The Funeral Mass of Sister M Thomas Chan, who died on Sunday, 4 May 2014 in St Columban’s Nursing Home, Magheramore, Wicklow, took place on Tuesday, 6 May. The celebrant of the Mass was Fr Pat Donohoe, Chaplain, and Sister Redempta Twomey gave the Homily the text of which follows below.
Funeral Mass M Thomas Chan 6.5.2014 Magheramore Rom 8: 35-38; Mt 10:37-42
“Today, with the great Easter Alleluias still sounding in our hearts, we come to bury our dearly loved sister, Mary Thomas. She left us on Sunday, early in the morning of her ninety third birthday, to celebrate her birth to eternal life in heaven. This was surely the crowning birthday gift of her long life when, to quote the Preface, ‘the bright promise of immortality’ was at last realised in her. So, even as we grieve and feel the sharp severance of death, we are not without hope, believing that she is now where she so longed to be, in the heart of the Risen Lord.
We offer our sympathy to Rose, her sister in Hong Kong, to David, her nephew, and his wife Lucy here with us today, to her many nieces and nephews and all her family and friends across the globe who mourn her passing today. Your memories of her kindnesses will strengthen you in this time of loss.
Where to begin? This can only be a kind of ‘dim sum’ because who can capture such a life? Fanny Chan was a woman of ten thousand stories, of journeys spanning continents, of talents beyond number, of a humanity that blessed all she met and, more weighty still, a woman whose faith was as deep and wide as the ocean she crossed to come from Hong Kong to the banks of the Shannon river at Cahiracon to begin her religious life.
This extraordinary journey began in the heart of her close-knit family in Hong Kong. Her beloved father used to gather Fanny and her sister and brothers each evening after supper and tell them stories of their people, their ancestors and the history of the Chinese Dynasties. They learned from him the great Confucian qualities of respect for all, loyalty, courage, moderation, faithfulness, selfless service and a great love of learning. A far-seeing man, he realized that English would be all-important in the British Colony of Hong Kong and transferred his children from their Chinese school to that of the Canossian Sisters where everyone had to speak in English at all times. She continued her Chinese studies even as she grew proficient in English. Not only that but, a diligent student, Fanny excelled in Christian Doctrine, often outshining her Catholic classmates. In her early teens she wanted to be baptized but her wise and gentle father counselled her to wait until she grew older. “Then,” he said, “you will be able to follow this God of yours with your whole heart.” He never lived to see that day as he died when she was only 15. But even in her old age she could draw, from the vast storehouse of her memory, examples of his guidance that nourished her life.
After her schooling, Fanny went on to train as a nurse in the prestigious Queen Mary Hospital, where she also became a competent midwife and a skilled administrator. A period of great turmoil befell Hong Kong when the Japanese Army arrived in the early 1940s and Fanny with three close friends secretly escaped to China in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. They worked there as WW2 raged on until it was safe to return. Believe me, James Bond has nothing on the adventures of Fanny Chan.
On coming back to Hong Kong she found that her gentle mother had died, her sister was missing and she could not find her brothers. But after some months they were reunited and set up home together. Fanny had a good position and was able to take care of them, which she did gladly. Meanwhile she began taking instruction and was baptised in 1946. She joined the Legion of Mary, was committed to the Catholic Nurses Guild. A woman of prayer, her faith and love of God grew stronger each day. With the world at her feet, all was going along smoothly until a niggling sense of vocation to religious life began to bother her. But how could she possibly leave her beloved family? One evening in her room, reading the gospel we just heard, this recent convert understood it had to be all or nothing and with great courage, she chose to follow Christ. After much discernment and guided by her spiritual director she joined the Columban sisters. Her motto reflects her total commitment: “Behold, I come to do your will, O Lord.” And we all saw how faithfully she lived this motto, right to the end. Here is a woman who would put her hand to the plough and not rest until the last furrow had been opened.
To the dismay of her family, she left Hong Kong to travel by boat to Ireland, a country far, far from all that was familiar and loved. On the deck that first evening, her heart in her boots she cried out to God. Had she made a terrible mistake? She was all alone and knew no one at all. “Then,” she told us, “a word from the Old Testament came to my mind: ‘You are precious in my eyes.’ And I knew without a shadow of doubt that the Lord was with me and I would never be alone.” Just then a lovely English lady came up to her and suggested that, as she too had no companion, they should join forces. The month long journey was a delight.
After her novitiate in Cahiracon she was sent to Hong Kong where over the years she worked in various positions in the Ruttonjee Sanatorium. A gifted teacher and administrator she passed on her skills and empowered many a poor student to greater heights. She revamped the hospital kitchens and instilled in the staff a passion for good nutrition, especially for the tubercular patients. (Remember this was a woman who couldn’t boil an egg before she entered!) Sr Thomas also found time to give classes on nourishing food to poor mothers to help their families. She had legions of friends and was well known for her warm, welcoming hospitality.
A whole book could be written on her later assignments: to this house which she managed with consummate skill, learning in the process the mysteries of plumbing, the intricacies of electricity as well as teaching staff and producing delicious meals; to London where she oversaw a large International Students’ Hostel; to Scotland where, as bursar and hospital visitor, her circle of friends grew ever wider. In every role she brought the same whole-hearted commitment, knowing with an inner certainty that no matter how hard the road, how difficult the problems, nothing, as we heard in the first reading, ‘could separate her from the love of God in Christ Jesus.’
Her final years were spent here where she was most wonderfully cared for by the attentive staff in the Nursing Home. One was struck by the many friends who came to see her, sisters, current and former staff members who all loved her, as well as many overseas friends. As her poor little body grew frailer it seemed to many of us that her spirit shone more brightly. Most movingly, in those final speechless days, she smiled at us with a peace that was her final blessing.
A few years ago, sensing her diminishment, she wrote the following: “When I reflect on all that’s happened me in my life, I’m happy, I have no regrets. No matter what illness may afflict me, especially now in my winter years, I thank God for everything, absolutely everything in my life. I’ve come to realise that true love is as much about failure as success. As much about the painful times as the good times. If we can rejoice in the bad times as well as the good, then God will shine through our words and deeds. We can bring healing to the sick, food to the hungry, hope to the downhearted. Be a beacon of light in the darkness; this is my belief.”
When we leave here, may each one of us become a beacon of light to others even as Sr Mary Thomas, throughout her long life, was to us. This would be the most fitting memorial of all. God bless you. Tien Jiu Bo Yau…
Printable copy: Sr M Thomas Chan – Funeral Homily