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Lancelote Rodrigues, champion of refugees, dies at 89

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Yesterday, Father Lancelote Rodrigues died from a chronic disease in Kiang Wu hospital. The priest played a crucial role in protecting the waves of refugees that rushed to Macau, running away from the military conflicts that rocked the region.
Lancelote Miguel Rodrigues was born in Malacca on December 21, 1923, one of 13 sons. He was 12 when he first arrived in Macau, which was at the time a center for pursuing theological studies. According to a biographical article published by Macao Magazine (which we partly reprint), Rodrigues was studying at the St Joseph Seminary in 1948 when the first Portuguese refugees started to arrive from Shanghai as a consequence of the Chinese Civil War.
As soon as the refugees arrived in the territory they were sent to camps set up at the Canidrome, at Rua do Gamboa, and at Rua do Comércio. Lancelote’s strong personality led the Bishop of Macau to delay his ordination, and he was sent to the Canidrome to help with work aiming to support the refugees.
On 6 October 1949, five days after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, he was finally ordained as a priest. He gave Mass for the first time in the chapel of the Canidrome. That same year, the Bishop nominated him as chaplain of the Shanghai Portuguese refugees, a position he held until 1965. He also became a cooperating vicar of the Parish of Santo António (St. Anthony).
Later, between 1950 and 1951, he was put in charge of the Chapel of St. Cecilia; he was the interim parish priest of St. Anthony Church, from October 1958 to October 1959, and deputy vicar from 7 September 1966 to 26 November 1966.
However, serving the refugees was his primary mission in life.
The Portuguese refugees from Shanghai were descendants of Macau families that had left the territory in search of a better life. Many preferred to set themselves up in Hong Kong and Tianjin. Lancelote remembered those times: outside Macau there were more job opportunities. In the ’20s and ’30s many boys from the Seminary, the Secondary School, and the Commercial School managed to do well in Hong Kong. Some of them even got married and had children. But those who had come from Portugal either returned home after doing military service, or tried their luck in other places (such as the United States, Canada and Australia), or opted to live in Macau.
Many missionaries were also sent to China, to Malacca, to Timor and to Singapore, thus increasing the number of Portuguese spread throughout East Asia. When the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, many people of European descent decided to leave China, with most Portuguese returning to the land of their parents and grandparents: Macau. They started feeling the pressure to leave Shanghai. In the heat of the Cultural Revolution, the new Chinese government did not see foreigners in China as a good thing. Father Lancelote, whose words could be narrating a film, told of how the Portuguese left, as did the English, the Americans, the French and many others.
Many Shanghai Portuguese worked in banks and in other companies. Some were bosses, others employees, but almost all of them had received good academic qualifications. At the beginning, it was normal for them to be helped by American and French missionaries. Then it was a question of time and dedication until they made it in life. With the nationalization of companies, unemployment rose and people had to find other places to live. Once they had arrived in Macau, the refugees received help from Santa Casa da Misericórdia, and money to pay for these expenses was sent by the Portuguese Foreign Affairs Ministry.
From that time, Lancelote still remembered the feature films and musical shows that were the entertainment at the Canidrome every Saturday. The refugees organized it all; they played, sang and danced. “It was immense fun,” Lancelote said, adding: “People felt safe in Macau. The territory was under Portuguese administration and China respected the agreements signed by the two countries. The only problem was the loneliness of some people, but I was there every day to raise their spirits.”
Abandoned boys from Macau and China lived alongside the Shanghai refugees. The police would take them off the streets and hand them over to be cared for by the nuns. From 1941 onwards there were also many refugees from Hong Kong in Macau, fleeing from the Japanese invasion of the then British colony. One of Father Lancelote Rodrigues’ biggest challenges was re-housing around 2,000 refugees taken in by Macau during the Cultural Revolution.
In 1953 and again in 1956, President John F. Kennedy, under the terms of the Refugee Relief Program, opened up the United States to those refugees who could prove that they had family living in the country, or those who could find a sponsor. In order to do this, the help of the office of the Catholic Relief Services in Hong Kong and its representative in Macau, Father Lancelote, proved to be vital. In many cases U.S. dioceses, who were charged with finding people a job and somewhere to live, welcomed refugees. As well as the United States, there were also refugees who traveled to Brazil, to Sweden and to Mozambique.
In 1962, when the Hong Kong Catholic Relief Services left, Lancelote took on the role of running the non-governmental organization: a role he added to that of director of the Secretariat of Diocesan Social Assistance Services.
In March 1977 the first Vietnamese refugees, known as the “boat people”, arrived in Macau. As soon as they got near the coast, the police took them into detention. “We had to ask the governor for permission to take care of them. The diocese put them on Ilha Verde and made the Childrens Home (Casa de Beneficência ) available and the military provided us with K-H,” Lancelote said.
Initially, mainly South Vietnamese came off the boats, and those from the North came later. In total, more than 30,000 passed through Macau. Many ended up in Hong Kong, where they and their descendants live to this day. The United Nations Organization worked in partnership with the Catholic Relief Services and nominated Father Lancelote as its representative in Macau.
“The most important thing was to provide employment and access to healthcare. We managed to get them jobs in public construction work,” he noted. He further outlined other projects: “UNESCO [a United Nations agency] paid the students’ school fees, whether or not they were refugees. And the Portuguese Red Cross helped the blind and unprotected children. We also had the precious help of the Rotary Club to raise funds.” The K-H refugee camp, in Coloane Island, closed in 1991. The Catholic Relief Services left Macau in 1992.
As well as the Shanghai Portuguese and the Vietnamese, over the last few decades several thousand refugees have passed through Macau from China, Indonesia, Burma (now Myanmar), Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia and East Timor.
In the later phase of his life, Lancelote Rodrigues headed the Catholic Social Services, whose mission it is to help those people most in need in the areas of housing, employment and education. He was also the director of the So Pio X Music Academy (120 students and 12 teachers), and representative of the consulates of the United States, Great Britain, Australia and Canada in Macau, providing them with logistical and bureaucratic support in issuing visas.
In China – specifically in the provinces of Guangdong, Sichuan and Shaanxi and in Inner Mongolia – Lancelote also coordinated the construction of bridges, sewage networks, water collection stations, power supply facilities, several schools, clinics and hospitals.

Chui expresses condolences

The Office of the Chief Executive issued a statement yesterday expressing “deep condolences” on the death of Lancelote Rodrigues. According to the statement, the priest “stood out for his service in favor of refugees, devoting several years to the service of those in need. He was very attached to the Macanese community and received the highest decorations, being a reference of altruism and an inspiration to all those who had the opportunity to meet him, in Macau and all over the world.”

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Subscribe to comments feed Comments (3 posted)

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Lim Chung Tat 16/07/2013 04:47:05
I too have many photographs of Father Lancelot in 1981 and 1982 taken in Macau and in Malacca, Malaysia, taken in the early 1980s. Many with Beda Lim, Malaysian, and Arturo de Almedia,both deceased. Rest in Peace, Lanc. Lim Chung Tat
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Vic Palmer 21/06/2013 06:13:24
A great loss to Macau, met him last time I was in Macau at Macau Soul with my old school friend David Higgins. Have some good photos with him.
Rest in peace.
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A Vietnamese 19/06/2013 05:23:18
Abraham Lincoln said: "In the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years." Fr Lancelote had both. Thanks God very much for the gift of his being.
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