Mary Hayden was born in Kilkenny, Ireland on the 19-9-1919. She grew up in a loving family with her two sisters. However, early in life, Mary knew sorrow. One of her sisters died at the age of eight and her mother died when Mary was very young.
Mary joined Good Shepherd Sisters and started her novitiate in the Mother House at Angers in 1938. This meant she was in France during the war years where she suffered the hunger and the deprivation of war as well as losing some of her novice companions who died from tuberculosis. She made her final vows in 1944. These years of war experience were in some ways a preparation for war experiences later on in life.
In 1944 Mary went back to Ireland for a short period before going to her first foreign mission in Sri Lanka. She spent 13 years there and was very happy working in the orphanage in Nayakanda. According to Mary, she was part-time driver and usually had the oldest car that the hired drivers did not want. Sometimes this machine would do strange things like blowing the horn all the way to the hospital with pregnant mothers in the middle of the night. Mary loved Sri Lanka and its people, especially those entrusted to her care.
In 1956 Bishop Ngo-Dinh-Thuc at the request of his brother Ngo-Dinh-Diem who was the president of South Vietnam, forwarded an appeal to his friend the bishop of Angers requesting the Sisters of the Good Shepherd to work for the rehabilitation of women working in prostitution in South Vietnam. This was a serious problem resulting from the war that had gone on for many years in Vietnam until the country was divided into North and South in 1954. The Bishop of Angers presented this request to our Superior General, Mother Ursula Jung and preparations were made for the new mission. Sr Mary was one of the founding members of this mission, which began in February 1958 and became part of the Singapore Province.
The mission was under the direction of the social welfare department of Saigon. Mary took a very active part in the beginning of the mission. She learned the language, got to know many people in the town of Vinhlong who helped with advice and volunteered time. Girls who came to the Good Shepherd Center in Vinhlong had usually spent some months in remand homes in Saigon. All had been in prostitution for many years. Mary coordinated with the social welfare department and after a short time the girls sent to the Center were first-time offenders.
Life settled down to a rhythm in the Center with classes, occupational therapy and preparation for girls to seek other employment outside or return to their homes. However, life outside the Center brought many rumors of war in the remote areas. There was communist infiltration especially in village areas. As years went on this came closer and closer to the towns and cities until in 1975 the communists took over all South Vietnam and reunified the country.
During all this time Mary was a staunch Good Shepherd. Due to the war, children started to come in from remote villages where it was not safe for them to go to school. Schools were set up for them. Many sad stories of the outside world came to our door for help. In the Tet Offensive of 1968, all the sisters, staff and girls were evacuated to an American air base nearby as the town and the whole area was under siege. All survived. Young Vietnamese girls who wanted to join Good Shepherd were sent to Singapore for their Novitiate training.
Sr Mary became Provincial Leader in 1973. The war was at its height by then. When there was a communist takeover in April 1975 foreigners were advised not to stay in the country. However, as people usually hope against hope that things will improve, Mary and two other sisters were still in Saigon when the communists took over. Sr Fidelma accompanied a group of refugees who were leaving the country. There was a rush on the American Embassy with Vietnamese people trying to escape. Sr Mary and Sr Mercy had to be lifted over the American Embassy Walls by the soldiers on guard. They went by boat as refugees to Guam and then to the United States. This was a sorrowful time in Mary’s life, she was uprooted and there were many painful memories to cope with. Nevertheless, Mary had the courage to search for the most appropriate place for the community from Vietnam who were also uprooted. The Sisters opened a new Mission in Macau.
After a year of renewal, Sr Mary went to Thailand. Following three years in Bangkok, in 1991 she was again one of the founders of the Good Shepherd Mission in Nongkhai in the North East of Thailand near the border with Laos. In 1981 Nongkhai had more refugees in camps than in the city. There were refugees from Laos, resulting from the Communist takeover in that country. There was an immense poverty in the affected villages along the Mekong River which separates Laos and Thailand. Gradually the Sisters found their way to enter these villages and be accepted by the people who did not know nuns at all.
The women could weave, the children were malnourished, the men could work the land in the rainy season and in the dry season this was impossible. Children were helped when the sisters opened day-care centers; men were helped with digging wells and water-canals. However Mary’s greatest contribution to the women was in the line of weaving. After many trials and errors, disappointments and successes, the Good Shepherd Family in Nongkhai developed what became a well known trademark called “Isan Weaving” noted for its high quality workmanship. Mary lived many happy and fulfilling years in Nongkhai, and this is where she died at the age of 97 years, on Sunday morning, the 30th July 2017.
May God grant her peace.
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