Father Alfred Deignan, former Hong Kong Jesuit head and ex-principal of elite Wah Yan schools, dies at age 91

  • Dedicated to educating young people in the city, Deignan was also warden of Ricci Hall at HKU between 1970 and 1978
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2018, 1:50pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2018, 8:28pm

Father Alfred Deignan, former head of the Jesuits in Hong Kong and principal of both Wah Yan Colleges in Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, died on Tuesday morning aged 91.

Alumni of the two schools were informed of his death in a note from Father Stephen Chow Sau-yan, head of the Chinese Province of the Society of Jesus in Hong Kong.

Deignan, who suffered from cancer in recent years, died at St Paul’s Hospital in Causeway Bay.

Celebrating a long service in education

On Tuesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor expressed sadness at Deignan’s death.

“Father Deignan championed no distinction between classes in education and he cared for every single student. He enjoyed trust and respect from his students,” Lam said in a statement.

Hong Kong was blessed with and has been enriched by Father Deignan’s love and visionary contributions, and will miss him dearly
Alan Leong, Civic Party chairman

She said she visited Deignan and sought his views on education when she was chief executive-elect last year.

Deignan’s students included former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, Civic Party chairman Alan Leong Kah-kit, former Hospital Authority chairman Anthony Wu Ting-yuk and Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu.

Lee said he was very saddened by the news. “He was the father from whom I sought advice and help, when I was young and during some stages of my career. He also nurtured my sons and was known by my whole family,” Lee said. “We shall always remember him.”

Wu said he had kept in touch with Father Deignan, who taught him English at Wah Yan College, Hong Kong in the 1970s, over the last 40 years.

“He really cared a lot about his students and the community. You can’t find another person with such a big heart,” Wu said. “I had seen him in hospital a few times and I am really sad about his passing.”

Leong said: “Father Deignan was a real educator and gentleman. He leaves a legacy that will continue to produce fine men and women on whom the world will depend for a better future. Hong Kong was blessed with and has been enriched by Father Deignan’s love and visionary contributions, and will miss him dearly.”

Born in 1927 in Mullagh, County Cavan, in Ireland, Deignan came from a family of 13 children.

In 1945, he became a novice in the Society of Jesus. Two years later, he entered University College Dublin to study history, Irish and English.

As a young Jesuit, he hoped to go to Zambia for missionary work but was sent instead to Hong Kong.

He arrived in the city in 1953, settled in Cheung Chau and started learning Cantonese. He fit into the local community well and became a witness of the local villagers’ struggles against poverty.

Deignan dedicated his life to educating young people in Hong Kong. Between 1962 and 1970, he served Wah Yan College, Hong Kong, first as vice-principal and then as principal. He headed the school’s Kowloon branch from 1978 to 1992. The Society of Jesus in Hong Kong operates both institutions, as well as Ricci Hall at the University of Hong Kong.

To better help his students, Deignan took counselling courses at the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council.

He believed that teachers should provide opportunities for students to develop their talents and potential, and support their character formation and moral education.

“Respect, responsibility, kindness, forgiveness and compassion are values you don’t get taught in the classroom. Teaching values that will guide you in life are missing,” he said in an interview with the Post in November last year.

But Deignan’s years in education led him to make some troubling observations about contemporary Hong Kong society.

“There is too much about exams and academic achievement and a complete lack of spirituality,” he said, adding that far more work had to be done in schools on the personal development of children.

A post on Ricci Hall’s Facebook page on Tuesday morning described him as an educator, motivator and role model for students.

“He gave students opportunities to create change and improvement according to what they are capable of, while also being mindful of rules,” the post read.

Father Harold Naylor, Jesuit teacher and co-founder of Hong Kong’s Conservancy Association, dies aged 87

In 2003, Deignan was conferred a doctorate in social sciences by HKU in appreciation of his contribution to society and education.

He was regional superior of the Hong Kong mission of the Society of Jesus from 1996 to 2002.

Another Irish Jesuit, Father Harold Naylor, died in Hong Kong in October at the age of 87.