, after the involved process of unloading the wheelchairs and then helping the three elders ease themselves out of the van and into the chairs. The walk ends at the rose garden, its bushes with blooms of varying shades and hues interspersed between symmetrical walkways radiating out from the center. The walkway around the outside has big stones in it. Pushing the wheelchairs is difficult, forcing us to pull them backwards across that stretch of sidewalk. In the center of the garden is a set of plexiglass statuettes from Peter Pan: the alligator with clock, Sally, the pirate, and of course the green clad fellow himself. The roses are past their prime, petals on most, faded, some left as only rose hips.

After visiting the rose garden it is late morning and there is the need to hurry if the residents are to make it back in time for lunch. Back in the van, as she is driving across one of the many bridges that span the Han River, Sister Modesta points out an uplifting, church-like structure, unornamented save for its single cross and says, “That’s Jeoldusan.” It sits on a wooded bluff overlooking the river. Looking at this tranquil site on the riverbank, the tourist ferryboat making its way along in the river below, the stream of traffic along the bridge, the tower apartment complexes nearby, to imagine Jeoldusan as a site of martyrdom is difficult. Through a neighborhood of streets with family owned shops and restaurants, brick and granite face apartment buildings and fifteen story apartment towers behind, we drive.

The van eventually comes out in a winding loop of road that parallels the highway briefly before reaching the grassy, gardened Jeoldusan Martyr’s Museum grounds. Parked cars spill out of the available spaces and park along the road, which leads up to the museum. Today the museum and chapel are bustling with visitors.  A wedding party assembles to snap photos on the stairs as the river breeze blows slightly. 

These buildings of the museum and chapel sit on top of a knob of rock, a place in olden times called “silkworm head rock” or “dragon head rock.” In those days the beauty of this place along the river attracted poets from China, seeking to enjoy the river’s natural beauty. The persecution that gave the location its present name, however, took place in 1866.

King Gojang was the ruler of Korea in 1866, and his father’s regent, Sir Daewon, declared an invasion by barbarians when a French warship arrived on Kangwha Island in retaliation for the martyrdom of nine priests. Countless followers of the Church soon found their death through martyrdom at Jeoldusan, most with no written records of their passing. This was after Sir Daewon declared that the blood of Korean Catholics would halt the invading warship. Due process of law and a trial were not part of the persecution. Outside of the museum a torture stone by which beheadings took place with the tightening of a rope illustrates the beheading procedure.

Inside of the museum relics and historical documents put the event in context. The arrival of the Church in Korea is unique in that the Koreans themselves, officials and scholars from Korea working in China and Japan, brought the faith back to their home country as an extension of their research in Western religion and scholarship. Relics of the early years of the church in Korea, include a “Catholic Truth” booklet written by a Jesuit missionary, Fr. Matteo Ricci, and a world map made by another Jesuit missionary, Fr. Verbiest, which they used in China and later brought to Korea. Outside in the garden beside the martyr’s museum, the commemorative monuments include both abstract, non-representational memorials and realistic statues. There are also a grotto to the Virgin Mary and further martyr’s memorials.

After the period of the introduction of Catholic ideas Kim Tae-Gon (1821-1846) became the first Korean priest, a difficult accomplishment due to increasing persecution of the Church and socio-political conflict. The 1866 incident is an example of these incidents of persecution, a notable one in that it opened the Church’s modern era in Korea. Not until 1886 did a treaty with France result in a situation where missionaries could freely proselytize. It was another 20 years before citizens gained religious freedom.

It was in 1956 that the lands of “Silkworm Head Rock” came to be owned by the Catholic Church. Officially around 1950 the people in the area still called the site Jeoldusan, however, and thus that name is now used. The name Jeoldusan literally means  “the place where heads were cut off,” coming from the Chinese characters jeol (to cut, mince, slice), du (head), san (mountain.)

On the way back waiting at a traffic light at the intersection with a larger thoroughfare, Sister Modesta sees a large banner advertising belly-dancing lessons.

“Did you ever try that?” she asks.


“I think women who do that kind of cheapen themselves.”

“Maybe, but isn’t it alright it you just want to try it. My sister did belly-dancing lessons before, I think. She’s done just about everything. She did ballet as a kid.”

“Ballet, now there is something.”

The drive back to Hwagok is over quickly. Then it is up the elevator from the garage in the nun’s residence, past the parakeet cage, by the reception desk, across the courtyard and back to the dining room in the residents’ building.

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