Hong Kong, 9 June 2020 -- Miss Audrey Donnithorne died today, 9 June 2020, in Hong Kong, aged 97. She was born in 1922 in Sichuan Province (China) of a missionary couple of the Anglican Church Missionary Society. as a 5-year old she was sent to England, where she received her primary and secondary education. As an 18-year old she returned to China to begin her university studies in the West China Union University. After two years she was back in London to make her contribution to England’s war effort against the Nazis. In London, on 7 March 1944 (then Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas), she was received into the Catholic Church, converted by reading, among other things, Saint John Henry Newman’s Apologia pro vita sua.
From 1945 to 1968 she lived university life, first in Oxford as an undergraduate and then as researcher and teacher in University College London. The publication of her study China’s Economic System, a ground-breaking analysis of Mao era economy (still being reprinted), turned her into a world-renowned scholar. In 1969 she was invited to Australia by the Australian National University, where she was one of the founders of the Contemporary China Centre. For ANU she worked until her “retirement” in 1985, when she “retired” as Honorary Research Fellow of the Centre for Asian Studies of the University of Hong Kong. “Retirement” and “retires” are between inverted commas because her last 35 years are the busiest from an educational and pastoral point of view.
Even before her “retirement”, as China began opening up in 1979-1980, Miss Audrey was one of the first to take the kairos of Deng Xiao Ping’s partial opening up of China to get in touch with the very needy Church in our beloved motherland. Her retirement in Hong Kong coincided with her acquaintance with Don Bosco and his children, going to Mass every Sunday in St. Anthony’s Church, the Catholic church just across the road where she lived.
In Hong Kong, she was the cofounder of AITECE, an association that promotes the offer to China’s universities of coveted native English-speakers as language-teachers. She set up a publishing enterprise to publish books in simplified characters for the education to the faith of the people and the philosophical and theological formation of the clergy. Such books are extremely needed in the motherland where the Cultural Revolution has gone rampant to try to destroy all vestiges of the past. One of the first books she published was a life of Don Bosco. The printer inside the motherland would pay with a few months of jail for his collaboration with Miss Audrey in this.
She was very close to Fr. Laszlo Ladany S.J. of China News Analysis, probably the most famous China-watcher in the second half of the 20th century. When confessors of the faith were freed from jail, she visited them. If they came to Hong Kong, she feasted them. She did so with our Fr. Francesco Wang Yung, 28 years in jail and concentration camp for the faith; with our Fr. Paolo Fong Ting Chung, 37 years in jail and concentration camp for the faith. On the night of the Tiananmen Massacre on June 4th, 1989, she was in Beijing, a few hundred meters from Tiananmen Square.
Most of her “retirement” time was spent in providing assistance to persecuted Churches around the world. She offered this assistance personally, visiting the most remote places. For the motherland she did this until she denied access to her native country by the regime in power. This, however, did not stop her from continuing in other ways her assistance to the Church in the motherland. In her last will, she left the flat in which she had been living for the last 35 years as a place to be used in support of educative-pastoral work for university students in Hong Kong who hail from the motherland. Today we pray that dear Miss Audrey Donnithorne receives from her good Lord the rest that she had refused to take here on earth until her last day.
Rest in peace, dear Miss Audrey!