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The Reverend Father Alfred Joseph DEIGNAN

72nd Congregation (2012)

The Reverend Father Alfred Joseph DEIGNAN
Doctor of Social Science


In May 2010 Father Deignan undertook what he called a “pilgrimage” to Beijing with a group of friends. The trip was to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of one of the greatest forefathers of his own religious order, Father Matteo Ricci. As he records in his account of the visit to the Zhalan Cemetery: “Here were the tombs of Matteo Ricci, Adam Schall and Ferdinand Verbiest”, with “headstones written in Chinese and Latin.” “The plot of land was granted by the Emperor in 1610 as the burial place for Matteo Ricci, ʻin view of the great merits of Li Ma Tau, the Westerner who had become Chinese.’” Nothing better illustrates the spirit in which the Jesuits, right down to today, have embraced their missionary task. Not only learning the language and the culture and dressing as a Mandarin, Ricci sought to find the spirit of the gospel in the Confucian classics. He was not simply accommodating the faith to Chinese culture, but following the Ignatian teaching of finding and loving “God in all things, and all things in God.” Another moment recorded by Father Deignan was his visit to the site of the Old Observatory, where the astronomical instruments used by Adam Schall among others still remain, testament to the Jesuit mastery of secular learning that made such a powerful impression on the Emperor and his court. A third moment recorded by Father Deignan moved him more than all the rest: “As we were guided up to the sanctuary of the [East] Church by a volunteer…, word reached some women at the back … that a group with a Jesuit priest from Hong Kong was visiting the Church. A request came from them, could they have the priest’s blessing. I went back to meet them and immediately they fell to their knees. I will always remember the joy on their faces after the blessing. I felt humbled in front of their strong faith, which they had kept faithfully through difficult years.”

I think this moment in the East Church gives us a small glimpse of the reverence in which members of Father Deignan’s Order, with its 400-year history of missionary work, continue to be held in many parts of China. Father Deignan recalls another incident closer to home. “One day when talking to a layman friend, he spoke with real appreciation saying, ‘Father, we admire you missionaries, who have left your country, relatives and friends to come to Hong Kong and work among us, learning our difficult language.’” Everyone who knows Father Deignan will know the distinctive cheerfulness with which he has left all behind him, “not to be served, but to serve.” “I am happy that in God’s providence,” he says, “I was assigned to Hong Kong.” “To serve – this is what it means to me as a missionary in Hong Kong – whether that service is in teaching, preaching, counselling, directing retreats, giving instruction, chaplaincy or parish work, helping the poor or the sick.” It is not hard to understand the local community’s special love and reverence for this spirit of selfless service in a city so often merely viewed as a site of material opportunity.

Father Deignan was born in Ireland in 1927, one of thirteen children. At the age of 18 he entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus. Like all Jesuits, he was encouraged to take a degree. At the University College Dublin he majored in History and English, before continuing with his philosophy studies in preparation for the priesthood. In 1953 he was sent to Hong Kong where he was to serve for almost 60 years. Here he first encountered the struggles of the Hong Kong people. In the spirit of his Jesuit forefathers at the Imperial Court, he learned their language and came to understand their way of life. In 1956-60 he returned to Ireland to complete his studies and was ordained as a priest in 1959. In 1962 he began the work of teaching and leadership at Wah Yan College, Hong Kong. From 1978 to 1992 he served as Principal at Wah Yan College, Kowloon. In these years he inculcated in generations of young men the values and ideals of Jesuit education, with its “call to human excellence … the fullest possible development of all human qualities” and with its emphasis on critical thinking and development of the whole person, head and heart, intellect, imagination and feelings. Many young men flourished under his care and are today leaders of Hong Kong society in various walks of life.

Father Deignan has not only been a teacher and principal, but an important educationist and educator of teachers. In the 1980s he started a programme of reflection for teachers known as “Dialogue on Teaching as a Service”. This was followed in 1993 by another programme, “Reflective Pedagogy”, based on the Spiritual Exercises of the Founder of the Jesuit Order, St Ignatius Loyola. In 1986 this book, The Characteristics of a Jesuit Education, was published by the Jesuits. In this book and in the programmes, Father Deignan mapped out for teachers a detailed process of reflection, preparation, sharing and cooperative learning. His is a distinctive approach to vocational training. Rather than new pedagogical or presentation skills, teachers learn how to integrate ethical values into their re-examination of themselves, their classroom experiences, and their care for the students’ well-being as individuals and members of society. In 1997, together with a group of dedicated educationists in secondary and tertiary institutions Father Deignan established the Hong Kong International Institute of Educational Leadership. The Institute’s vision is “to foster a community which is fair, honest, just, caring, compassionate, responsible, trustworthy, generous and courageous; a community which lives in harmony and sets a high standard of moral behaviour.”

Father Deignan has served the Hong Kong community as well as his own religious order in many capacities. He is currently a Member of the Board of Governors of the Caritas Institute of Higher Education; a Member of the Board of Governors of the Caritas Bianchi College of Careers; Co-founder of the Father Deignan Education Studio; a Founding Member and Chairman of the Wah Yan One Family Foundation Limited and the Chairman of the Hong Kong International Institute of Educational Leadership. He has been a Member of the Joint Board of Governors and Joint Council of Caritas Francis Hsu College and Caritas Bianchi College. He has held appointments as Provincial Delegate for Hong Kong and as Regional Superior of the Jesuits in Hong Kong and Macau. He has been a Member of the Hong Kong Advisory Council on Aids; a Member of the Council of the Aids Trust Fund; Chairman of the Expert Panel for HIV Infected Health Care Workers; Assistant Secretary for Education of the Jesuit Conference of East Asia and Oceania; a Member of the Executive Board and Vice-Chairman of the Hong Kong Aids Foundation; a Member of the University Court at The University of Hong Kong; a Member of the Catholic Board of Education; Chairman of the Religious Schools Council and Vice-Chairman of the Grant Schools Council.

Father Deignan has been honoured among the “Hong Kong Loving Hearts” by Asia Television Hong Kong; and he has received the Governor’s Commendation for Community Service Award. He has also been awarded the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Education from The Hong Kong Institute of Education and the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Social Sciences from The University of Hong Kong.

As he stood at graveside of the early Jesuit missionaries to China in 2010, Father Deignan must have recalled the years he spent as Warden of Ricci Hall, a residence for students at The University of Hong Kong where he was also Catholic Chaplain. He must also have thought of Adam Schall Hall at the United College in this University, which has been long been the place where the Jesuits have ministered to the spiritual needs of the Catholic students and staff by celebrating Mass on Sundays. Despite his advanced years, Father Deignan himself always arrives at CUHK after his long journey with a warm cheerfulness and a beatific smile, to proclaim the gospel to the little community there in the softest and most enchanting of Irish accents. He is truly a man who comes not to be served but to serve, for which he is loved and revered by so many in the Hong Kong community.

Mr Chairman, it is my privilege to present to you Father Alfred Joseph Deignan S.J., distinguished proponent of teaching as a mode of spiritual reflection, care and service, for the degree of Doctor of Social Science, honoris causa.


This citation is written by Professor David Parker