Skip to main content

A Missionary Story

An AITECE volunteer and her students

43 Years on Mission

By Fr. Gerry Neylon

I was born in County Clare, Ireland, the eldest of seven children, four girls and three boys. I have thirteen nieces and nephews.

As a young man I felt that God was calling me to be a missionary, and I entered the Columban seminary training program in 1965 at Dalgan Park, County Meath, Ireland. I was one of sixteen who were ordained priests on Easter Sunday, 1973, at Dalgan Park. Four of us were appointed to South Korea soon after.

Mission to South Korea

I arrived in Korea in August 1973, just over four months after ordination. At that time, there was tremendous interest in the Church. Because the Korean government of the 1970s treated the workers very harshly, the Catholic Church along with other Churches stood up for the human rights of workers and criticized their appalling working conditions. As a result, many workers and their families became interested in the Christian faith and many entered the Church. It was a very busy time for the Church and us as missionaries; it was challenging but very exciting to be involved with such vibrant, mostly youthful parishioners. I would gladly have spent my life in Korea, but after five years my life changed dramatically.

Mission to Taiwan

In 1978, the Columbans decided to open new missions in Taiwan and Pakistan, and I was asked to leave South Korea to join a new team of five missionaries going to Taiwan. We arrived in 1979, and I remained there 18 years until 1997. Taiwan presented us with an entirely different missionary challenge.

Unlike South Korea, there was very little interest in the Catholic church, or indeed any church, in Taiwan. In fact, the people were so busy working around the clock that they did not have time to go to church or to get involved in parish activities.

For us young Columbans, the obvious question became, "How can we make the Gospel relevant to the lives of the people of Taiwan?" In discussion with experienced missionaries, we identified a number of areas where we could reach out to the most oppressed people around us.

As there was little respect for mentally challenged persons, Fr. Thomas Murphy and I decided to set up centers to work to change attitudes towards such persons in society.

We established two worker's centers to help industrial workers fight for their human rights and began a ministry to Taiwanese prisoners, trying to bring the light of the Gospel into their lives. We also set up advocacy centers for the rights of foreign migrant workers, who often suffer exploitation and abuse.

Once again, I envisaged spending the rest of my life in this very satisfying and enriching apostolate, but suddenly my life took another remarkable turn.

Mission to China

In 1997, I was asked to join the Columban team in China. A big part of my life here has been connected with the recruitment and placement of teachers in China.

During the 1980s the Columbans wondered how they could help from a Gospel point of view in the modernization of the new China. They knew, of course, that as non- Chinese, they could not be involved in any public religious activities in the China of today. They consulted widely with Chinese people and were assured that Columbans could make a considerable contribution through recruiting teachers, particularly native speakers of English and sending them to China.

In 1988, Columban Fr. Edward Kelly set up the AITECE program which provides foreign teachers to Chinese universities across the entire nation. AITECE stands for "The Association of International Teaching, Educational and Curriculum Exchange." It has the registration number 001 with the Chinese government in Beijing, as it was the very first foreign group of English teachers to register. AITECE is highly regarded by the Chinese Government for its reliability, professionalism and the fact that it screens its teachers very thoroughly.

While AITECE is an independent organization, the Columbans have always played a leading role in supporting it. The present AITECE manager is Fr. Joseph Houston, a Columban from Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Since 1988, AITECE has sponsored almost 400 foreign teachers and experts, working in over 90 universities across China, in thirteen provinces, two municipalities and one autonomous region. Many of the AITECE teachers have come from New Zealand and Australia as well as Ireland, Britain, Canada, the Philippines and the United States. Chinese universities are desperately looking for teachers and warmly welcome them.

I am delighted to be involved with the AITECE program. The teachers are making a tremendous contribution to China by their very lives. They must not engage in any form of religious activities, but they witness to Jesus Christ by their very lives as teachers. Their life, like mine, is about forming relations and interacting with their students in as deep and intimate way as possible and letting them see for themselves what a Christian is.

Columban Fr. Gerry Neylon lives and works in China.

Are you interested in teaching in China for a year or more? If so, please contact Fr. Joseph Houston in Hong Kong at: