He once rescued 14,000 refugees – now could he intercede in Afghanistan’s crisis?

Christine Rousselle   By Christine Rousselle for CNA

Refugees during the Hungnam evacuation, c. December 1950 / Public domain

Washington D.C., Aug 24, 2021 / 03:00 am (CNA).

As thousands try to escape a crisis in Afghanistan, Catholics could ask the intercession of a man who orchestrated the largest humanitarian rescue operation by a single ship – Servant of God Marinus (Leonard) LaRue.

LaRue, a merchant marine captain, led the ship that harbored 14,000 refugees escaping Korea at the outset of the Korean War in December 1950. He later became a Benedictine monk in New Jersey, taking the name of Brother Marinus, OSB. The U.S. bishops’ conference recently expressed support for his cause of beatification and canonization on the diocesan level.

Brother Marinus “would be a wonderful intercessor right now,” Bishop Elias Lorenzo, OSB, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Newark, told CNA. “I think of him often as being very generous, and his response to the call of service.”

“We have to pray and also be inspired by those that have gone before us, such as Brother Marinus, to be agents of courage and assistance to others,” said Fr. Pawel Tomczyk, a priest of the Diocese of Paterson in New Jersey, to CNA in an interview. Tomczyk is the postulator of Br. Marinus’ cause for canonization.

Following the recent withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, Taliban fighters swept through large swathes of the country and captured the capital of Kabul on Aug. 15. The rapidity of the group’s advance came as many Afghan civilians and U.S. citizens were still seeking to leave the country.

Many people journeying to Kabul International Airport have since been obstructed by Taliban checkpoints, with reports of violence near the airport. A fatal shooting killed one Afghan soldier near the airport on Monday, the Associated Press reported, and a stampede near the airport entrance over the weekend killed seven people.

According to the White House on Monday, the United States had evacuated and facilitated the evacuation of approximately 48,000 people since Aug. 14, including 10,900 people in a 12-hour span on Aug. 23. Thousands still remain, seeking to be evacuated.

Tomczyk said that images of crowded military planes carrying people to safety is a reminder that “history repeats itself.”

“We just pray that we have more people like, like Captain LaRue, who would step in and do the right thing when the time is right,” said Tomczyk.

In LaRue’s case, the “right thing when the time is right” meant orchestrating the largest humanitarian rescue operation with a single ship.

On Dec. 23, 1950, he boarded more than 14,000 Korean refugees on his ship, the S.S. Meredith Victory, at the port of Hungnam in North Korea; the ship’s normal capacity was 59 passengers and crew. LaRue then carefully traveled 450 miles through mine-infested waters to safety in Japan.

The unarmed ship arrived in Japan on Christmas Day, and miraculously suffered no casualties on board despite being overcrowded and under-supplied. Five babies were safely born aboard the ship during the journey to Japan.

Several years later, LaRue entered religious life in 1954.

“I think often on that voyage. I think how such a small vessel was able to hold so many persons and surmount endless perils without harm to a soul,” Br. Marinus later said, regarding the 1950 evacuation.

“And as I think the clear, unmistakable message comes to me that on that Christmastide, in the bleak and bitter waters off the shores of Korea, God’s own hand was at the helm of my ship.”

In the current case of Afghanistan, Tomczyk said that people should not only be praying for the safe passage of refugees, but should also be charitable.

“We have to obviously pray, but also be the agents of charity in the world today,” he said. “Hope and this personal invitation to his unconditional love for others are the two things that would be definitely connecting Marinus with this situation.”

Bishop Lorenzo knew Br. Marinus when he was in college seminary and would visit the nearby Benedictine monks at St. Paul’s Abbey in Newark, New Jersey. Brother Marinus often worked in the abbey’s gift shop or as the abbey’s porter.

Both of those roles were considered relatively basic jobs at the abbey, a sharp contrast to his past life as a captain. As a simple monk, Br. Marinus did not pursue the priesthood.

“You would think a man like that, the captain of a ship who did all those things would have a much more important position in the community, but he seemed very happy with humble, simple work in service of the community,” said Lorenzo.

Lorenzo told CNA that he was completely unaware of Br. Marinus’ heroism until he attended his funeral in 2001, a testament to the monk’s humility. At his funeral, many Korean Catholics attended to pay their respects to a man who saved so many lives.

With the current humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, Lorenzo is hopeful that the dire situation will help raise awareness of Marinus’ cause for sainthood and his past heroic actions.

“Maybe this will promote even more his cause for sainthood, as we can get these individuals, especially those who assisted the U.S. government and [persecuted] Christians, in particular, to safe harbor somewhere,” he said.

The life and deeds of Br. Marinus, said Tomczyk, could help to remind people to remain steadfast in God’s hope and “the fact that God works through people.”

“I’m sure in the midst of all this evil, there are people of good will, people who are acting as God’s messengers,” he added.

“And so I think [Br. Marinus] might be a sign of hope that even in the greatest darkness, there are good people out there who, or generally serving others in need.”


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