HONG KONG (SE): Maryknoll Father John Francis Ahearn, who served the Church in Hong Kong for almost five decades as pastor and professor, died on January 14 at Vermont in the United States of America. He was 73-years-old.
Father Ahearn, son of John and Angela (neè Breid) Ahearn, was born in Brooklyn, New York on 23 May 1947. At the age of 17 he entered the Maryknoll College in Glen Ellyn, Illinois in the fall of 1964. After completing his novitiate in 1969, he made his first oath in Society of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. He obtained a Master’s degree in Liturgical Studies from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana before he was ordained to the priesthood on 19 May 1973.
Following his ordination in 1973, Father Ahearn was assigned to the Maryknoll Region of Taiwan, but shortly after arriving, he was reassigned to the Hong Kong Region, arriving in Hong Kong in September of 1973. He began his language studies in Cantonese at the University of Hong Kong.
While still attending his language classes, John Cardinal Wu Cheng-chung assigned him to teach Liturgy at Holy Spirit Seminary in Aberdeen. He maintained his status as a faculty member in Liturgy for almost five decades, up until the time of his death.
During the years when Father Ahearn resided at Holy Spirit Seminary, he helped out in parishes such as Our Lady of China in Tai Kok Tsui, St. Vincent’s parish in Wong Tai Sin, and as the priest responsible for the St. Luke’s Mass Centre in Wong Chuk Hang, Aberdeen.
At this time, together with Father Lawrence Yu and the late Maryknoll Sister Helen Marie Kenny, he initiated the first Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) programme for deacons in the diocese.
This programme also included overseas exposure programmes for deacons and third year Theology students in various Asian countries such as Thailand, the Philippines, Nepal and India.
In 1974 Father Ahearn was asked to coordinate the work of the Liturgy Commission of the Diocese of Hong Kong, with its office in the Grand Building Catholic Centre, and later in the diocesan headquarters on Caine Road.
His work on the commission initiated a wide variety of pastoral formation and liturgical development programmes and service for the diocese. These included new changes in the liturgy, the establishment of Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist, and the translation of liturgical texts into Chinese.
He was instrumental in developing a diocese-wide programme for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). It was also during this time that the Diocesan Sacred Music Commission and the Diocesan Art and Architecture Commission were established. He chaired the commission for 13 years but later continued his services as an advisor to them.
After a decade as a full-time staff of the seminary, Father Ahearn was appointed as assistant pastor to St. Lawrence Parish in Lei Cheng Uk, while continuing his part-time lecturing at the seminary.
In 1987 Cardinal Wu assigned him to establish a new parish in Shatin, St. Benedict Church. The newly erected church was dedicated in February of 1993.
While serving at St. Benedict Church, Father Ahearn was also the dean of North-East New Territories Deanery from 1993-1997, and served as a member of the diocesan council of priests for six years. He was also the hospital chaplain to Prince of Wales Hospital, the Shatin Hospital and the Cheshire Home and Hospital, the Bradbury Hospice and the AIDS Hospice.
With the help of Missionary Sisters of St. Columban, he set up an extensive programme of volunteer-visitors for hospital ministry in many nursing homes in the area.
He also was on the Board of Managers of the Maryknoll Secondary School and a manager for the Caritas special education schools in Hong Kong.
During his later years at St. Benedict parish, Father Ahearn was asked to assist in the training and formation of the diocesan deacons preparing for priesthood.
He also encouraged and developed a parish outreach programme involving parish youth in the leper colony at Ngai Sai and to Catholic villages in Toishgan, Kongmoon and Shun Tak.
In 1998, Father Ahearn was assigned as the acting parish priest of the Blessed Martyrs of China parish in Shatin; by 1999, this parish was officially suppressed and was incorporated into the territory of St. Benedict’s Parish in Shatin.
In 2000, Father Ahearn returned to the States for an extended sabbatical with his family, and was appointed the pastor of St. Anne’s parish in Las Vegas for one year from July 2001.
Returning to Hong Kong, he was appointed pastor of Our Lady of Fatima Church on Cheung Chau Island from 1 January 2003 where he served until September 2018 when he returned to the United States for medical treatment. He formally retired from the pastoral services in the diocese of Hong Kong in February 2019.
As a member of the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America (Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers), Father Ahearn was elected as the second assistant superior of the China/Hong Kong Local Pastoral Group in 2010 and later became the local coordinator from 2014 through February of 2017.
In September of 2018, Father Ahearn returned to the United States after a prolonged illness, in order to recuperate his strength. He lived each day with the hope and desire to return to full-time ministry in Hong Kong.
On 1 January 2020, he was assigned to the Maryknoll Senior Mission community with residence at his home in Vermont, where he passed away after a brief hospitalisation near his home on January 14.
Requiem Masses in honour of Father Ahearn were held in Our Lady of Fatima Parish, Cheung Chau, St. Benedict Church, Shatin and the Cathedral of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception.
Father Josekutty Mathew, the parish priest of Our Lady of Fatima Parish, celebrated the requiem Mass in on January 20.
At the beginning of the Mass, sa remembrance of the life of Father Ahearn was read out both in English and in Chinese.
A video showing the significant moments in his life was played in the Church before the Mass.
Supervisors, principals and staff of the Sacred Heart Primary School and Sacred Heart Kindergarten, office-bearers of Caritas and community leaders who knew Father Ahearn participated in the service.
Altar servers of the parish fondly remembered their beloved priest who taught them English and helped them to attend the World Youth Days and other youth events.
Parish Council chairperson, Paul Lo Kam-wai, and person-in-charge for the liturgy Ethelbert Lai Kwok Wing shared their experiences of working with Father Ahearn.
Many were overwhelmed with grief and were seen struggling to control their emotions. “Father never wanted to leave Hong Kong. We are glad that he (his ashes) is coming back to Cheung Chau,” said one of the parishioners after the Mass.
Father Joseph McCabe, Asia Regional Superior of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers told the Sunday Examiner that Father Ahearn’s cremated remains would eventually be brought to Cheung Chau for interment there.