One feature of Chinese Catholicism, as identified by official Chinese investigation, is that most Chinese Catholics belong to traditional Catholic families and communities, which include generations of believers. This is a relatively stable religious population, whose growth depends largely on the continuity of the family and the community. To explore the origins of this legacy, this article studies the formation and early development of Chinese Catholic communities in Northeast China and their models of religious governance. It argues that the widespread Catholic missions since the 19th century diffused not only religion but also notions of autonomy and models of local governance among Chinese Christians. Based on archival research and fieldwork, the article focuses on two Catholic communities in Northeast China. These two cases demonstrate that the early development of Northeast Catholic communities was largely due to immigration and the absence of the state. The growth of the community coincided with the formation of local society. Although the expansion of state power to rural society gradually eroded the traditional nexus of power at the village level, the local religious order in the Catholic communities survived until the mid-20th century. This religious autonomy left a legacy that turned out to be extremely problematic in the post-1949 era. From a historical perspective, this study contributes to our understanding of contemporary outcomes for the Chinese Catholic population and the origins of China's church-state relations at the grassroots level.