Spreading Hope in Houbi: Father Verny


2017 / March

Liu Yingfeng /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by Max Barker

It was at a Mid-Autumn Festival celebration in the ­Houbi District of Tai­nan City that Father François Verny, originally from France, first made himself well-known among the local people—specifically by kara­oke singing the Taiwanese-language hit “Marching Forward.” Since then, Tai­nan people, Catholic or not, have known this foreign priest not only for his fine singing voice, but even more for his fluency in Taiwanese.

Verny, who has been living in Taiwan for 27 years, is much more than just a missionary for his faith. He is very concerned about issues related to children, and about the outflow of population that is leaving Taiwan’s rural areas desolate and with no clear future path for survival. Beneath his warm and gentle beatific expression, his dedication and commitment put most Taiwanese to shame. And yet he shrugs off accolades, merely saying, “The more you put in, the more you get back.



It is early on a Monday morning, and the weekend tourists have all gone home, leaving the little town of ­Houbi tranquil. Few vehicles traverse its winding roads and lanes. Against a blue sky adorned with floating clouds, there suddenly appears the pyramid-shaped aluminum spire of the Jing­liao Holy Cross Church, with a mild reflective shimmer that has mellowed and faded with time.

The person who opens the door, with a round body to match a round face, is wearing black-framed glasses and smiling like a Buddha. Although the face is clearly that of a foreigner, the greeting to visitors—“Hello! How are you?”—is in perfect downhome Taiwanese.

This “Taiwanese made in France,” Catholic priest Father François Verny, left his home in 1990 to come to ­Houbi in Taiwan as a missionary. Each day he gets up at 5 a.m., just like the neighboring farmers, and strolls through the countryside. The difference is that whereas the farmers are patrolling their fields, Verny’s mission is to bring out the best in ­Houbi and improve the quality of life of all of its residents.

Renovating a church, renewing an old attachment

It was eight years ago that Verny transferred from the An­xi­liao Catholic Church (also in ­Houbi) to Jing­liao. At first he thought that life would be slower here, but he has been busier than ever—perhaps because he can see the problems up close.

Children, the elderly, the future of ­Houbi—all these issues clamor for his attention. At one moment he is trying to figure out what to do about kids who have no place to go after school. At another he is pondering the problem of care for senior citizens. And then there are his poorer parishioners…. And always in his mind are the maintenance and repair of the Jing­liao Holy Cross Church, tasks that are always near the top of his “to do” list.

Jingliao, a community in the ­Houbi District of Tai­nan City, was thrown into the national spotlight back in 2005 with the release of the documentary Let It Be. Since then, many out-of-towners have come here to explore this arche­typal rice-growing township. The Jing­liao Holy Cross Church, built in 1960, has been carried along in the tide, becoming an attraction in its own right. Yet few people know that it was designed by the well-known German architect Gottfried Böhm, who is now aged 97.

Böhm did the design in Germany and sent the plans to Taiwan, leaving it up to local builders to complete construction of the church, with its distinctive ­pyramid-shaped main spire and the conical spires on its bell tower and baptistry. Circumstances at the time did not permit him to come to Taiwan himself. Imagine his surprise and delight when the memory of this building was brought back to him in 2012, after he received a letter from Fr. Verny, written as renovation plans were in the works. Verny invited Böhm to come to Taiwan to see in person his first-ever project. Sadly Gottfried was too old to travel, so he asked his son Paul, also an architect, to take part in the renovation project.

With one wish fulfilled, last year Verny extended his idea to another hall of worship: the ­Ping’an Catholic Church, a branch of the Jing­liao Church located less than five minutes’ drive away.

The ­Ping’an structure, completed only one year after Jing­liao’s, is of a completely different style. It is only half as large by floor area (it can hold only 60 people at most), has a roof constructed out of wood, and outside the building itself it has a courtyard like a traditional Taiwanese three-sided compound, with the whole of the grounds surrounded by a red brick wall. After its completion it functioned not only as a place of worship, but also as an important distribution center for charitable relief. However, a decade or so ago, considering the decline in the rural population and in church attendance, it was decided to close the ­Ping’an facility. The main gate was locked and all signs of human activity faded into oblivion.

Father Verny, seeing that many children of his community have no place to go after school, decided to repurpose the site, which is located right next to Jing­liau Junior High School. While the funds have yet to be raised, Verny has long had a very specific plan in mind. While keeping the external appearance of the church unaltered, he wants to build two new two-story structures. One, at the front of the compound, will be a hostel for guests to stay overnight. Another, to the east of the church, will house an activity center for the elderly and a recreational space for kids. Once completed, it will be possible to look from the upper floors over the compound’s walls across a broad expanse of rice fields and see all the way to the Jing­liao Holy Cross Church.

Priest and principal find common ground

Lin Guo­bin, the principal of Jing­liau Junior High, first met Fr. Verny two years ago, when the latter approached him about borrowing a school classroom for an activity. It turns out that these two men—one responsible for 11 school districts and the other for three parishes—found themselves with a major overlapping area of responsibility: the children in their jurisdictions.

Lin notes that there are few job opportunities in ­Houbi, and young people have been leaving in droves. It is common to see children being raised by single parents or by grandparents. Jing­liau Junior High got together with a subsidiary association of the Jing­liao Catholic Church to launch a program for kids to have after-school supervision and guided study. This project also includes weekend classes for disadvantaged children. Currently Verny not only brings snacks every day, he even arranges for transportation to bring the kids over and then take them home again. “Donating money is easy,” says Lin Guo­bin, “but actually being consistently present, spending time with the children and showing authentic concern for their problems, is a rare and demanding kind of commitment. But still Fr. Verny is here each and every day.”

These days, whenever students see Verny they give him enthusiastic high-fives and chat with him freely and openly. It wasn’t always this way. Even a year or so ago kids were still quite timid around this foreign priest. Fortunately Verny has an ace up his sleeve in breaking down barriers with local children: authentic downhome Taiwanese exactly like they speak and hear at home.

A “Big Nose” finds his way into local hearts

Even today, it is always cause for gossip and discussion when a “Big Nose” (a Taiwanese slang term for foreigners) appears in the countryside. Luckily for Fr. Verny, his teacher had taught him a one-size-fits-all Taiwanese greeting to help him through all his interactions: “Have you eaten today?” Every time he encounters a Taiwanese person in the street and sees the wonder or even suspicion in their eyes, he engages them with this handy catchphrase.

Verny admits, however, “Learning Taiwanese was ­really hard!” He says that this is perhaps the greatest challenge God has presented him with in his time in Taiwan.

Priests who entered training for missionary work in Taiwan at the same time as Verny mainly studied Mandarin Chinese. But he was one of a very small number who were asked to learn Taiwanese, so as to fit in better in the more remote parts of the countryside. He admits that he felt somewhat deflated at the time, but he didn’t complain, and stepped up to the challenge. He began to travel from Tai­nan to Tai­chung each week for Taiwanese classes.

After only six months of coursework, Verny was assigned a most imposing challenge indeed: conducting an Easter Mass in Taiwanese!

Easter is one of the most important holy days in the Christian calendar. The mass is very long and the rituals are complicated. Verny put his nose to the grindstone, making notations in the margin of his bible in Romanization, to help him pronounce the words in Taiwanese. When the service was over, as some of his parishioners came forward to thank him, he replied: “You are lucky that you understood the text. I didn’t understand a single word I was saying!” All he remembers of the day was one phrase that he said to the faithful sitting below the altar just as the mass was ending: “Bián kiann lah!” (“No problem!”)

Always marching forward

Bián kiann lah! Bián kiann lah!” This simple but highly expressive little phrase seemed to put at ease the mind of the then 33-year-old Verny.

Verny had lived the first three decades of his life in France’s second-largest city, Lyon. Before he embarked for Taiwan, his mental map of the world only contained two definite locations: Africa, about which he had heard from his childhood priest, and his homeland of France. In the 1970s the only thing he associated with the word Taiwan was cheap, lowbrow “Made in Taiwan” manufactured goods. It’s no wonder that when the church asked Verny if he was willing to come here, he immediately rejected the idea.

But now that place he once refused to come to has become for Verny his spiritual home. Taiwan was even responsible for an attack of “homesickness” he felt when he was re-assigned back to France by the church for a period of time.

In fact, if you were to obscure the silhouette of his face, you would find a man whose whole way of life is almost identical to that of a Taiwanese. About the only time you feel that he is even a little bit French is when you see the French-language annotations next to his Chinese calligraphy.

In many ways Verny is a very creative person. Even before beginning calligraphy with brush and ink he was doing calligraphic wood carving. When he first started he pored over each character, rigidly following the rules about how to depict it. But now he lets his imagination run free, and he uninhibitedly adapts his characters to the shape and grain of the wood.

“I love freedom,” he says with obvious joy and satisfaction. It’s hard to believe that when he was young he was painfully shy, only able to express himself through gymnastics. Over the last 27 years the straightforward and open-hearted lifestyle of the southern Taiwan country­side has changed him, and as his once lithe physique has become well-rounded, so his personality has become expansive and warm. It is this generous, warm spirit that has become the most familiar characteristic by which this foreign priest has come to be known among the rural folk of ­Houbi District.

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