CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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A farewell to historic Maryknoll House

HONG KONG (SE): The Church in Hong Kong is losing an iconic landmark.

On October 5, the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers hosted a simple barbecue for friends and clergy to bid farewell to their home at the Maryknoll Centre House in Stanley, which has fallen victim to changing times and new needs.

In welcoming guests to the spacious gardens above Stanley Bay on a soporific evening, Father John Ahern, Maryknoll coordinator in Hong Kong, reminisced about the various purposes the house has served in the history of the city and the Maryknoll society.

The hilltop amidst the wide open spaces of 1931 had immediate appeal to Father James Anthony Walsh and a building of Chinese design was started almost immediately.

In designing the iconic structure, which was not completed until 1935 and smaller than originally planned due to the depression, the architect said, “Chinese architecture is very much like the Chinese language—each district has an expression all its own.”

He went on to describe the design of the new house as one where the local architectural expression has been made to dominate, slightly modified with simplicity, but with the dignity and the monumentality of the Peking Palace buildings.

There was action from the word go. The house was a language school for newly-arrived neophytes from the United States of America and the three tongues spoken in the areas that Maryknoll were serving; Cantonese, Hakka and Putonghua; were taught by priests who had already become veterans of the mission.

It was a place of rest and recreation from labours in Jiangmen, Wuzhou, Guilin and Meixian, as well as offering hospitality to those who made the trip to the wastelands of Stanley to visit.

It played host to an extraordinary chapter in 1936 and Bishop James Edward Walsh was elected as the second superior general of the society.

In 1937, Bishop Francis Ford, Bishop Enrico Valtorta and Bishop Gustave Deswaziere ordained Father Adolph Paschang as a bishop for the vicariate of Kongmoon, but in 1941 visitors of an unwelcome kind, in the form of the Japanese Imperial Army, forcibly removed some 20 priests to an internment camp and set themselves up in the stately home.

Although the house was returned in 1946, the proclamation of the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 forced more unwanted changes, but the generosity of Maryknoll was again evident as their home became a place of refuge and recuperation for priests of all shapes and sizes on the run from China.

In the 1970s, with falling membership in the colony, land was sold off to finance repairs and a retreat house was opened in part of the building, which later saw another change in times, becoming a place of hospitality for groups from the mainland to study, pray and simply be together.

It did, however, enter the worldwide history books of Maryknoll again in 1996, when it hosted its second general chapter of the society, just 65 years after the first.

Although nothing is known of its future, a government classification as a cultural asset in the 1990s means the old house will not be knocked down, so its distinctive roofline will still be visible from the road that descends the steep hill into the village, which today is far from the wasteland it was when Maryknoll first set foot in the area.

But the grand house in Stanley was never just a home for Maryknoll, it was a place of warm welcome, where laughter rang in the corridors and many a soul, both near and far, will feel a tinge of sorrow at their leaving, while keeping a wry smile for good times past.

As the bishop of Hong Kong, John Cardinal John Tong Hon, thanked Maryknoll for the great contribution it has made to the life of the Church and the city of Hong Kong, he too bade his farewell to a building that has served the diocese so well and, as the sun sank below the water, a toast was drunk to times that will never be again and happy memories.

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