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Legacies of faith and dreams of democracy do not die with the body

During the month of All Souls, diocesan historian, Father Louis Ha Ke-loon, is organising historical visits to Catholic cemeteries in Hong Kong, which he says is a good way to reflect on death, as well as gain an appreciation of the contribution that people of faith have made to the Church and the social development of the special administrative region


On 30 October 1901, Bishop Louis Piazzoli conducted a full choral funeral service in St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Cemetery for an enigmatic Irishman, John Joseph Francis, who had throughout his distinguished and controversial career in law remained a loyal supporter of the Church, fought for the inclusion of religion to be taught in government aided schools and convened the first partially democratic body to be established in the British colony of Hong Kong.

The inscription on his grave, which is surmounted with a simple cross, reads, “RIP. Sacred to the memory of John Joseph Francis KC. Born at Dublin (Ireland) 25 April 1839. Died at Yokohama (Japan) 22 September 1901. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord… may they rest from their labours.”

Hui Mei-kuen notes that the words, “Sacred to the memory of…” instead of, “Here lies…” probably mean that his remains are not there (Sunday Examiner, October 30).

Born the eldest son of William Francis Aylward, an inspector of schools, and Teresa Agnes Redmond, he was educated by the Jesuits and, upon graduation, joined the society’s novitiate in Beaumont Lodge, Windsor, but abandoned his dreams of priesthood towards the end of the 1850s.

However, the Jesuits left an indelible mark on his spirit and, as a much sought after lecturer in Hong Kong he often spoke on the Society of Jesus and even named his home Stonyhurst, after the flagship Jesuit secondary college in England.

But the cloister gave way to the British Army and, for reasons unknown, young Aylward enlisted under the name of Francis.

He saw service in China in 1859 before his unit was transferred to Hong Kong, where he abandoned the military in favour of civilian life and married Anne Shirley in 1864.

Shirley belonged to the Church of England and the couple married in St. John’s Cathedral, but then trooped off to the Catholic cathedral, where Father Timoleon Raimondi conducted a second service in the sacristy.

The future bishop of Hong Kong simply entered disparity of religion as the only remark in the Church marriage registry.

Francis worked as an articled clerk in a legal office, eventually being admitted to practice and subsequently building his own profitable chambers.

But in 1874, he took off to England to study to become a barrister and two years later was admitted to the bar in Hong Kong.

He endorsed the first Chinese lawyer, Ng Choy, to be admitted to practice in the colony and ironically missed out on a much coveted seat in the Legislative Council when his great friend, the Irish Catholic governor, John Pope Hennessey, promoted Choy ahead of him.

In a biography, published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch (Vol. 26, 1986), Walter Greenwood describes Francis as pugnacious and outspoken, saying he more than once apologised for “the unjustifiable warmth” of his stinging attacks on opposing counsel.

However, like a professional sportsperson, what happened on the field stayed on the field and even his opponents described him as good natured, generous, professional, impartial and competent, and a good friend.

Greenwood describes him as “a man of faith, faithful to his Church and religion, to his native country and fellow countrymen and to his monarch. He was one of the leading Roman Catholic laymen in Hong Kong and regularly attended Church services and functions.”

He was not backward in defending his faith publicly and Greenwood quotes him as saying in 1878, “Roman Catholics did not expect favours, but expected not to meet prejudice and ignorance.”

He adds that Francis said that problems had arisen, “… not from any want of goodwill, but a certain amount, I do not like to say prejudice, but of pre-judgement, a certain feeling of hostility to Catholics almost inevitable in English non-Catholics.”

However, what he gave with one hand he took back with the other quoting missionaries as praising Her Majesty’s Government for its openness and fairness.

He offered a backhanded defence of the British in 1899, denying that the nation was more repugnant than others and deficient in imagination, adding, “… the British were disliked by others because of their national self-complacency and arrogance, which resulted from the accomplishment of great deeds.”

A leading proponent of political change in the colony, he constantly petitioned for constitutional reform and the inclusion of democratic processes in government.

His one success had come in 1888, when he achieved elected office as a member of the Sanitary Board.

Although the generally squalid and unhealthy sewerage arrangements of the time probably contributed to the frequency of plagues, the function of the board was unpopular, seen as being bad for business and interfering in people’s private domain.

The government opened the way for two elected members to try and improve relations between the board and the public.

Francis ran and was elected by the ratepayers.

The Daily Press noted that it would be ranked as a day of note by future historians in Hong Kong, adding, “For the first time the ratepayers of the colony had been given a voice in the management of their own affairs.”

During the plague of 1894, Francis became the head of the Permanent Committee of the Sanitary Board. He was frequently at loggerheads with the government and it is said that daggers were drawn between himself and the governor.

In the Chinese community, rumours spread that he had ordered pregnant women to be slaughtered and children’s eyes gouged out to make medicine to combat the plague.

Francis blamed the Department of Public Works for the trouble.

But he still remained in the firing line. He was accused of doing little to combat the plague, as he had resisted the appointment of the Medical Officer of Health to the board, calling him a government spy.

In 1896, the government moved to remove the elected members from the Sanitary Board, but Francis led a plebiscite on whether the community wanted a majority of elected members and overwhelmingly (331 to 31) people voted with him.

However, the colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, was not about to be swayed by public opinion and although minority elections continued, those elected in 1899 resigned in 1901 on the grounds that the board had no independent power.

Hong Kong was to wait until 1936 before any democratic process would appear again with the establishment of the Urban Council.

Francis continued to be pugnacious right up to the last minute and wrote that the recognition given to him for his work on the Sanitary Board during the plague did not adequately recognise his contribution and he refused to accept the silver inkstand proffered by Her Majesty’s Government.

In 1899, at a meeting of the Literary Society, he pushed for an elected Legislative Council and lodged his objection to the heads of departments being made members of the Executive Council.

Catholic faith remained the driving force in Francis’ life. It inspired him to fight for the rights of all people in society and to place everyone equally before the law and have the right of parity in the esteem of society.

He was one of the first and most vehement proponents of popular representation in Hong Kong and left a valuable legacy of fledgling democracy that, if not cherished and nurtured, may well end up where it began, in the cesspool of the city’s sewerage.

The Daily Press noted that it would be ranked as a day of note by future historians in Hong Kong, adding, ‘For the first time the ratepayers of the colony had been given a voice in the management of their own affairs’