Irish missionary priest unfazed by expulsion from China and Burma

Sat, Oct 6, 2012, 01:00

MICHAEL HEALY:MICHAEL HEALY, a missionary priest expelled from China in 1952 and from Burma in 1966, who has died aged 91, remained unfazed by misfortune or hardship during a long life of cheerful service to God and his fellow man.

Getting on with it was Michael Healy’s forte. His father farmed 160 acres in Coachford, Co Cork. At Presentation College Cork he developed the skill of parodying popular songs of the day.

His rendition of The Rose of Mooncoin revealed unexpected flourishes in Mick Healy’s light tenor voice. There was a family connection with Bishop Edward Galvin, co-founder of the Society of St Columban, originally named the Maynooth Mission to China, and he followed an elder brother into its ranks in 1937.

Ordained in 1943, and prevented by the war by going to the Far East, his first posting was in Wales. Ministering to local people, German prisoners-of-war who sang the Mass in four-part harmony, pilgrims to a local shrine, and befriending his Anglican counterpart suited him well.

The war ended and he was soon on his way to China, arriving in Shanghai in 1946 on his way to Huzhou in Zhejiang province. He was one of 13 Columbans in a district with a population of two million.

He worked as parish priest in the town of Nanzun for the next five years. Though many converts were won, the Communist Party was on the rise, and it took power in 1949. Initially the communists respected religious freedom, but soon a ruthless propaganda campaign began.

In a state fanatical about security, people had to spy on colleagues, neighbours and even family members, and denounce them. Eventually children were required to report on prayers said at home.

In 1951 a national church independent of Rome was set up and bank accounts of existing churches were frozen. The Legion of Mary was declared a secret counter-revolutionary organisation. Healy was arrested and interrogated. He kept sane by reciting in his head all the prayers and poetry he knew. In October 1952, he was expelled.

The next years were spent in Britain on mission promotion, travelling around drumming up support for the missionary work. A big man, he battered around the roads squeezed into a tiny Austin car to visit far-flung parishes. For a while he was chaplain at Wormwood Scrubs prison in west London, and spent two years in the “real capital of Ireland”, Liverpool. Altogether he would spend 37 years on missionary promotion work in Britain.

In 1958, he was off to the Far East again. To Burma where he swapped the Austin 7 for a mule, which he soon fell off. This miraculously alleviated the pain he suffered from a back injury in China eight years earlier.

Five years of parish work in Pangpau, sharing the hardships of his flock, four days’ travel from his nearest Columban neighbour, ended in 1966 when a military government expelled all foreigners.

Unusually for a missionary, he was able to return to China in 1990, rekindling friendships with people he had not seen for 38 years. They were astonished at his recall of names.

In 1998 he revisited Burma, and was gratified to see that the expelled missionaries’ work continued but now the priests, nuns and bishops were drawn from the local communities.

Michael Healy held that celibacy was essential for the missionary. He could get closer to the people, taking greater risks than those who had family commitments. He was amused by hearing two old priests ruminating on the subject. One said it was only a matter of time before the Vatican allowed priests to marry, and the other growled: “So long as they don’t make it compulsory.”

In his parody of McNamara’s Band, the chorus goes thus: “My name is Michael Healy and I’m not the best of men/I’ve burnt the cakes, I’ve made mistakes with slips of tongue and pen/But if the Lord would have me back to be a boy of ten/I’d hope to do better, but I’d gladly do it all again.”

Michael A Healy: born Co Cork, February 2nd, 1921, died Co Meath, September 10th, 2012