We had just returned to our room in Whistler Hilton after about three hours of skiing including going up and down the gondolas and chairlifts when we picked up our cell phones and learned that Reverend Father Alfred Joseph Deignan (Father Deignan) had passed away in the small hours of Tuesday 11 December, Hong Kong time, while we were skiing. Father Stephen Chow, Regional Superior of the Society of Jesus presently issued a short statement and concelebrated a Mass at Ricci Hall at 7:30am the same morning with three other priests. It didn’t take long before tributes poured in from all sources, from the Chief Executive of the HKSAR to the two Wah Yan Colleges and Ricci Hall; and from The President and Vice Chancellor of HKU to SCMP and other local newspapers.
It has been well known amongst the Wah Yan and Ricci communities that Father Deignan had not been well for some time. He had been in and out of St Paul’s Hospital for some time, but he had always maintained a cheerful disposition and was ever optimistic and generous with everyone. I believe he was admitted to St Paul’s a last time towards the end of July. Since then, Room 1918 had never a quiet moment. At times, it was so overwhelmed with visitors that some ground rules had to be laid down and posted outside the room to enable him to have enough rest. He had been staying in the hospital until he was called to the eternal home by the Lord.
Bernadette Tsui, Director of HKU’s Development and Alumni Affairs Office and a prominent feature writer for Hong Kong Economic Journal, says it well, “Many people in Hong Kong know him and each one would have a personal story to tell about his or her life with him.” Indeed many people know him and have developed personal relationships with him. I think the reason is simple and clear: he had remained in everyone’s heart because he had always has everyone in his. I cannot remember how many of his birthday parties I have attended, large and small, but I recall larger scale parties had begun to be organized when he turned 80, when different groups had seen it fit to join together so as not to tire him out too much and unnecessarily; and it was in one of these parties that someone said that he is among our collective memory. Typically, in these parties, he would be asked to speak and be taken round each table for photos which he would follow through tirelessly with grace, warmth, sincerity and much cheerfulness, always putting on his charismatic smiles revealing his two deep and lovely dimples.
I first knew Father Deignan as the Prefect of Studies of Wah Yan College, probably in the early 60s, or nearly 60 years ago. It was his unique and specific province those days to come round to each class each week to hand out awards to the top three students in the weekly tests. As I very seldom was among the awardees, I don’t think I made an impression on him as a student. I next met him in the late 60s in HKU when he was the Warden of Ricci Hall. I was never a Riccian as such, but I used Ricci Hall rather often, for weekly presidium meetings of the Legion of Mary and for meetings of the Catholic Society, and I sometimes attended Mass at its chapel. For a few years after graduation, I continued to be associated with activities of Legion of Mary and the Catholic Society and we became closer, he being the Spiritual Director of these institutions. By the mid 70s when I was about to get married for the first time, I took Rosita to him for one on one catechism classes. Rosita enjoyed those sessions, but apparently there was not enough time to prepare her for baptism and Father Deignan married us anyway in St Joseph’s Church in December 1976 with a full Catholic Mass. Then came the children in 1979 and 1982, and he baptized them as babies on each occasion, at Ricci Hall. Meanwhile, we had not given up on Rosita. Father Deignan was then Principal of Wah Yan Kowloon and Rosita went over to Waterloo Road for her continuing education in catechism. It went on for some time, but somehow time was not ripe. I recall an open conversation with him in the mid 90s over a reunion dinner of Wah Yan, with many alumni around; when after a few drinks I asked him point blank how come Rosita had yet to be converted to the Christian Faith. He paused for thoughts and replied with consummate seriousness, “May be we haven’t worked or prayed hard enough.” I was speechless, but the scene left an indelible mark on the mind. Such selflessness, humility and spirituality, and respect for others are typical of this great teacher and mentor. Indeed, he was always my teacher and mentor. I sought his advice before I decided to join Freemasonry. He asked me for a week so that he could do some research, after which he told me it was OK, with emphases that I would be joining modern freemasonry, unlike in the 19th Century when a number of Popes had routinely excommunicated all Catholics who had joined the institution. He was also my referee when I took up the Master of Buddhist Studies with HKU, and later when I sought higher studies in education with Durham University. He was particularly supportive of my MBS initiatives, citing that it would be an added advantage for inter faith movements in the future.
We had continued to meet on different occasions, very often over children birthdays or his birthdays or reunions, or some celebrations of one form or other, and later over Wah Yan Alumni Association and education matters. He was always generous with his time and advice and would try to make himself available, particularly for his past students. Then in 2004, a year after I retired, at which time he lived in Ricci Hall, after Rosita had had a few sessions with him on Catholicism, he called me one day for a private meeting. He asked me to give him a few dates, preferably Saturday mornings so that he would pick one to conduct a baptismal ceremony for Rosita. I asked him why then; and he said that time was ripe, or something to that effect. And so he baptized Rosita in June 2004 at the Ricci Hall Chapel, attended by quite a few friends, in an exclusive and solemn ceremony only for her. Rosita became very ill a month later, and Father Deignan was such an important pillar of support and consolation. He came to our home to anoint her and I recall taking Rosita to Ricci Hall for Holy Communion on one occasion. It rained very hard that afternoon. I parked in one of the covered carports, but the rain never stopped so that it was impossible to get out of the car. After 30 or 40 minutes in pouring rain, Father Deignan appeared by the car with an umbrella and asked to be let in. He said hello to us; and went on to anoint her and gave her Holy Communion, with such soothing and comforting words. After Rosita was hospitalized, he would come up occasionally, sometimes without notice, to offer Rosita his prayers and blessings. He was there at her funeral; he offered Mass; and he performed the ritual to put her ashes in the final resting place. I can never forget his sermon at her funeral. For a number of years afterwards, he would offer a Mass for her on the anniversary of her demise.
Fast forward a few years, I took Su to meet him after we decided to get married. He and Su had such great chemistry together and liked each other so much. He was extremely encouraging and supportive; and agreed there and then to be our celebrant at our marriage, again at St Joseph’s Church. I was then not aware of the bureaucracy that entailed in getting married in a church, but to cut the long story short, the mention of the name of Father Deignan had helped cut the red tape and enabled us to obtain the necessary permission or dispensation for a ceremony with a full Mass. We had continued to maintain regular contacts since; and he and Su always had such great rapport. For example, after a major celebration of his long services with the Jesuits, during which occasion he had received many gifts including some bottles of fine wine, he instructed Su to guard those bottles, lest the doctors who were his past students might take them away on medical grounds. Then, when he became less robust, he would lean on her for physical support walking through crowds or up steps. He was again at Su’s baptism at Ricci Hall Chapel, this time with a few more other candidates. From late 2017 right through June 2018, Su was often in the priests’ dining room at Ricci Hall and they would chat up one another whenever they met. By Easter 2018, he was rather weak when he attended the Holy Week rituals at Ricci Hall, sitting in an armchair and looking rather frail, but he brightened up as soon as Su approached him to give him a hug. I had a similar experience when I attended a 9am Mass at St Paul’s late August after our trip to Europe: he was not wearing his glasses earlier, but then put them on and saw me. His face lit up like a Christmas tree. It was then I asked him for an absolution for my sins; and he gave it in full consciousness with great articulation and solemnity. He had been my personal confessor for sometime; and that was my last confession. Back to Su, he was noticeably happy when he saw Su at St Paul’s, who gave him some massage in the hands and neck, which seemed to have pleased him. Su also made it a point to visit him the evening we flew off to Vancouver and Whistler. She was holding one of his hands for a while, and when she released his, he grabbed hers, for a longer while.
Such is a brief account of my association with a great man from whom I have learned and experienced so much. No doubt, I am but one of the very many who had benefited from his profound wisdom, generosity, selflessness, spirituality and sense of honour, truth and virtue. He was like a living saint, and I hope one day he would make sainthood, so that we would do better to start praying to him as well as praying for him.