Irish Jesuit missionary Fr Alfred Deignan, who spent 65 years in Hong Kong mostly as an educator, passed away on Tuesday 11 December, aged 91. He was superior of the Hong Kong mission from 1996 to 2002.
Originally from Mullagh, Co. Cavan, Alfred was one of thirteen children. Neither he nor anyone in his family had any contact with the Jesuits, but a chance meeting with a Jesuit in the parish church set the course of his life. “Towards the end of my time in the local school a priest came to give a mission,” he recalled some years ago. “I was serving at Mass when he turned round and asked me if I’d ever thought of becoming a Jesuit. I said no. But the strange thing was that at that moment I seemed to be filled with happiness that this was what I wanted to be. So I went home and told my mother and she said: ‘What’s a Jesuit?’ And I said: ‘I don’t know’.”
Thanks to a scholarship to Mungret College in Limerick, Alfred came to know the Jesuits. He entered the novitiate in 1945, and in 1947 he began an Arts degree in University College Dublin. In 1953 he was sent to join the Hong Kong mission. “It was such a complete change,” he said of arriving in Hong Kong after 28 days on board the RMS Carthage. “Everything was strange. It was my first time out of the country.”
It was as an educator that Fr Alfred excelled in Hong Kong. He was at different times principal of both Wah Yan College in Kowloon and Wah Yan College on Hong Kong Island. He also co-founded the Hong Kong International Institute of Educational Leadership (HKIIEL) in 1997. In recognition of his contribution to education in Hong Kong he received honorary doctorates from The University of Hong Kong (2003), The Hong Kong Institute of Education (2008) and The Chinese University of Hong Kong (2012).
Fr Deignan also worked tirelessly to combat the rise of HIV/Aids. He was a member of the Hong Kong Advisory Council on Aids, member and Vice-Chairman of the Hong Kong Aids Foundation, Member of the Council of the Aids Trust Fund, and Chairman, Expert Panel for HIV Infected Health Care Workers. In 1993, he received the Governor’s Commendation for Community Service Award in recognition of his contribution.
In response to news of the death of Fr Deignan, the Irish Minister of State for the Diaspora, Ciarán Cannon, said:
I have learned with sadness of the death of Fr Alfred Deignan. Since his arrival in Hong Kong 65 years ago, Fr Deignan dedicated his life to education and was loved and respected by generations of his pupils. He also played a leading role in tackling the impact of AIDS in Hong Kong. His life is a testament to the untiring and selfless work of Irish missionaries in Hong Kong – and more widely around the world – in the fields of education, health and welfare. I would like to convey my deepest condolences to his family, friends and to all his past pupils who mourn his loss. Ní fheicfimid a leithéid ann arís.
See the video below for Fr Deignan’s account of his own life.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.