Audrey Donnithorne, steadfast in faith and mission for China

Cardinal Tong (holding the aspergillum), with Cardinal Zen, sprinkling holy water on Audrey Donnithorne’s coffin at St. Joseph’s Church on June 26. Photo: Annie Lam
Cardinal Tong (holding the aspergillum), with Cardinal Zen, sprinkling holy water on Audrey Donnithorne’s coffin at St. Joseph’s Church on June 26. Photo: Annie Lam

By Annie Lam

HONG KONG (SE): The funeral Mass of Audrey Donnithorne (땟搗돠, 1922 to 2020) brought together more a hundred people— relatives, longtime friends and collaborators in the Church, who bade farewell to the great Catholic missionary to China on June 26 at St. Joseph’s Church, Garden Road. 

She passed away in Hong Kong on June 9 at the age of 97.

John Cardinal Tong Hon, apostolic administrator of Hong Kong, concelebrated the Mass with Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun, bishop emeritus, along with around 15 priests of the diocese and clergy from missionary societies

Cardinal Tong also celebrated the rite of cremation at a crematorium. 

As a member of the Order of Malta since 2007, Donnithorne’s body was covered with a dame’s robe. Members of the order led a prayer at the final commendation. The order, formed in 1113, upholds human dignity and caring for the needy.

The liturgy booklet included photos of her with her parents, clergy in China and the pope, as well as a picture of lilies, her favourite flower. 

Cardinal Tong praised Donnithorne as “an excellent missionary to China” who maintained relationships with Catholics from both the official and unofficial communities in China. Having known her for more than 30 years, he said her efforts in assisting the formation of seminarians and sisters in China, and in building churches and rebuilding those damaged by the May 2008 Sichuan earthquakes were much appreciated.

In his homily, Cardinal Zen thanked God for the gift of Audrey Donnithorne. He called her “a brave woman,” who, in faith, was “doing what she could to improve the lives of others, and these ‘others’ happen to be the Chinese people.” 

Cardinal Zen cited George Weigel’s article Audrey Donnithorne: Woman of Valour (Catholic World Report, 12 June 2020), saying her life “navigated a kaleidoscope of experiences that rank her as one of most remarkable Catholics of modern times and a genuine heroine of faith.”

Donnithorne described herself “an overseas Brit and a Sichuan country girl,” according a line from her autobiography, China in Life’s Foreground, published in 2019 by Australian Scholarly Publishing Pty Ltd.

“To be born in China was no accident, it was a vocation, a mission,” Cardinal Zen said,, adding, “She dedicated her whole life to the service of Chinese people, especially in the later part of her life. This missionary love was so natural, so simple, it blossomed from her childlike heart.” 

He pointed out that Donnithorne’s most important work was “weaving relations with bishops” in China who, although coming from a “patriotic” past and ordained without a mandate from the Holy See, had a strong desire to be reconciled with the pope, as Father Bernardo Cervellera of AsiaNews reported on June 10 (Sunday Examiner, June 21).

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Father Cervellera noted that the bishops of Sichuan were among the first to rebuild unity among themselves, despite begin divided between unofficial and official communities, and with the universal Church and the pope. He said she never juxtaposed the unofficial and official Churches, but instead “she recognised a unity stronger than any opposition.” 

Cardinal Zen said, “Precisely because simple and natural this missionary love was so passionate and so industrious, Audrey invested in it all her talents of faith, of professional excellence and of feminine sensibility.” He added that before she was banned from mainland China, she travelled there countless times and promoted social projects with sustainability.

The cardinal concluded with a remembrance of Leo Goodstadt and Jesuit Father James Hurley (Sunday Examiner, May 10 and April 19), both of whom passed away recently.


At the end of the Mass, one of Donnithorne’s family, Clementine, read the family eulogy: “Audrey may have seen herself as ‘An overseas Brit and a Sichuan country girl’ but to the family she has never been ‘overseas’—always staying in touch and keeping us all together. She was loved by everyone and even though she was so far away.”

She said, “She was an only child and was loved by all 18 of her first cousins, and then in turn by their children, and their children’s children.” 

She noted, “Her Christian belief guided her life, and her sense of mission and devotion giving her a clear sense of what was right and wrong, combined with her compassion and humanity. She was determined and brave and, on many occasions, outspoken.” 

Claire Lai, a goddaughter of Donnithorne, told the congregation that everything her godmother did was guided by her love for and trust in our Lord as well as her devotion to humbly serving him. 

“She did all she could and left the rest to the will of God. This was clear in her final weeks as we conversed and prayed together and she awaited being brought home. With this, she left a permanent mark on many of us. This is especially true for her godchildren, of whom I am lucky enough to be one,” she said, adding, “Even in her ill health, she never failed to think of and ask after others.”  

The names of Donnithorne’s 14 other godchildren were read out in the eulogy. 


In 1993, Donnithorne was awarded the medal of Pro Ecclesia et Pro Pontifice in recognition of her work. She was named an honorary member of the Paris Foreign Missions in 1995 for her work in their former mission areas and was highly regarded for helping the Church to reconnect and contact with those dioceses in Sichuan and other provinces.

READ  Appeal from the Colloquium of Six Religious Leaders of Hong Kong regarding the outbreak of novel coronavirus

Born in Sichuan to an Anglican missionary couple, she studied economics in Oxford University, then taught in Canberra, and researched on China reforms. She moved to Hong Kong in 1985 and became an honorary member of the Centre for Asian Studies of the University of Hong Kong. She converted to Catholicism.

Remembrance from China

In Nanchong, a diocese in Sichuan, Bishop Joseph Chen Gong’ao celebrated a memorial Mass for the Donnithorne on June 10, the day after her death, and called upon all Catholics in the diocese to pray for her eternal rest, according to a report published in Faith Press on June 10. The report noted that she was, born in Santai county (Sichuan), had helped the Church in the provinces Guizhou, Sichuan and Yunnan. She learnt Chinese there, it added.

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