St. Anne’s Shrine statue offers reminder of opioid epidemic, place to pray for victims

By Dave Jolivet
Anchor Editor

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FALL RIVER, Mass. — St. Mark Ji Tianxiang is perhaps one of the least known martyrs to be raised to sainthood, and may also be one of the few who went to his death still under the spell of the demon that held him captive most of his life.

The Catholic Chinese layman lived in his native land in the 19th century. He was a medical practitioner who sought to care for the poor around him. Yet, it was an illness of his own that led to a life of opium addiction, of which he never escaped.

It is believed that Tianxiang suffered a serious stomach ailment and was given opium to ease the pain. As is the case in many instances, he became addicted to the pain killer and because drug addiction was considered scandalous, he was ostracized by his community. 

He continuously confessed his sin of drug addiction in the confessional, but because the priest and the Church didn’t understand the nature of addiction he was scorned. It was thought that since Tianxiang consistently confessed the same sin, he wasn’t truly repentant, therefore his Confessions were considered invalid.

He was banned from receiving the Sacraments for the last three decades of his life.

Despite being ostracized from the Church, Tianxiang remained faithful to his faith and continued to study it with the help of his brother, a Catholic priest.

During the Boxer Rebellion from 1897-1900, when Chinese radicals sought to eliminate foreigners from China, Tianxiang was offered the chance to live if he renounced his Catholic faith. He refused to abandon God, even though the Church, for all intent and purposes abandoned him. He was executed on June 8, 1900, becoming a martyr for the faith, something for which he prayed most of his life, in lieu of being able to receive the Sacraments.

He was canonized by St. Pope John Paul II on Oct. 1, 2000, along with the other Chinese martyrs. His lifelong struggle with addiction makes him the perfect patron saint of addicts, knowing full well what they have and are going through.

Opioid addiction has a long history, but recently it has reached epidemic proportions across the world, particularly in the United States, with staggering numbers within the Diocese of Fall River.

Because of this local scourge, a local physician approached Father David C. Deston Jr., parochial administrator of St. Anne’s Parish in Fall River, with the suggestion to have a statue of St. Mark Ji Tianxiang made and placed in the shrine, giving addicts and their loved ones a place to pray for his intercession in battling this life-altering and life-threatening disease.

Father Deston and the parish agreed. “Drug addiction is a growing problem causing much pain in our society today,” said Father Deston. “We turn to counseling and medicine to treat it, but we also need to pray. As a Church, it’s our responsibility to provide a place to pray, to support people and to help them carry their cross.”

Some addicts have chosen their lot in life, others have fallen victim to prescriptions originally meant to help them, but instead, became dependent on the drugs past their ability to stop.

Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., blessed the statue located in the St. Joseph’s Shrine area of St. Anne’s Shrine, on July 26, the feasts of Saints Joachim and Anne.

“I am glad we have placed the statue of St. Mark Ji Tianxiang, patron saint of addicts, at the shrine of St. Anne,” Bishop da Cunha told The Anchor. “This statute can be for those struggling with addiction,  a sign of God’s constant care and love for them. It can be a sign to them that they are not alone. It can also be a source of help to the family members of those facing addiction in their lives. It is one more instrument to use in the fight against addiction. They can pray to St. Mark, asking his intercession on their behalf. 

“During these times when so many people, especially young men and women, are suffering from addiction and as our communities face the opioid crisis, we need to also use our faith and the power of prayer to seek God’s help and guidance to deal with this horrible evil.”

Believed to be the first-ever statue depicting the 19th-century Chinese martyr for the faith, New Bedford-based sculptor Erik Durant, who also coordinates the Fine Arts program at Bristol Community College in Fall River, was commissioned to create the statue, financed by private donors.

Durant poured through a great deal of research to come up with a likeness of St. Mark, since no photos or sketches of him are known to exist.

“Another local artist referred Father Deston to me,” Durant told The Anchor. “He told me about St. Mark and we got together and discussed it further.

“There is very little information about St. Mark available, so what I used for inspiration for the statue were photos of Chinese opioid addicts in the 19th century.

“I studied what the addiction did to the body, and how devastating the effects were. I also saw just how much the human body can handle.”

Durant said this is an important piece because of the local addiction crisis. “I feel it’s important because it’s relevant to all of us,” he said. “It tells the story of what is really going on around us.

“I don’t regularly create statues of saints, but I hope this helps people reflect on the crisis. We don’t know any 19th-century Chinese opioid addicts, but we all know, in one way or another, someone who is going through this terrible problem.”

In an interview with The Anchor, Durant made particular note of how St. Mark is holding the opium pipe. “His hands are reaching out, an addict looking for help,” he said. “I tried to capture that he is holding the pipe loosely and lightly, almost asking someone to take it from him, yet not being able to let go. It’s an in-between scene — a scene of uncertainty, which is what many addicts are really experiencing.”

Over the last few years, the opioid scourge has had a marked increase in southeastern Massachusetts, with the counties making up the Diocese of Fall River having some of the highest numbers in the Commonwealth. Bristol, Plymouth, Barnstable and Dukes counties rank highest in the state, along with Essex County in the northeast of the state, and Berkshire County on the western fringe.

According to a May 2017 report from the Massachusetts Department of Heath, there were 501 opioid overdose deaths in 2016 within the confines of the Diocese of Fall River. Two-hundred-and-thirty-three of those were in Bristol County alone.

Those are just those who succumbed to the addiction. There are countless other overdose cases handled by local EMTs and police on a daily basis.

On a Fall River Herald News crime map published in April, overdose instances appeared abundantly throughout the city, from Assonet to Tiverton, from Westport to Somerset.

St. Mark Ji Tianxiang knew the devastation of opioid addiction, how it ravished his body and mind. But it never infiltrated his soul and love for and trust in God.

Far too many people across the globe have fallen prey to addiction, and the Diocese of Fall River has more than its share of these souls.

These people know the helplessness of the trap they are in, with seemingly no way out. Their families, too, share the pain and feelings of despair.

It may provide some solace to victims of addiction and their loved ones knowing that one of God’s beloved saints went to his death still in the stranglehold of addiction.

The statue of St. Mark Ji Tianxiang in the St. Joseph’s Shrine in St. Anne’s Shrine in Fall River is a place where suffering souls may place their burdens on the shoulders of one of their own and pray for the intercession of a simple man who was ostracized by his Church and community for his disease, but a man who never lost sight of the God Who loved him unconditionally.

A prayer card for St. Mark Ji Tianxiang’s intercession found online reads:

Prayer to St. Mark, patron of drug addicts

“Glorious St. Mark, holy martyr of China, you are the patron saint of drug addicts because for many years you struggled with the effects of opium addiction which affected every aspect of your life. Yet despite this you never gave up trying and praying, and in Heaven God has rewarded your perseverance. Dear saint you know better than anyone the great tribulations that come with addiction; look with compassion upon all drug addicts throughout the world and deliver them in their recovery and help them resist their temptations. Obtain from God that drug addicts everywhere may receive the support and the compassion they deserve and may all, through the grace of God be restored to full health. Amen.”

St. Anne’s Shrine is open  daily from 7 a.m to 7 p.m.
The Massachusetts Substance Abuse Helpline is 800-327-5050.

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts