After 1724, in view of the growing insecurity of the Catholic Church in China, training for the priesthood continued primarily outside the empire, and many Chinese were sent to Europe. The 'Propaganda' missionary Matteo Ripa founded the College of the Holy Family of Jesus Christ in Naples in 1732 for the purpose of training Chinese secular priests. The Jesuits likewise sent some Chinese to study in Europe, at their college in Rome or at Louis-le-Grand College in Paris. There some joined the Society of Jesus, before returning to China as priests. In addition, a small number of Chinese clerics were trained by the Dominicans in Manila at the expense of the Spanish crown.
But deracinization during their prolonged formation in Europe (and even in Siam and Macao) made it difficult for the new priests to reintegrate into Chinese society. They gradually lost the ability to speak and write Chinese and were alienated from their own culture. Towards the end of the eighteenth century tentative beginnings were made, in spite of the precarious situation, to train the native clergy in China. Nevertheless, because of the high cost of such training as well as a certain reticence amongst the foreign missionaries to educate Chinese clerics, the number of indigenous priests remained relatively small. Thus, in the late 1740s the remarkable Li Ande (Andreas Ly) was the only priest ministering to many Christian communities in the large province of Sichuan. It was, in fact, he who founded the first seminary for native priests in that province (and indeed in all of inland China) in 1764.
Given the paucity of both foreign and indigenous clergy, the mission enterprise came to rely on various kinds of Chinese lay personnel to manage local church affairs as well as to preserve and extend the faith. It is useful to distinguish among three types of lay leadership: male itinerant catechists, local congregational leaders (huizhang), and - of particular importance - certain single laywomen known as the 'institute of virgins'.
The 'institute of virgins' warrants particular attention. In consequence of the custom of strictly segregating the sexes in traditional Chinese society, the evangelization of women presented a particular challenge for Catholic missionaries. Although women often played a pivotal role in the conversion of families, Chinese mores made it all but impossible for priests - foreign or Chinese - to establish direct contact with them. Since it was also impractical to establish proper Catholic convents prior to the Sino-foreign treaties of the mid-nineteenth century, the indigenous laywomen known as 'virgins' became a vital element in the propagation and preservation of the Catholic faith amongst Chinese females. The earliest evidence of their activities comes from seventeenth-century Fujian province, where Spanish Dominican friars introduced the beata system which had developed in the Philippines. To some
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