Father Michael Healy
Columban Father Michael Healy died on 10 September in Ireland at the age of 91 years. Overseas, he worked in China and Burma, but he also spent many years on mission awareness/appeals work in Britain.
Michael Healy was born in Cork in 1921 and was ordained a Columban priest in December 1943 at the age of 22 years. He worked in parishes in the Welsh Diocese of Menevia until being appointed to China in 1946, where he served in the Archdiocese of Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province. After six years, he was expelled from China, which was now under a Communist government. One of his alleged crimes was the introduction of the ‘secret counter-revolutionary Legion of Mary’ in his parish.
Six months later he was appointed to Burma but, while waiting for a visa, he spent from 1954 to 1958 on promotion work in England. When he finally arrived in Burma, he served for eight years among the Kachin and later the Shan peoples in the far north-east of the country, practically on the border with China. On 31 December 1966 he was expelled from Burma.
There followed 34 years of travelling around England, Scotland and Wales on mission promotion work. Michael finally retired to Ireland in December 2001.
Wherever he was assigned, Michael was an indefatigable worker. Driven by zeal for the Kingdom, he was a deeply prayerful, gentle, cheerful, strong man. In every appointment, his ready smile and his capacity to relate to the local people made him many friends. He had a fund of stories, many of which appeared in his memoir ‘Other Times’, published in 2010.
His return visits to China in 1990 and to Burma in 1998, brought him great consolation.
The following are extracts from the homily of Cyril Lovett ssc, delivered at the funeral Mass at St Columban’s, Dalgan Park, County Meath:
"With the death of Michael Healy, that small group of ‘Old China Hands’ is further reduced. They were an extraordinary group, the last of them practically the same age as the Society of St Columban. They worked in a China that had hardly begun to be developed. Communication within China was extremely difficult; communication with home countries depended on the rare letters that brought news that was months out of date. In the main, they lived widely separated from each other and travel to visit a neighbouring Columban often took days. Those who kept sane and happy were men of prayer, men of rich internal resources, men who were passionate about being called by the Lord to spread his Kingdom.
But, even among this elite ‘band of brothers’ Michael was unique. A big man, a man of great physical strength, we remember him as a happy man of unfailing courtesy, kindness and cheerfulness. Like Columban, our patron, Michael was twice expelled, from China in 1952, and from Burma in 1966. Unlike Columban, he had the great grace of revisiting both countries: he visited China 38 years later in 1990, and Burma 34 years later in 1998.
Michael had a phenomenal memory and this served him well as one of the great Columban story-tellers. He enjoyed telling stories and would give a delighted chuckle as, in his mind’s eye, he skipped forward to the funny bits. We, the listeners could only guess the cause of his mirth as we waited for the story to continue. Listening to Michael tell a story was like being carried along on a great river of narrative. The challenge for Michael was to resist leading us up each tributary stream to fill in the subplots of the story! All of us have a fund of stories from our time in mission, many of them stories of fellow-Columbans. Michael had those also, but he had infinitely more stories about the persons with whom he had formed relationships in China, Burma, England, Scotland and Wales. He had a gift for friendship. Forty, fifty, sixty years later he remembered the precise names of his friends from earlier days.
Two passages that he relates in his book ‘Other Days’ illustrate how his gift for friendship was reciprocated in the most difficult of circumstances. In 1952, when he was being expelled from the town of Nanzun in China, most of the population were forced to gather at the pier waiting for the river steamer that would take him away. In the vast throng, Michael noticed a group of Christians standing together. He looked up to Heaven with a reassuring smile, then bravely raised his hand and blessed them. The Christians with even greater bravery publicly made the sign of the cross. Then, as the steamer arrived, Michael’s lay helper, named James, managed to get through the armed escort, approached with a smile and publicly shook his hand. Michael wrote, ‘To thousands watching it spoke volumes. In effect it said ‘I was the closest to the priest. This is what I think of these accusations.’ And I thought of Kipling’s words ‘999 will flinch from the pain and the shame and the laughter, but the thousandth man will stand your friend to the gallows and even after’.
The second passage comes from his departure in 1966 from Pangpau up near the Chinese border in Burma. ‘Next morning,’ he writes, ‘men young and old, mothers carrying babes and children escorted me out of the village and over the hills in the lovely Kachin custom of accompanying one departing. It was like the exodus. The French have a saying ‘Each time we say goodbye we die a little’. I certainly died a bit on that December day. Pangpau had not been an easy assignment. Leaving it should have been easy. It wasn’t. I was leaving a people I had come to know and love. I admired their simplicity, courage and loyalty. Only when I had pleaded for a third time that they should return to their villages did they ask for a final blessing before departing. I thought how Columban must have felt when he was expelled for the second time.
Michael had a sweet tenor voice. His memory held the words of thousands of songs and he loved to compose parodies to well-known melodies. When leaving Burma he composed the following, particularly remembering Columbans who died in Burma:
I return to our Burma mission, to the jungle where orchids grow,
and the tribes people tell stories of the Columbans of long ago.
In the great plain they lie asleeping where the Irrawaddy gently flows
and the tall trees above them keeping silent watch as they sleep below.
Some returned from our Burma mission to their loved one who held them dear
but some fell in their hour of glory and were left to their resting here.
March no more, you nine Columbans. There is peace where there once was war.
Sleep in peace, my dear companions. Sleep in peace now the battle’s o’er.”
And we say to Michael: ‘Sleep in peace, our dear companion. Sleep in peace now the battle’s o’er.’”
Fr Michael wrote a book about his experiences in China. See: http://columban.com/fw/fe_other_days.html
* A nephew of Fr Michael, Olan Healy, adds: My uncle, Fr Michael Healy was 'a mighty man' as we would say here in Ireland. The Patriarch of our family, his stories, songs and experiences will be sorely missed. Gone to a better place but will never be forgotten.