Audrey Donnithorne, friend of the reconstruction of the Church and China, has died

Born in 1922 in China into a family of British Anglicans, she became Catholic in her youth. After studying in Oxford, London, and Australia, she moved to Hong Kong in 1985, where she worked for China’s economic opening to the world and for the reconstruction of the Church after the Cultural Revolution. In 2008 she set up a fund for Sichuan churches destroyed by an earthquake. She received the Pro Ecclesia et pro Pontifice medal.

by Bernardo Cervellera

06/10/2020, 14.12

People who lost their relatives during the Sichuan earthquake wait for the opening ceremony of the Donghekou Earthquake Site Park in Qingchuan, Sichuan province, November 12, 2008. The event marks the six-month anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake. REUTERS/Stringer (CHINA). CHINA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN CHINA.

Rome (AsiaNews) – Prof Audrey Donnithorne, a passionate friend of China and the Church in China, died yesterday at noon at the Adventist Hospital. The 97-years-old was a trained economist and a tireless weaver of relations between China and the world.

Audrey was born on 27 November 1922 in Sichuan to Vyvyan Henry Donnithorne and Gladys Donnithorne (née Ingram), a family of British origin who had settled first in Australia moving later to southwest China.

Her parents were Anglican and her mother Gladys is especially remembered for her great missionary commitment to China after the First World War. Their daughter, however, become Catholic.

A youthful Audrey began studying economics at Oxford University, moving to University College London, and then Australia, where she taught at the Australian National University, without ever forgetting China in her studies.

After she retired in 1985 she moved to Hong Kong, where she became an honorary member of the Centre of Asian Studies at the University of Hong Kong.

Audrey always considered China as her homeland, the place of her “introduction to the world.” From Hong Kong she made countless visits to the mainland trying to establish relations, set up studies and form friendships with prominent Chinese shaking off Maoism and opening up to the world.

In her first period, she published books on China’s economy which, at a time of great reformist fervour, was trying to open up to the world’s economy.

In her travels to her place of birth, Sichuan, she met members of the Church, which was trying to re-establish itself after the Cultural Revolution and the return of many priests and bishops from prison.

She herself always remembered one of the first encounters, with 80-year-old Bishop Paul Deng Jizhou of Jiading (Leshan), who had just been released from 21 years of forced labour. From these relationships came her “call to rebuild” the Church in China.

She helped first of all Christians – coming out of decades of isolation – acquire books for study, funding seminarians, church rebuilding, after years of forced neglect.

As an expert economist, she suggested building housing near churches to facilitate relations and hospitality among different dioceses, and small businesses that generated income for the very poor parishes. Many of her projects were implemented with the support of Caritas Hong Kong.

Her most important work was weaving relations with bishops who, although coming from a “patriotic” past and ordained without a mandate from the Holy See, had a strong desire to be reconciled with the pope.

Audrey became instrumental in this reconciliation, so much so that the bishops of Sichuan were among the first to rebuild unity among themselves – despite being divided between “underground” and “patriotic” – and with the universal Church and the pontiff.

In the 1990s I travelled with Audrey once to visit Bishop Matthew Luo Duxi of Leshan and his community. At that time, the nuns were so poor that the novices had to hand copy the book of songs and prayers to be used in the choir.

In the meeting with the bishops Audrey advised, helped, vetted educational and economic possibilities for their dioceses, combining economic shrewdness with a feminine ability to listen and act.

For her work in favour of unity, the Holy See and the Study Mission of that time awarded her the Pro Ecclesia et Pro Pontifice medal in 1993.

The 2008 Sichuan earthquake was another opportunity for help. Audrey, backed by the then bishop of Hong Kong, Card Joseph Zen, launched a fund for the reconstruction of Sichuan churches and Catholic facilities, such as residences, dispensaries, and kindergartens.

For Audrey, China deserves an important place in the international community. But this importance is due to the creativity and intelligence of its people, not the Chinese Communist Party, whose economic acumen she always questioned.

For the Church in China, Audrey never juxtaposed “underground” and “patriotic” Churches, black and white. Instead, she recognised a unity stronger than any opposition.

She always worked for religious freedom, not only for Christians, but also because free worship can be an additional and truer source of progress in society.

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