We first met Maryknoll Father Tom Henehan on our second day in Chile in late 1985, arriving as a new lay missioner family. It was the beginning of a deep friendship that would last for more than 36 years.
Tom worked in Santiago but loved to visit our team in the southern rural diocese of Linares. He would often stay at our home and enjoyed engaging with our three kids, who thought the world of him. Building relationships with families was something that Tom valued and that is a beautiful part of his legacy. He built those relationships in the parishes where he served and with the people he worked with through the Centro de Reflexión Pastoral, an organization he helped build on the model of popular education. In recent weeks since learning of Tom’s illness, literally hundreds of people across Santiago who he had worked with as well as others in rural areas gathered each day to pray for Tom and send him love and light as he prepared for his final sacred journey. We can only imagine how many celebrations of his life will take place in Chile in the coming weeks.
In those years, as lay missioners, we were a program of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. In Chile, we participated in the annual retreat, meeting and workshop. We did everything except vote. Eventually, the region requested that the lay missioners name a lay missioner to serve on the regional council. Sam was asked by the lay missioners to assume that position. Tom was regional superior during that period, and Sam enjoyed working with him. In the summer they would travel to visit each missioner in the region. The daily trips always began with reflecting on the gospel of the day followed by sharing about the transition of the country from a brutal dictatorship to a budding democracy.
Over the years when we were back in the States and when Tom would come to town, he would always come over for dinner and long conversations about whatever was happening in Chile. Eventually, this always led to asking Cecilia to pull out her guitar and lead us in a Chilean sing-along.
In our years on the lay mission staff, lay missioners and returned missioners would gather at our house for potlucks and sing-alongs. Society and Congregation members would often join us. When Tom was in town he would always join us. Memories of Chile were a part of the conversation of course, and it was great to hear how Tom was sharing the tools and programs he and his teams in Latin America had developed in popular education. Tom was truly an educator, using the skills of Paolo Freire to the max. He helped many people realize their own gifts and talents.
This past year, Tom was present to us in a new way. As Sam faced some health challenges that included cancer, Tom was there for Sam and all of us. His care and concern was so genuine and fueled by his deep spirituality. He also offered to help welcome our grandson, Samuel Ignacio, to DePaul University in Chicago.
When Tom himself was diagnosed with cancer, he called us that evening to share the tough news. It left us numb. When he arrived at Maryknoll to begin his treatment, we were able to get together with him at the Society Center. The Sunday before Sam had surgery in December, Tom heard his confession and they had a long conversation about the journey home to God and how each understood it. That week Tom was hospitalized and he made the decision not to continue the chemo treatment.
From that day until his suffering body released his spirit, 100 of friends — many of them his students in informal education and people from parishes where he had served in Guatemala, Chile, Bolivia and the US — gathered each day to send Tom love and light for the sacred journey. His legacy will endure through many lives and actions for good for many years to come.
¡Adelante compañero! ¡Presente!