At Maryknoll Lay Missioners, we mourn the death of our good friend, Maryknoll Father Tom Henehan, who died Jan. 27, 2022 at the Maryknoll Society Center. He was 83 years old. Our deepest sympathy to the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, and to Father Tom’s family.
Father Tom was very close to and accompanied Maryknoll Lay Missioners from our earliest years—both in his mission assignments in Chile and Bolivia and through his mission formation leadership in the U.S. Over the decades, he was a mentor for and greatly loved by countless lay missioners. In recent years, he contributed to many of our Orientation programs and retreats. Despite health challenges, he still served as an observer during the past year in Maryknoll Lay Missioners’ expanded mission assembly.
“We are called to act like the good Samaritan and respond to the needs of others,” Father Tom told Maryknoll magazine two years ago. “To know they can be part of the mission of the Church, God’s mission, provides a sense of purpose.”
In high school and college, Tom excelled in football and track; in 1960, he even received a telegram from legendary Coach Vince Lombardi asking him if he was interested in playing for the Green Bay Packers. And during his first mission assignment in Guatemala, he coached the country’s national track team. The discipline and teamwork he learned during his athletic career prepared him well for mission, he told Maryknoll magazine.
Ordained a Maryknoll priest in 1965, Father Tom worked for several years in mission promotion before being assigned to Guatemala, where he started a youth center in the Archdiocese of Guatemala City.
In 1975, Maryknoll assigned him to a large parish in Santiago, Chile, which had over 150,000 parishioners and several small Christian communities. What they lacked in resources they made up for in dedication and giving spirit, he said.
“The bishop was installing 130 lay ministers a year,” Father Tom said. Many lay people sought spiritual formation, so the bishop tasked him with establishing a new Center for Pastoral Reflection.
The center helped train thousands of lay leaders to respond from a Christian perspective to problems such as unemployment, political repression and family crisis.
Knowing themselves to be loved by God can inspire people to defend their rights, Father Tom said. “You accompany people in such a way that they are empowered… They discover the power you have within you as a child of God.”
“Empowerment through accompaniment,” as he called it, was crucial during his 44 years as a missioner in Latin America. But empowering the laity was not easy during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. “There was an environment of repression, of fear, of threats to the church,” he said. “Women did not know if the police were going to stop their father or their sons. We experienced tremendous fear.”
During Pinochet’s 17-year regime, some 40,000 people suffered human rights violations and more than 3,000 of them were executed or disappeared, according to two national commissions. When civilians were targeted, priests and religious would go to the neighborhoods to pray and show them they were not alone, Father Tom recalled. “To accompany the people is essential.”
Being “a Church of the poor for the poor” was seen as suspect then. But “God is not separated from reality,” Father Tom explained. “If it is a reality of poverty, violence, injustice and discrimination, the theology must reflect finding God incarnated to defeat those sins.”
The Pinochet government retaliated against those supporting the people’s call for democracy and peace. Father Tom’s small house was raided four times.
Father Tom also was very close to Maryknoll Sister Ita Ford, one of the four U.S. church women brutally murdered in El Salvador in December 1980. Sister Ita and Father Tom worked together in Chile, and he was with her the night she left Chile in April 1980 to travel to El Salvador at the request of Archbishop Óscar Romero.
In 1986, after an attempt on Pinochet’s life, the government encircled the poorest areas of Santiago and arrested 40 people, including Father Tom and another Maryknoll priest. The government ransacked their house and falsely accused them of distributing political material. The detained Maryknollers were released eight hours later, but their Chilean permanent residency was revoked. Nonetheless, the Maryknollers continued their pastoral work using temporary visas, gaining the credibility of the people. They lived on edge until democracy was restored in 1990.
In 1996, Father Henehan was elected to the Maryknoll Society’s General Council in New York, where he served until 2002. Afterward, he brought his educational experience to the Maryknoll Mission Center in Latin America (known as CMMAL) in Cochabamba, Bolivia. He helped direct the Latin American Office for Mission Services, publishing materials to train missioners in the region. He also helped develop programs at the grassroots, national and international levels. The Latin American bishops, as well as members of the Maryknoll family, sent their leaders to Bolivia for missionary formation.
When Maryknoll staff who visited Cochabamba challenged CMMAL to create a program for the growing population of Hispanics in the United States, Father Tom embraced that challenge. He reached out to pastoral organizations and mission offices to learn about the community’s realities. He later partnered with the Hispanic Pastoral Institute Fe y Vida to develop a four-year mission formation program.
“Sixty percent of all Catholic youth (younger than 18) in the U.S. are Hispanic,” Father Tom noted. “We have to be conscious of their responsibility as a missionary church.”
Father Tom moved back to his native Chicago in 2015, where his commitment to mission continued to blossom. His life now included assisting at 10 parishes, leading retreats and mission formation workshops, training catechists and visiting former classmates in the hospital.
Father Tom told Maryknoll magazine that he felt his journey had come full circle. He had left his home in the United States to train laity in Latin America. Now, the educational tools he helped develop there were encouraging lay leaders in the United States to go to what Pope Francis calls the peripheries of society.
“We talk about needing to be agents of hope,” Father Tom said. “Mission is a commitment to be an agent of transformation in a world that desperately needs hope and abundant life for all, not just for a small minority.”
Rest in Peace, good and faithful servant! Eternal rest grant unto Tom, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him!
Much of this post is adapted from Maria-Pia Negro Chin’s article “Empowerment Through Accompaniment” in the March-April 2020 issue of Maryknoll magazine.
See also Father Tom’s section in Stories of notable Maryknollers
We invite you to share your own memories of Father Tom in the Comments section below.
Here are some tributes we have already received.
From Joe Loney, Maryknoll lay missioner in Bolivia:
Looking back at Tom´s life, I clearly see that he followed Jesus’ missionary example as well as any person I have met in my 25 years of lay mission.
Tom was an unceasing proponent of a full and equal role for the laity in the Catholic Church. He was a true believer that everyone deserved to be seated at the roundtable of fellowship, solidarity and service.
Although I only knew Tom from his mission years in Bolivia, I am certain that he was the same, welcoming, warm hearted, generous and articulate servant during his time in Guatemala, Chile and United States.
I continue to be amazed at the vast number of people he inspired, trained and empowered as full stakeholders in the realization of the mission of Christ.
While my wife and fellow lay missioner Filomena Siles and I have always known that Tom empowered our daughter Pauline by baptizing her into the Catholic faith in 2004, we find comfort at his time of passing to the eternal, heavenly world that the Holy Spirit will keep him alive so that his example will continue to empower us in this earthly world in which we too are only tenants.
From Sam Stanton, former executive director of Maryknoll Lay Missioners, and Cecilia Espinoza, returned missioner:
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. …
From the day Tom was hospitalized and made the decision not to continue the chemo treatment 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.
Read the full blog post by Sam and Cecilia at: ¡Adelante compañero! ¡Presente!
From Sonny Nguyen, returned missioner (Bolivia) and U.S. Church Relations Officer for Maryknoll Lay Missioners:
Thank you Fr. Tom for all the wonderful things that you have done for the Maryknoll family. You were such a great mentor during my orientation with Maryknoll Lay Missioners. We will miss you dearly!
From Julie Lawler, Maryknoll lay missioner in Cambodia:
Fr. Tom was a priest that made an impact on me during orientation. He was always blessing us with his time and you could feel that he genuinely cared about each of us!
courtesy of Maryknoll Archives. Click on the photos.
I first met Fr. Tom back in 1998 when he was on the General Council for the MM Fathers & Bros. and it was at a meeting I was invited to attend. The meeting was to be a discussion of the future development of the MM web site shared by all three entities. I was invited by one of the members of this committee, Vicki Armour Hileman who was on the CCT – the then leadership team of the lay missioners. I had just come out of the position of VP and COO of Cameron Associates, an investor relations and corporate communications firm in NYC. Vicki thought I might have something to offer, hence, her invitation. Also on this committee was our beloved Joan Mury representing the sisters. Well…long story short…we were about 45 minutes into the meeting when Tom asked me…what’s your background? So…OK, Sr. Of the Good Shepherd for 19 years with a career in child care and social work; after leaving the community, 4 years at a Commodities and Trading Firm, 11 years at Cameron and I missed my beloved not-for profit…so…I went to the Maryknoll Lay Missioners in 1998 and Tom Rowan and Sheila Matthews and Vicki thought I’d be a pretty good hire. After sharing this with Tom he asked me…”Anything you haven’t done?” I answered…”Yes, I’ve not been ordained.” We laughed hard and long, formed relationships especially with Tom via golf…and well, the rest is history. I’ll never tell an MM missioner to RIP…they will never rest. They will continue to walk the journey with their beloved people they served. And for Tom that was also lay missioners, us lay missioner staff and well “Poppa Doc” (he knows…don’t ask) go play golf with my Chet!!! Watch over us too!! Never far in thought and love. A true priest/A servant of God!
A spiritual guide, a mentor, an advocate, an amigo, a discípulo misionero.
I interviewed him for this wonderful program he helped start while I was editor of Misioneros magazine.
Thank you Padre Tomás.
I repeat the words of Pope Francis, “A pastor with the smell of sheep” that is who Fr Tom was to me and I’m sure to many others. He was my mentor during my work as mission educator & promoter with Maryknoll. Thank you Fr Tom…
Tom and I met at Holy Cross College in 1956. We were teammates on the track team and eventually became cocaptains of the team. Yes Tom was a very gifted athlete, but just as important he was truly a man of deep faith. He walked, talked, and showed this faith in everything he participated in. I went to his ordination, followed his missionary work, even sent him books on coaching track and field events when he was asked to assist Guatemala at the Olympic Games in Mexico. Pat and I visited him in Bolivia where he was part of Community Development Outreach program. Everyone who knew, met and worked with Fr Tom misses him and is thankful for how kind, thoughtful, caring he was and is to us all. Yes truly a man of God and server that brought us all closer to Knowing the mission of Life. Miss you Tom
Tom was my brother Jay O’Callahan’s classmate at Holy Cross. Tom came down from Worcester to Brookline, Massachusetts with other exuberant young men to parties I, my sister Maureen and Jay hosted. Nothing is so exhilarating as the idealism of the young, Conspicuous by the thoughtfulness of his comments in discussions – and every party sparkled because of animated discussions of students taught by Jesuits – Tom was a quiet and clear thinker,
Tom’s comments were contextual,’connected to real, human suffering and the obligation of the fortunate to engage with those far less fortunate. Even in those heady discussions the young are wont to indulge, Tom was viewing the issues with a wider lens,
Tom thought about potential, about possibilities of right action and commitment to help others live free of fear, free of violence,’and free to design their own lives. Tom made us think, not just expound. Those were merry times, and Tom enjoyed the spirit and the laughter and the music, the friendships and the passionate philosophical discussions. From what I’ve read, that passion for life and his fellow man grew ever deeper, which he blended with his even greater love for God.
What a fine man.
Tom witnessed the amazing peace of Christ in all of his encounters with People. His last days on earth he ministered to all of us his friends, the joy of living in Christ. I felt, along with many others, a deep communion with him. We accompanied him with tears of love and joy in his the passing from this life to the next. THANK YOU TOM!
How to say A life so well lived for others in his faith, a life joy for his Maryknoll family, for his Henehan family in Chicago, and for the Jesuit upbringing he had after grade school in Chicago. It was an honor to know him at a stop along his path through life.
I was greatly influenced in my life by Fr. Tom Henehan, M.M. While in high school at Loyola Academy and later at Holy Cross, Tom dated my sister-in-law, Patti Potts Lane. They met at the Edgewater Golf Club where my family were also members. Tom dated my older sister, Marjorie Lane Bycraft, when she was at Manhattanville College in New York. I went to Loyola University Chicago and wanted to follow Tom and was two months away from entering Maryknoll at Downers Grove, Illinois, but I got cold feet and didn’t enter and I think that this was a better decision for my life. Over the years I followed Fr. Tom in Maryknoll Magazine and when he came back to Chicago, I reconnected with him and we had a great lunch and chat at a restaurant near the Bryn Mawr “L” station. I went to Mass often on Sunday at Holy Family Church on Roosevelt Road where my brother, Fr. George Lane, S.J., spent many years. Fr. Tom lived nearby and it was fun seeing him at Holy Family. I didn’t know that Fr. Tom was sick and I feel really bad about his death. He led a wonderful life and I know that the Lord has called him speedily to Heaven to be with Him forever. May Fr. Tom RIP.
The Very BEST, tremendous example of continual concern for others. A real Missionary, friend, cocaptain Holy Cross Track and Field team, classmate admirer for all Tom has accomplished in his short life. Love You Forever Tom