Telling It in the Mountains: The Bethlehem Mission Society


2017 / March

Liu Yingfeng /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Jonathan Barnard

For 60 years now, the Swiss priests of the Bethlehem Mission Society have lived in poor communities in the mountains of Tai­tung. They have witnessed the area’s hardships and deprivations, while providing education and relief to the poor, and saving souls.

Today, their exotic faces are gradually disappearing from the Tai­tung countryside, but the contributions they have made to Taiwanese society will never be forgotten.



Photographer Nicholas Fan’s The Chapel of Kung-Tung: An Education Legend in the Coastal Range of Taiwan and Men for All Seasons: The Swiss on the East Coast tell the story of the Swiss priests behind the Bethlehem Mission Society in Taiwan. Without these books, the story of these Catholic fathers, who crossed the seas to distant Taiwan in 1953 and devoted their lives to improving life in the mountains of Tai­tung, might have been lost.

For 60 years, the headquarters of the Bethlehem Mission in Taiwan has been located inconspicuously in the city of Tai­tung, next to St. Mary’s hospital. A chapel and classrooms can be found inside a building whose architectural style recalls Le Corbusier. Here is also where the priests and monks used to live back in the day. 

A yellowed picture in the parlor features a photograph of young priests at the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Bethlehem Mission Society in Switzerland. They would all end up serving as missionaries in locations such as Africa, Central and South America, and mainland China.

Building schools, helping the poor, saving souls

In 1953, a large group of the society’s missionaries relocated to Taiwan from northeast China, settling in Tai­tung. The government’s ability to provide healthcare and social care in the area was very limited, so the mission stepped up. Tai­tung’s St. Mary’s Hospital and the Training Center East, as well as several local nursing homes, were founded by the mission. Among them, St. Joseph’s Kung-Tung Technical Senior High School, which was established by the Taiwan mission’s founder, Father Jakob Hilber, is the most familiar to people these days.

Not long after Fr. Hilber arrived in Tait­ung, he decided to establish the high school, which was modeled on German vocational high schools. From 1958 to 1974, the school employed more than 20 foreign instructors from Germany, Switzerland and Austria to teach woodworking skills. The wood furniture the school produced was well regarded both in Taiwan and overseas. During its heyday, its beds could be found in hospitals throughout Taiwan.

And today, the heavy exterior wooden doors at the mission headquarters, the wooden screens defining interior spaces, and the pews in the mission’s chapel were all created by the school’s students. Exquisitely crafted with lustrous wood, the furniture and wooden doors bear witness to the marvelous workmanship of that era.

Pain shows you’re alive!

Before the Bethlehem Mission Society made a name for itself in Taiwan, its big-eared priest Father Josef Eugster, whose name in Taiwan is synonymous with reflexology foot massage, became widely known to Taiwan’s public.

Now aged 78, Fr. Eugster is the youngest member of the mission.

He arrived in Taiwan in 1970, and his parish now spans from Chang­bin all the way south to ­Yongfu. ­Every Sunday, he rises at 6 a.m. and begins a day of traveling: First he delivers a sermon at the church in ­Yongfu. Then he scurries to the church in Changguang before finally heading for Chang­bin to deliver his last mass of the day. Although he ends up spending more than two hours all told delivering mass in three separate places, Eugster doesn’t show even the faintest hint of fatigue.

Perhaps his faith is sustaining him, or perhaps his health has been bolstered by the foot massage therapy he developed to treat his rheumatoid arthritis while training as a young priest in Hsin­chu.

Eugster learned the technique from an old German medical book. Though its pages were yellowed and its cover beat up, the book, whose therapies he first used to treat himself, became a treasured conduit for establishing deeper links to the community. He has spent several decades widely disseminating this method of therapeutic foot massage.

Mastering the foot massage technique requires 136 hours of rigorous training. From focusing simply on treating people, he has moved to teaching the technique to rural residents, thereby providing a vocation with which they can make ends meet.

Those coming to study under him have changed from Aborigines initially to Southeast-Asian immigrant brides living in Tai­tung today.

These “new immigrants” account for most of his current 20 students. Swiss, Germans and Africans also number among them.

Nevertheless, Eugster reveals that when he arrived with this skill, many locals didn’t appreciate it, and he first provided the therapy to people from elsewhere in Taiwan or even foreign travelers. “A temple’s neighbors take the deities for granted,” says Eugster, quoting a Taiwanese idiom. “It’s travelers from afar who show it the proper respect.” The mission’s secretary Lin Su­fei notes: “The father has better Mandarin than the locals, and better Taiwanese than the Taiwanese. Likewise, he speaks Amis better than the Amis!” 

In fact, mastering the three languages took a lot of hard work. Along the way, he often played the fool and elicited much laughter, such when confusing the Taiwanese word for “butt” with the word for “countryside.” But he had the courage not to be bothered by losing face. When he walked through the neighborhood, he would say hello and chat with those he encountered. As suspicious looks gave way to smiles, he knew that his Taiwanese was improving.

As a child, Eugster aspired to become a teacher or doctor. But he ended up fulfilling his dreams on the other side of the world. “The big boss gave me a mission!” He has been in Taiwan for 47 years now, and whenever anybody mentions him, they put the emphasis on his foot massage therapy. But Eugster always reminds them: “In fact, my calling is to be a priest. Reflexology is just a way of getting the message out, and of meeting people.”

“Eugster’s foot massage therapy” both rehabilitates people’s bodies and soothes their minds. Whenever he hears people crying in pain like babies, Eugster laughs and responds with a line he never tires of: “If you feel pain, that means you’re still alive!”

A gardener restores Taiwan

Unlike Eugster and other priests who went deep into remote areas, Brother Augustin Büchel, ever since arriving in Tai­tung in 1963, has spent his time at the mission headquarters, handling payrolls and other administrative affairs.

Apart from his administrative duties at the mission, Büchel, who was born on a farm in Switzerland, also shows great love for Taiwan’s nature. He has planted trees in front of the mission’s campus on Hang­zhou Street and black persimmons in the parking lot, as well as flowers and trees inside the campus.

His love for Taiwan exceeds even that of most Taiwanese, and he often plucks wildflowers along streets and alleys. When he arrives at friends’ homes, they often come out to warmly greet him, only to find him lost in thought, admiring their flower gardens. When he’s out on a hike, his strict conservationist side comes out as he considers the balance of the forest ecosystem. Sometimes, when no one else is watching, he stealthily sows a few seeds. Years later, he’ll return to silently enjoy the flourishing grown trees. “If I hadn’t become a monk, I think I would have been a gardener!”

Now in his eighties, when he takes a pleasure drive up into the mountains behind Chulu, he displays not the slightest hesitation as he confidently navigates the winding road’s sharp curves. The 50-minute trip is to a small house in the mountains, where a friend has invited him to help in the garden, knowing Büchel’s fondness for horticulture.

As far as Büchel, who loves hiking, is concerned, the wild mountains spread before him are not only his favorite place to visit, they have also been a springboard for meeting many people. His friends all know that this monk who spends his days busy with the administration of the mission has an deep, enduring love for the natural environment of Taiwan. Consequently, he has become a member of the Taiwan Environmental Protection Association and has even organized a climbing club, becoming Taiwan’s first foreign-national wilderness guide. He has hiked throughout Taiwan’s Central and Coastal mountain ranges.

From the moment he first landed in Taiwan, Büchel hasn’t let himself long for home. “Once you start on your journey, don’t look back!” he says. It isn’t clear whether he is drawing inspiration from the Bible or from his own experiences as a young man arriving in the remote mountains of Tai­tung 54 years ago.

From its peak of over 30 members, the Bethlehem Mission Society in Taiwan now consists of only five priests and one monk. The strapping young fathers and brothers of that black-and-white photo have become wise elders.

Yet the passage of time has not reduced the determination of those priests, who overcame all manner of linguistic difficulties as they moved deep into Tai­tung’s mountains. In the parlor of the mission there is a map of Tai­tung, hand-drawn from a projected slide. It’s a fitting representation of the mission’s 64 years of serving every remote community in the county.

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