In the chapel at Ricci Hall, Father Alfred Diegnan is a compliant and readily smiling subject for the photographer, who moves him in front of the altar and then to a pew.
The cleaning lady near the modern painting of Jesus behind the altar quietly shuffles off to dust elsewhere. It’s a peaceful place in a relatively old building, by Hong Kong standards. Ricci Hall, part of the University of Hong Kong in Pokfulam Road, has been housing young male students since the 1960s.
Today, some are chatting in the canteen downstairs, as Diegnan, 86, heads to a quiet room to chat. He first came to Hong Kong back in the 1950s, part of the Irish contingent of Jesuit priests who have been some of Hong Kong’s key educators. They did have a presence in Canton, now Guangdong, he says, but left after the Communists took over in 1949.
“I come from a large family, there were 13, of us,” says Diegnan, who has lost none of his soft southern Irish brogue over the decades in Asia. “Towards the end of my time in the local school a priest came to give a mission. I was serving at Mass when he turned round and asked me if I’d ever thought of becoming a Jesuit. I said no. But the strange thing was that at that moment I seemed to be filled with happiness that this was what I wanted to be. So I went home and told my mother and she said: ‘What’s a Jesuit?’ And I said: ‘I don’t know’.”
Diegnan subsequently found out. Ireland was in the midst of yet another economic downturn and money was tight. The Jesuit priest, a Father Counihan he recalls, had managed to get Diegnan a scholarship at Mungret College in Limerick, and it was from there that he applied to enter the Jesuit order.
It was a tough education. The Jesuits organised two missions – one to Zambia and one to Hong Kong. Diegnan wanted to go to Africa as a friend was already there. He was refused, and ended up in Hong Kong.
“It was such a complete change,” he says of arriving by ship in the mid 1950s. “Everything was strange. It was my first time out of the country.”
Diegnan set out to learn Cantonese. He would return to Ireland to study philosophy before returning to teach primary schoolchildren – in Cantonese. Since his vocabulary was largely based on what the children talked about, it was somewhat limited.
“So I could talk about food, and school, and pencils, but I couldn’t discuss politics,” he says.
Diegnan has dedicated his life to educating youngsters in Hong Kong. He was principal for different stints at Wah Yan College in Kowloon and on Hong Kong Island. He was warden at Ricci Hall, where some of his former students, now senior in government, still recall his kind mentoring, and that is why one of them put him forward for the Spirit of Hong Kong Awards.
But Diegnan’s years in education have led him to make some troubling observations of Hong Kong society today.
“There is too much about exams and academic achievement and a complete lack of spirituality,” he says, adding that far more work has to be done in schools on the personal development of children.
Diegnan is still active on several education committees and it’s not all criticism.
“I think there is a gradual recognition by teachers that the attention span of a pupil is about a quarter of an hour, particularly with today’s distractions of mobile phones and iPads.” So there is more project work, as opposed to the blackboard, chalk and listen-to-the-teacher model of past decades.
But there is some work to go.
While Diegnan still heads to Ireland every few years, Hong Kong has long since been his home – a lifelong journey started by the calling of a 14-year-old by a visiting priest.