By Liz Sullivan
At first glance, Monsignor Matthew Koo seems like a relaxed, happy priest enjoying an active retirement at age 82.
Spend a few minutes with Monsignor Koo, hear his life’s story and the relaxed atmosphere turns to one of appreciation, respect and awe.
Before coming to the United States in 1988, and Santa Clara County in 1989, Koo spent 29 years as a religious prisoner in his native China.
“There was never any sadness in my heart,” said Koo. “I prayed every day. You never thought too far ahead, but you can’t imagine how horrible life is like in the labor camps.”It was in the early morning hours of September 8, 1955, that a 23-year old third-year seminary student named Guang-Zhong Gu in Shanghai awoke to the sounds of a plain clothes police officer barking to come out of his room at the seminary. Gu, whose Westernized name is Matthew Koo, was a criminal in the eyes of communist China because he was a Roman Catholic and a member of the outlawed Legion of Mary.
Koo spent the next 10 years in prison in China. He lived in conditions not meant for an animal, let alone a human being. If Koo had simply said he supported the Communist regime his prison sentence would have been commuted and he would have been free.
In 1965, Koo’s prison sentence was completed and became a post-prisoner. This meant he was more of a detained employee of China. It also meant he could go home for occasional visits every four years.
It was in the summer of 1984 that Koo returned from a labor camp street market that he noticed a commercial truck parked at the front gate. Koo approached the truck wearing his teaching clothes and he made certain the package of the best quality Chinese cigarettes was visible in his shirt pocket. He asked the driver if he could take him to the long distance bus station just outside the labor camp. The driver agreed. Koo ran back to his room and gathered his meager belongings and then made his way to freedom. Koo was headed to a province far from the labor camp.
From there Koo taught English for four years and studied theology at night. Koo also kept his vow of celibacy. In February 1988 Koo was ordained in the Diocese of Shanghai.
Then a few months later, Koo traveled to the American Consulate in Shanghai and begged to be allowed to immigrate to America, where his older brother lived. Koo’s wish was granted.
Koo first traveled to Chicago and Detroit. Then in 1989, Koo traveled to Northern California and St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, where he was sponsored by the Jesuits. He spent the next three years studying at the seminary then one year at the Church of the Ascension in Saratoga before serving the Chinese community at Saint Clare’s and throughout the Diocese. Koo retired in 2008 and was named a Monsignor in 2014. He resides at Saint Leo Parish.
“I never had any question about my faith,” said Koo, now an American citizen who has traveled back to China three times since leaving in 1988. “I don’t know why God did not set me free earlier, but I always knew he wanted me to be a priest. I am a survivor.”
The level of respect for Koo’s struggles and triumphs has reached all the way to Rome. On September 15, Koo, along with other former Chinese religious prisoners, met Pope Francis at the Martha Chapel in the Vatican.
And the Pope kissed Koo’s hand.
Koo’s allegiance to the Legion of Mary remains strong today.
“I am more than happy to help them,” said Koo. “I am still alive. I still want to help them.”