When the Moon Became a Chinaman

Soldiers of Christ and Uncle Sam fight the "yellow peril"

By William Wetherall

First posted 15 August 2006
Last updated 15 August 2006


Milton McGovern
When the Moon Became a Chinaman
(And Other Stories)
New York: P.J. Kenedy and Sons, 1924
326 pages, hardcover
[Inscription by author dated October 1943]

All I know about Milton McGovern is that, in 1924, he published a collection of short stories under the title of the leading story, "When the Moon Became a Chinaman" (pages 3-40). Or, more precisely, P.J. Kenedy and Sons, in the Catholic book trade since 1826, brought out his stories, all Christian inspirational tales with lots of Catholic twists and Irish Catholic humor.

Gimp Gabrenya

"When the Moon became a Chinaman" picks up speed when, one evening, a group of Catholics and a Pagan head for St. Jerome's church to hear a visiting preacher give a sermon on Foreign Missions.

A fairly serious fifteen-year-old William "Gimp" Gabrenya, his father Mr. Gabrenya, and his aunt Maggie Cullen are joined by some equally wholesome but less-inhibited young Catholic friends, Bill Hennesy, Joe McFall, Sylvan McGarrigle, and Charlie Gillen -- and a Pagan lad the friends hope to convert, Joe "Floody" Flood, "who has never been inside of a church in his life, except once he slipped into a synagogue" (page 13).

No one knows anything about the preacher except what had been in the paper: Father Bonaventure O'Hara, O.F.M. is a Franciscan missionary who has been lecturing in America for a few months.

Is he a Frenchman? Floody asks. No, from his name he's probably Castilian, Hennesy says.

Then what does O.F.M. mean? Floody asks. Over for the money, McFall says. No, over for more, McGarrigle says.

The Chinese laundryman

They see "a young Chinese lad" who had stopped pushing his cart and was counting an assortment of bundles (pages 16-17).

"I didn't know Chinese laundrymen delivered their work," spoke up one of the boys. "I thought the customers had to go after it."

"Are you sure he is a Chink?" asked Hennesy. "Maybe he is a Jap. They all look alike to me. How can you tell them apart?"

"The best way I know of finding out," said McCall, "is this. The next time you meet one of them, just pick a scrap with him, and see whether or not he sticks a knife in your heart."

"And if he does, which is he, Jap or Chink?" asked Gillen.

"I don't know," answered McFall nonchalantly. "You ask him and then come and tell me."

The boys roared at this, especially the young Pagan.

In his sermon, the good friar tearfully pleas for more young missionaries to go overseas. Sure, there are plenty of people to convert in America, but charity does not stop at home. Keep most the priests and money at home, but "in the sweet name of Jesus Christ" give a reasonable amount of funds and a number of clergymen "to those millions of starving souls over there" (pages 22-23).

God and country

The preacher's final entreaty, though, is patriotic (pages 23-24).

"Finally, let me appeal to your love of country, with everything it implies, in asking your support of foreign missionary labors. Much talk is heard regarding a 'yellow peril.' If indeed the amalgamation of the yellow races at some future date should constitute a danger to occidental civilization, or at least to occidental ascendancy, then does it not seem to you that a very excellent way of forestalling such a contingency would be to place -- with the yellow man's permission, after years of persevering missionary labors in his midst -- the cross of Christianity upon his houses of worship and upon his governmental buildings? Yes, my brethren, Christianize the Jap and the Chinaman, for nothing short of that sense of moral responsibility which Christianity alone is likely to inculcate in them will ever act as a restraining force in checking any tendency they might ever have to overrun the Western world. So, help foreign missions and thereby perform a service for both your Church and your Country. And in God's name, let me again urge you to pray for the increase of priestly vocations in foreign mission work. A priest who serves there is not only a soldier of Christ, but also a soldier of Uncle Sam."

The accident

Back on the street, everyone is walking in silence, absorbed in thoughts about the sermon, when they witness "a terrific collision between a seven-passenger automobile and a small cart pushed by a pedestrian" (page 25). Gimp is the first to arrive, and he pillows the head of one of the victims on his calves.

In the meantime, Father Robert Sullivan -- whose "spiritual assistance" had declined by another victim who told him "no more Romanism for me" -- turned to the man Gimp was supporting, and asked an automobile driver to direct his searchlight toward him (page 27).

To Gimp's surprise, he recognized in the poor creature whose helpless form he was holding the young Chinese lad whom he and his friends had passed on the way to church over an hour ago. The sight of this little son of the Orient, lying almost lifeless in his arms, coming as it did on top of the sermon of the evening, had a strange effect upon young Gabrenya.

The boy's eyes came open, looked into Gimp's face, "and his gaze seemed to linger there with a childlike expression of trust and love" (page 27).

Divine grace

Father Sullivan then tells the Chinese chap he will probably die, and asks him if he knows anything about Christianity. The boy's face lights up and he takes the priest's hand and holds it to his "tanned cheek" (page 28).

"Yes. Me likee Clistian God much. Please you make me much quick allesame like you. We want go to Clistian God."

Gimp runs to a drug store, comes back with a coca-cola glass full of water, and thrusts it into Father Sullivan's hand (page 28).

A moment later, the words which would admit this little yellow-skinned laundryman into the eternal ranks, where there is no such thing as color, had been pronounced.

"Me thankee you much, Mister. Now I go home." He smiled, cast a last glance up into Gimp's face, and died.

"Oh, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, save him," Gimp whispers, when he realizes that the "poor wretch . . . now lay at death's door, powerless to retract his insulting words to God's minister, powerless to express sorrow for his past years of sinfulness . . . (page 29).

Gimp was haunted by the eyes of the Chinese boy, and unable to forget the friar's words, he imagined himself in "far-off China" serving as a soldier of both Christ and Uncle Sam (page 31).

Frator Edward, O.F.M.

William Gabrenya was so moved he studied for the Franciscan priesthood and came to be known as Frator Edward, O.F.M. After his ordination, he disembarked for China with two elderly Franciscans who were returning to "their labors in the Orient" (page 37).

On the deck of the ship one night, alone, Father Edward imagined the stars were "Oriental lanterns being hung out in the sky by the hands of little Chinese angels in heaven -- lights to guide him on his way to their earthly kinsmen whom they knew to be in so great need of him" (pages 38-39).

And now the man in the moon looked out from behind a cloud, when! -- yes, the yellow face and features were those of a Chinaman, beautified, etherealized, glorified. And, as Father Edward continued to gaze, he recognized the countenance to be that of the poor laundry lad who had died in his arms long years ago. And! -- yes, the little fellow was smiling, smiling down approvingly to him from away up there in the vast, vast firmament."

Now wasn't that a nice story, boys and girls?

In 1924, the year this book was published, Congress passed laws that greatly limited immigration from Europe, and all but banned immigrants of Asian national origin.