The amazing story of 93-year-old Sr Mary Hayden from Inistioge and Shairing Fair in Thailand

A SPECIAL birthday celebration marking a lifetime of service to the people of South-East Asia was held recently in the north east of Thailand for Inistioge born nun Sr Mary Hayden from the townland of Ballygub. The opening and blessing of the ‘Sr Mary’s Cottage for Assisted Living’ was held on September 19 on the day that Sr Mary celebrated her 93rd birthday. Here for the first time her remarkable and self-less life story is told. The new cottage will be used as a step-down facility for those recovering from HIV/AIDS and who have nobody to care for them and it is just the latest in a long line of initiatives by a woman who has faced, death, oppression, despotic rulers and every disease known to man and still came out on top and always putting the welfare of others first.

A SPECIAL birthday celebration marking a lifetime of service to the people of South-East Asia was held recently in the north east of Thailand for Inistioge born nun Sr Mary Hayden from the townland of Ballygub. The opening and blessing of the ‘Sr Mary’s Cottage for Assisted Living’ was held on September 19 on the day that Sr Mary celebrated her 93rd birthday. Here for the first time her remarkable and self-less life story is told. The new cottage will be used as a step-down facility for those recovering from HIV/AIDS and who have nobody to care for them and it is just the latest in a long line of initiatives by a woman who has faced, death, oppression, despotic rulers and every disease known to man and still came out on top and always putting the welfare of others first.

Present to open the house was the American pilot Captain Robin Miller who saved Sr Mary’s life during the Vietnam War in 1968. At that time, Sr Mary and her community lived and worked in Vinhlong, north of Saigon, next to an American military air base. It was in the middle of the Tet Offensive of 1968, when the Good Shepherd house was under attack by the Viet Cong that Captain Miller piloted the aircraft that rescued the Sisters and saved their lives. Sr. Mary continued to work in Vietnam until the fall of Saigon in 1975. In recent years the pilot reconnected with Sr Mary and donated funds for the building of the house in her name.

Today there are many income-generating projects in Thailand thanks to the work of Sr Mary Hayden. In Nong Khai in the north east where she lives, men and women find dignified work thus reducing the prospect of youth migration and trafficking. Handcrafts are made from locally woven silks and cottons and a wide range of products such as bags, scarves, educational toys, home accessories and textiles are produced. The crafts are uniquely designed and made from fabrics using traditional weaving and dyeing techniques. They are sold throughout the world through voluntary organisations such as Handcrafting Justice in North America and Sharing Fair in Europe. All the proceeds from sales are returned directly for reinvestment in the projects.

The nieces and nephew of Sr Mary Hayden, John, Eileen and Nora Brennan along with supporters of Sharing Fair Kilkenny have organised a crafts sale and coffee morning to be held on Saturday. The event is being hosted in Eamon Langton’s and will take place from 10am to 1pm at Langton’s of John Street.

Sr Mary’s life

Sister Mary Hayden, teacher, mentor, inspiring example, tireless worker, and friend to everyone was born in Ballygub, Inistioge on September 19, 1919.

Entering the Good Shepherd Mother house, Angers, France, in 1941, she completed her Novitiate in 1947, and was posted to the Good Shepherd Convent in Ceylon from 1947 until 1958. Subsequently, posted to South Vietnam in 1958, she was a driving force in the foundation of the Good Shepherd Convent in Vinh Long where she worked tirelessly, educating and rehabilitating poor young women and girls from throughout the country.

As fate would have it, US forces established an air base at Vinh Long in 1963 and the convent there became a welcome oasis for many of the American servicemen. Sister Mary’s good humour, political savvy, and carrot cake were a huge attraction for those so far from home and she became a legend for all who served there. She was affectionately known as the ‘Sergeant Major’ of the Good Shepherd Convent by the officers and men at Vinh Long Air base.

With the fall of South Vietnam to Communist forces in 1975, Sr Mary was eventually reassigned to the Good Shepherd Convent in Bangkok, Thailand from 1977 – 1980. From there she was sent to Nongkhai in the country’s north east, to pioneer the Good Shepherd mission in the refugee camps on the Laos border. The next 31 years, saw the implementation of income-generation projects, opportunities for skills training and education and continuing outreach to villagers most in need.

Sr Mary has spent almost her entire life living and working in Southeast Asia primarily among poor women, girls and children. Vietnam and Thailand, especially, have been blessed by her unfailing good humour, common sense, fresh ideas, and unquenchable spirit. An inspiration to all with whom she has worked; she has variously served as nurse, head mistress, construction foreman, accountant, political consultant, confidant, religious adviser and friend. Sr Mary’s entire life has truly been dedicated to the betterment of all humanity.