Alfred Deignan obituary: Jesuit priest who spread gospel far and wide

Cavan native honoured for his contribution to education in Far East

Alfred Joseph Deignan
Born: 25th March, 1927
Died: 11th December, 2018

At a time when the Catholic Church seems under siege from the worst possible publicity, the remarkable life and example of Fr Alfred Deignan offers an alternative narrative, arguably that of the very best Catholicism has to offer the world.

Fr Deignan, who died, aged 91, in December in his adopted home of Hong Kong, was an Irish Jesuit who had an outstanding career as an educator and humanitarian in the former British colony, now again a Chinese territory.

Arriving there in 1953 as 25-year-old scholastic (a priest in training, yet to be ordained), he had travelled from London on the RMS Carthage, via the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean on a voyage which took 28 days to complete. His arrival in Hong Kong must have been an extraordinary baptism of cultural fire for the young man from a then very isolated Ireland, who previously had never been outside his native land. Born into a family of farmers and shop owners in Mullagh, Co Cavan, he was one of 13 children of Alfred and Mary (nee Crean) Deignan, and had become a Jesuit almost by accident when a priest of the order came to give a mission at St Finian’s College, Mullingar, to which the young Alfred had obtained a scholarship.


He also became vice chairman of the Hong Kong Aids Foundation, a member of the Hong Kong Aids Trust Fund, and chairperson of the expert panel for HIV-infected healthcare workers

Serving the visitor as an altar boy at Mass one day, the priest asked him what he would like to be when he grew up, and when Deignan answered “a priest, Father,” the Jesuit suggested the boy might be interested in the Society of Jesus.

Deignan later got a scholarship to Mungret College, the now-closed Jesuit boarding school in Limerick, and in 1945 entered the order as a novice at Emo Court in Laois. From there he proceeded to University College Dublin, where he obtained a BA in English, History and Irish in 1950, and then to Tullabeg College to study philosophy for three years.

So when he arrived in Hong Kong, Deignan’s knowledge of the world outside Ireland was very limited. He quickly made up for this by two years of full-time learning of Cantonese Chinese, followed by a year’s teaching at the Jesuit Wah Yan College in Hong Kong.

He returned to that school after further study and ordination in Ireland in 1959 going on to become its principal from 1968-72. This was a particularly difficult time for the Jesuits in the then colony due to the spill-over from the period of the Cultural Revolution on mainland China from 1967 onwards.

From 1970 until 1978, Deignan was warden of Ricci Hall, a residence for male Catholic students of Hong Kong University, and from 1978 to 1992 principal of Wah Yan College in Kowloon.

Throughout his career as a teacher, Deignan had attended courses in counselling and leadership development and this was to lead to a significant involvement in social service in Hong Kong.

He worked in marriage counselling and, perhaps most significantly, in raising awareness of the burgeoning problem of Aids during the 1980s. This led him to set up, with others, the Hong Kong Advisory Council on Aids; he also became vice chairman of the Hong Kong Aids Foundation, a member of the Hong Kong Aids Trust Fund, and chairperson of the expert panel for HIV-infected healthcare workers.

In a striking recognition of this work, he was presented in 1993 with the Governor’s Commendation for Community Service Award by Chris Patten, then serving his term as the last British governor of the colony before its transfer to China in 1997.

More widely, Deignan became a leader for educational development in Hong Kong and throughout East Asia and Oceania, serving as assistant secretary of Jesuit education for the whole region (1992-96) and as chairperson of the Jesuit Board of Education for Hong Kong (1996-2017). Another significant involvement in this area was his role, with others, in opening in 1997, the Hong Kong International Institute of Educational Leadership, a charity focused on improving the teaching of ethical and moral decision-making by young people, to “support teachers in their efforts to educate ‘good’ people, not just subject-educated people who pass examinations”; it later expanded to provide courses in ethical leadership in business.

His work was widely appreciated in the territory. In 2003, he was conferred with an honorary doctorate in social science by the University of Hong Kong; in 2008 with an honorary doctorate in education by the Hong Kong Institute of Education; and finally, with an honorary doctorate in social sciences by the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Fr Deignan was predeceased by nine of his siblings. He is survived by his brother George and his sisters Margaret and Claire.