Fr George Gerald “Jerry” Martinson SJ died on May 31 in Taiwan, 50 years after he first arrived in 1967 from the California Jesuit Province. At the age of 25, he was sent to Taiwan and began working at the Jesuit-run Kuangchi Program Service (KPS). He became a renowned television producer and host, known to many in Taiwan and China as Uncle Jerry, his screen name in an English teaching television programme he hosted.
In celebration of his life spent evangelising through television and film, here are five things for which Fr Martinson is most remembered.
He helped lead the development of the first independent TV production company in Taiwan
Fr Martinson and his colleagues at KPS presided over the development of what had begun in the 1950s as a radio production studio into the first TV production studio in Taiwan. As vice president, he steered its television programming toward social issues relating to aborigines, immigrant spouses, migrant workers, physically and mentally disabled people, victims of natural disasters and marginalised people. His 1986 documentary “Beyond the Killing Fields” out refugees on the Thai-Cambodian border won prizes in Taiwan and elsewhere in Asia.
He used songs, television and film to build bridges between Taiwanese and mainland Chinese audiences and the Catholic Church
A whole generation of Chinese and Taiwanese people learnt English from their beloved “Uncle Jerry”, his screen name in a television series in which he used Bible stories and parables to teach English and values. In April last year, his latest television series, “Oh My God – Hello Pope!”, began airing in Taiwan. Fr Martinson was one of three co-hosts of the series that presents the values, priorities, and goals of Pope Francis and introduces the social and pastoral services of the church in Taiwan.
Fr Martinson believed that media with its broad reach was one of the most effective ways for the Church to educate and evangelise the world. In the last decade, he produced docudramas about Jesuit missionaries to China such as Adam Schall von Bell and Giuseppe Castiglione that were aired in China. KPS Vice Chairman John Hei said that shortly before his death, Fr Martinson had indicated he wanted to produce a documentary on the great Jesuit missionary to China, Matteo Ricci.
He had friends of every size, shape and colour
Fr Jerry Martinson with friends, circa 1986Fr Martinson welcomed everyone into his life. Control Yuan Vice President Sun Ta-chuan, who once served as his secretary, said that his concept of “family” was extremely broad. He spoke of how Fr Martinson had once declined his invitation to dinner and instead had taken his guitar to a construction site and eaten with local and migrant workers. Fr Johnny Go SJ, who did his Regency in KPS, recalled Fr Martinson’s friendship with the disabled street vendors in the major intersections near Kuangchi. “Every time we stood there waiting to cross the street, they would crowd around him and look up at him beaming from their wheelchairs. ‘Fr. Jerry! Fr. Jerry!’ they called out to him with familiarity and unmistakable affection.” The Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation issued a statement expressing their condolences.
He felt a strong kinship with the local people
Fr Martinson once described himself as “made in the USA but finished in Taiwan”. He felt himself so connected with the local people that in his application to become a naturalised citizen of Taiwan, he chose to use his adopted surname “Ting”. Fr Danny Huang SJ said that Fr Martinson “was moved to tears of joy” when he learnt that the Taiwanese government had decided to award him citizenship. Alas, Fr Martinson died a day before he was supposed to receive his Taiwan identity card. His brother Fr Barry Martinson SJ, also a missionary in Taiwan, received the certificate of Taiwanese citizenship on his behalf.
He was a Catholic media icon in Asia
Fr Jerry Martinson SJ 1942-2017
With his passing, the Catholic Church in Asia lost a media giant. Fr Martinson was a founding member of the Asia-Pacific Communication Network and served the International Catholic Organization for Cinema and Audiovisuals (OCIC) for many years. He was an active member of SIGNIS, an international Catholic organisation for professionals in communication media. Most recently, he worked as consultant in the production of Martin Scorsese’s film “Silence”, which was filmed in Taiwan. Pope Francis, upon hearing of Fr Martinson’s death, sent a message saying that he was grateful “the Lord has given us Uncle Jerry” and described him as a blessing for all people.
Read Fr Jerry Martinson’s reflection on working on the set of “Silence”.
Watch Fr Martinson’s interview about Kuangchi Program Service and the development of their docudramas: