From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Pomeroy native celebrates 60 years as Maryknoll missionary priest

by Msgr. John Steiner, for the Inland Register

(From the March 22, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)

This June Father Michael J. McKiernan will celebrate 60 years as a Maryknoll priest. I was privileged to have lunch with Father Mike on Jan. 26 at his home on the top of a hill in Kowloon in the city of Hong Kong.

The story of the “Noodle Priest,” as the Maryknoll missionary is known by some of his friends, is fascinating. I feel blessed that I have been able to visit him in Hong Kong three times in the last 10 years.

In the October-November 1943 issues of the Inland Register there is a series of articles which recount his first adventures in China.

Father Mike was born in Pomeroy, Wash., and ordained a Maryknoll missionary priest in June of 1941. Father Mike and his classmates were assigned to the China mission of Maryknoll but were unable to get passage to the Far East until December.

They finally made their way to the Philippines. On Dec. 7, 1941 they flew from Manila to Hong Kong.

The next day they learned that on the other side of the International Date Line the bombing of Pearl Harbor was underway and Hong Kong was about to be invaded. It was Dec. 15 when the Japanese finally invaded Hong Kong and the Maryknoll house in Stanley on Victoria Island ended up in “no man’s land,” as Father Mike described it.

On Christmas Day 1941 the island was surrendered to the Japanese and the invaders took over the Maryknoll house. Over the next couple of weeks the missionaries lived in expectation that they would be executed. They were moved around from one place to another. Father Mike tells a story of how the Carmelite Sisters interceded for them and they were spared. But they did end up in the prison just around the corner from Maryknoll House in Stanley.

For some reason the Japanese allowed the missionaries to go into China in December of 1942, where they traveled in basket chairs carried by coolies — an almost unbelievable image some 60 years later.

Finally they arrived at their destination over a year late — Wuchow, where the Maryknoll mission is located and where they had been assigned.

Life in the mission only endured for a couple of years before they were forced to flee to Kumming on the Burma Road. That is where Father Mike was holed up in 1944.

With the end of the war he returned to Hong Kong. Things in Hong Kong were very difficult after the war. Father Mike tells stories of how they used the Catholic Relief Services wheat supplies (maybe from Pomeroy) to make noodles for the starving Chinese. As the Communist oppression hit the mainland, Hong Kong became the center of the refugees.

Father Mike came back to the states for a short time in 1949 and served as pastor of the Catholic mission to the Chinese in Chicago, but by 1956 was back in Hong Kong. When the Diocese of Hong Kong was formed he was one of the first members of the Presbyteral Council there and was very active in the work of the Church in Hong Kong to implement the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

Today, from the top of the hill where Father Mike lives, you look out over a changing Hong Kong. You can see the old airport in Kowloon which has just been replaced by a very modern, new airport out on one of the outer islands. The Hong Kong harbor is bustling with commerce and the famous Star ferries still shuttle people back and forth every seven minutes. Just below Father Mike’s house, the former “forbidden city,” which was the center of refugee life and the underworld of Hong Kong after World War II, is now a park.

As you climb the hill to Bishop Ford Center, where Father Mike lives, the housing project that surrounds the school at the top of the hill is all tagged for demolition. I am sure new high rises will soon be growing out of the sweat and blood of the missionaries who have served this most international city for the last 50 years.

The grounds of the school today include a refugee quarter for some of Hong Kong’s new exiles. There is a hostel located on the grounds now for women from the Philippines who come to Hong Kong to work as domestics, but often end up being abused by their employers or shunted into the sex trade of the Far East. The Catholic Charities of Hong Kong reaches out to meet the needs of this community of women at risk.

And Father Mike himself? He is struggling after 60 years of missionary life. His eyesight is not what it was; he takes heart medications. He is very disappointed that he hasn’t been able to see well enough for the last couple of months to say Mass.

The two pictures show Father Mike as a young, newly-ordained Maryknoll priest and the his present happy smile as he stands next to the tabernacle in his Church, decorated for Chinese New Year.

Father Mike arranged for his friend Peter Hung Choi to take me to visit Maryknoll house at Stanley and the convent of the Carmelite nuns who saved Father Mike and the other Maryknoll priests 60 years ago. I talked with Sister Superior and told her about the wonderful town of Pomeroy which gave birth to the faith of this wonderful Maryknoll missionary.

She reminded me that the Sisters would pray for me and for our Diocese of Spokane and for the Catholic community in Pomeroy.

Father Mike may come to Maryknoll, N.Y. for his 60th anniversary. But as his friend Mr. Choi explained to me, Father Mike now is more Chinese than the Chinese. He has a bit of fear that if he got back to Maryknoll, they might feel that his 87-year-old body needed to stay in the retirement center there.

His heart is now and always will be in Hong Kong. His hope is to keep body, soul and heart in Hong Kong.

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