First Rector in Taiwan (1926-2020)
Taipei, Taiwan, 9 August 2020 -- At about 14:00 hours on Friday, 07 August 2020, the Good Lord has called to himself our beloved 93-year-old Fr John Ma Yeong Ding (1926-2020). Confined to a wheel-chair for the last few years, in the past few weeks his health had declined and demanded hospitalization. He died in Hong Kong’s Eastern Hospital, a few minutes’ drive from our province Valdocco, the Salesian Missionary House where the youngest and the oldest Salesians of Mary Help of Christian province (CIN) live and work. The present writer is writing from Taiwan. Fr John Ma was the first Salesian Rector in Taiwan. Fresh from his Canon Law Licentiate studies in Italy (ordained in 1957), in 1963 he was the leader of the first six Salesians to arrive in Tainan (South Taiwan) to set up the first regular Salesian Community in charge of a middle school (to be built from scratch) and a missionary parish (territory of 200 km2) to be developed from its infant state as two missions stations, one (Tu Ku) founded by a Spanish Dominican missionary and the other (Kuijen) begun by a diocesan priest (who later became Archbishop of Taipei).
After the 6-year first rectorship of Fr John Ma (1963-1969), the imposing 4-storey 100-meter long Salesian Technical School was in place with a thousand students and the parish had four mission centres: Houjia, Tuku, Kuijen, Kuanmiao with hundreds of Catholics and dozens of catechumens.
When his term as Tainan Rector ended, Fr John Ma was transferred to Taipei to support, first as Assistant Parish Pastor then as Parish Pastor, veteran missionary Fr Peter Pomati, the first Rector and Parish Pastor of the newly born (1964) Salesian North-Taiwan presence in the outskirts of Taipei. Taipei is the capital city of Taiwan and, at that time, was also the provisional capital of the whole of China. Let us listen to Fr John Ma himself speaking about that period:
“Our first task was that of searching out the lost sheep. Our visits to the families took on a daily rhythm. At that time the parish included 3 military-personnel villages and 4 civilian villages. Our visits bore abundant fruit. We found many scattered Catholic families, about 60 in all. No wonder, the 4 Sunday Masses recorded all full attendance in the limited space of the original church. Soon, the Parish Pastoral Council was organized as well as the Legion of Mary. Other parish sodalities followed. As for the Salesians Cooperators, they had preceded the arrival of the Salesians in Taipei! Naturally, in the seven villages we met also a lot of children and adolescents, both Catholic and non-Catholic. In the spirit of Don Bosco, every Sunday afternoon, from 13:00 hours to 16:00 hours, we began holding regular Sunday School and Sunday Oratory. Every Sunday about 150 youngsters came to the parish. The only place available was the regular basketball court and the open space in front of the parish house. When it rained, all had to crowd inside the parish-house building. The youthful gathering ended with the distribution of a little snacks and a warm ‘See you next Sunday!’ The Taipei diocesan clergy used to tell us: ‘We know why you at St. John Bosco Parish are the only parish in Taipei to have a Sunday afternoon Oratory. It is because by Holy Rule you do not take your afternoon siesta in bed!’ Soon Fr Peter Pomati realized that our space was too limited for so many faithful and young people. That is why he began gathering funds, from Italy in particular, for the construction, first, of a Youth Centre (1970) on the right side of our property and, next, on the left side, of a big church dedicated to Saint John Bosco (1984)”.
Given his Licence Degree in Canon Law, Fr John Ma was soon asked by the Taiwan Bishops to teach in the inter-diocesan Catechetical School that formed hundreds of catechists for the Taiwan Catholic Church. Among his graduates, Fr John Ma found the necessary personnel to begin the St. John Bosco Kindergarten, regularly registered with the Government (1976), in the premises of the Youth Centre. These premises were now rendered redundant by the dislocation of all the military-personnel villages and civilian villages caused by the new city-planning that turned our parish district into a Banking District! For the Taiwan Church, kindergartens are a primary tool of evangelization. Today it is not rare to find that adult catechumens are past pupils of Church kindergartens!
After 16 years in Taipei (1969-1985), Fr John Ma was transferred (back) to Tainan. There, after a few years as missionary in one or other of the missionary stations, he began his second term as Rector of the Tainan Community (1984-1990). The Salesians living and working with him at that time still remember his programmatic 3-point Educative-Pastoral Project: “1. Begin a formal Salesian aspirantate with its own premises and personnel. 2. Devise all ways and means to strengthen the moral education in the school and to promote in-school catechumenate. 3. Promote the pastoral care of sheep (found and to-be-found) as well as the reach-out evangelization of our enormous parish territory.”
After finishing his service of authority, Fr John Ma continued working in Tainan until, a few years ago, his declining health demanded that he be transferred to our Home for the Aged in Hong Kong, the Casa Braga in the CIN province Valdocco of Shau Kei Wan. We are grateful to the young Salesians of Tainan who, digitally alert, in the last few years, have recorded several words of Fr. Ma, words which we now find so precious. They are words that bear witness to his Bosco-like zeal for souls and for vocations. Thank you! And may the Good God give you peace, dear Fr Ma!