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.