Fr James Hurley obituary: Jesuit with deep links to Hong Kong

Founding member of Amnesty in Hong Kong worked with triad and Long Kesh prisoners

Fr James Hurley SJ:  “He was a rebel in ways and involved with revolutionaries but he was the most obedient man in terms of his vows and poverty and gave away everything.”

Fr James Hurley SJ: “He was a rebel in ways and involved with revolutionaries but he was the most obedient man in terms of his vows and poverty and gave away everything.”

 

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Fr James Hurley, Jesuit

1926-2020

Fr James Hurley was immensely proud that his birthday was on China’s National Day, October 1st. The Jesuit priest, known to his community as Jimmy but as James to his family, had spent 58 years of his life in Hong Kong before returning to live in Ireland in 2014.

“He began working with secondary students in 1962 and became closely involved in the student movement there,” says his nephew Dick Lincoln.

He was also a founding member of Amnesty International in Hong Kong.

The youngest of four children, two boys and two girls, he was born in Ardmore, Co Waterford, in 1926. As a child he spent a lot of time in church activities and assisting at Mass.

He boarded with the Cistercians at Mount Mellory from 1939 to 1944 and got a university scholarship but opted instead to join the Jesuits, influenced by his brother Michael, who had already joined the order and later became widely known as the father of ecumenism.

“James’s father was not happy. He was a general haulier and merchant with a small guest house and wanted James as the second son to go into the family business.”

But he followed the religious route, studying classics at UCD and later philosophy in the Jesuit Institute.

Revolutionary spirit

His first two years in Hong Kong were spent learning Cantonese and teaching in a Jesuit secondary school in Kowloon. Wanting to experience life as an ordinary worker, he got a job in a textile factory where he endlessly cut cloth for what he described in an interview as four mind-numbing months.

Returning to Dublin for three years to study theology, he was ordained in 1958 before going back to Hong Kong.

His nephew says of him: “He was a rebel in ways and involved with revolutionaries but he was the most obedient man in terms of his vows and poverty and gave away everything.”

“When he’d come home during the 1980s he used to visit Long Kesh and say Mass” and Belfast was always a port of call for James, a committed nationalist.

“People don’t realise how difficult it was for him in Hong Kong in the 1950s and he was very close to being expelled because he supported students who applied for public service jobs in the Cantonese language, rather than through English, which was required.”

“He was a very gentle and humble man. People recognise him as a great pastor, and friendly with time for everyone, but he was also a very holy man.”

Social justice

He used to visit prisoners, including triad members and in the case of one man convicted of murder he supported the family to ensure his children were educated.

During his life in Hong Kong he served in four parishes, was spiritual director of the Justice and Peace Commission, chaplain to a number of universities and novice master for the order.

The Jesuit Chinese director Fr Stephen Chow described him as an exceptional priest who was “always energetic, curious, daring, caring, and active. Many of us have been awakened by his passion for social justice.”

On his return to Dublin in 2014 he acted as pastor for the Cantonese-speaking Chinese and had a constant stream of visitors from Hong Kong.

In November 2019, he broke his ankle and was recovering slowly in Cherryfield nursing home in Dublin when he contracted Covid-19.

His nephew recalls that the day before he died he was doing well and “we were discussing the Cork-Waterford Munster final of 2004”. He died on Easter Monday, April 13th, aged 93.

His wish was to be buried with his father and his remains were brought to Ardmore. His live-streamed funeral service was watched by his friends in Hong Kong, where he spent almost two-thirds of his life.

Ardmore GAA club, of which he was honorary vice-president, provided a guard of honour to the cemetery.

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