Sister Mary Hayden - A gift of self

We give thanks for the life of an extraordinary woman, Sr Mary Hayden – missionary, visionary and pioneer – who at a young age ‘fell in love with Jesus’ and chose to follow him, imitate him and serve him through a life dedicated to looking after his sheep.

‘Personal, conscious, contact with Christ’, was the fundamental practice that she cultivated her entire life and rooted by this, strived to live out the essential gospel values wherever God led her.

Steeped in her love for God, there was no austere piety distancing her from the real world, as anyone who knew her could testify. Pope Francis advised religious ‘to stay close to the marginalized and to be shepherds living with the smell of the sheep’ - this Sr Mary did for 76 years of religious life. Her practicality, her initiative, determination, courage, knowledge of world affairs, deep faith and her instant connection with people, topped by a brilliant Irish wit, kept her grounded and able to respond to any situation with such positive results.


Eulogy/honouring Sr Mary Hayden

Click here - Sr Mary Hayden Eulogy

Click here - Honouring Sr Mary Hayden

Click here - Message of Sr Mary Hayden to Partnership Gathering 2010


Sr Mary Hayden's story

Born on the 19.9.1919 in Ballygub, Inistioge, Ireland, she was christened ‘Anne’ by her parents, Charlie and Elizabeth Hayden and was the younger sister of Nora and Mary. Growing up on a farm, life was simple and enjoyable.

When Anne Hayden was 9, life as she had known it came to an abrupt end.  Her 11 year old sister Mary, died from scarlet fever and her dear mother passed away the following year. Raised by her hard working father and his sister - her beloved Aunt Bess - she was sent to school to learn home economics but she knew from an early age, she was not cut out to be a farmer’s wife!

After living what she described herself as a ‘wild life’ as a youth, she was clearly searching for something more. She attended a retreat at 15 and felt the love of God so strongly that she decided to give her life to God, for this she knew was where her future lay.

Good Shepherd beginnings

When she was 17 the Good Shepherd Sisters came to her town, looking for girls to join the missions and Anne put her name down. She felt that if she was going to give, then she would give all - give up her country, her loved ones, everything she was familiar with and become a missionary. She entered to go wherever she was needed.

In August 1938 she left Ireland for the Good Shepherd Mother House in Angers, France where she was to enter the novitiate taking the habit on 8th February 1939.

Being in France during the war years meant Sr Mary Hayden suffered the hunger and the deprivation of war as well as losing some of her novice companions who died from tuberculosis.  She made her final vows in 1945. These years of war experience were in some ways a preparation for war experiences later on in life.

Missionary life begins in Sri Lanka

Sr Mary went back to Ireland for a short period before going to her first foreign mission in Sri Lanka. She spent 12 years there and was very happy working in the orphanage in Nayakanda. Mary loved Sri Lanka and its people, especially those entrusted to her care. 


In 1956 Bishop Ngo-Dinh-Thuc at the request of his brother Ngo-Dinh-Diem who was the president of South Vietnam, forwarded an appeal to his friend the bishop of Angers requesting the Sisters of the Good Shepherd to work for the rehabilitation of women working in prostitution in South Vietnam. This was a serious problem resulting from the war that had gone on for many years in Vietnam until the country was divided into North and South in 1954.  The Bishop of Angers presented this request to the Superior General, Mother Ursula Jung and preparations were made for the new mission.  Sr Mary was one of the founding members of this mission, which began in February 1958 and was part of the Singapore Province. Little did she know but another war awaited her.

The mission was under the direction of the social welfare department of Saigon.  Sr Mary learned the language, got to know many people in the town of Vinhlong who helped with advice and volunteered time.  Girls who came to the Good Shepherd Center in Vinhlong had usually spent some months in remand homes in Saigon.  Many had been in prostitution for years.  Sr Mary coordinated with the social welfare department and after a short time the girls sent to the Center were first-time offenders. 

Life settled down to a rhythm in the Center with classes, occupational therapy and preparation for girls to seek other employment outside or return to their homes. However, life outside the Center brought many rumors of war in the remote areas.  There was communist infiltration especially in village areas.  

The arrival of the American Forces in 1963 and the building of their base and airstrip, on the perimeter  of the convent put the sisters and girls in grave danger, with the convent the perfect spring board for attacks on the base. Yet a mutually beneficial relationship was built with the sisters who started a paying service laundering the officer’s uniforms and in return, the soldiers who dropped in for home cooking, conversation, a blessing and an Irish coffee, felt some normalcy a long way from home.

Captain Robin Miller and his crew went on to save the lives of 8 sisters and 200 girls and women during the Tet offensive of 1968, as he made 16 trips in his helicopter to fly them to safety. Robin gave Sr Mary another 50 years of life, for which she was and we are, forever grateful.

Leadership in time of war

Sr Mary was appointed Provincial Leader in 1973, responsible for the countries of Vietnam, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.  The war was at its height.  When there was a communist takeover in April 1975 foreigners were advised not to stay in the country.  However, as people usually hope against hope that things will improve, Sr Mary and two other sisters were still in Saigon when the communists took over.  Sr Fidelma accompanied a group of refugees who were leaving the country.  There was a rush on the American Embassy and Sr Mary and Sr Mercy had to be lifted over the American Embassy Walls by the soldiers on guard.  They went by boat as refugees to Guam and then to the United States.

Sr Mary searched for the most appropriate place for the community from Vietnam who were also uprooted.  The Sisters opened a new Mission in Macau.  


After a year of renewal, in 1988 Sr Mary was missioned to Thailand, and appointed Superior in Bangkok.  Following three years in Bangkok, in response to Bishop George Phimpisan’s invitation, Sr Mary, Sr Margaret and Sr Joan - all Vietnam veterans - and joined by Sr Pranee who was a junior sister at the time, started the community in Nong Khai. Sr Mary was a pioneer once again at 60 years of age.  With 45,000 people in the border camps, the sisters worked with Catholic Relief Services, to respond to the needs.

During this time, Sr Mary made three trips back to Vietnam, paving the way for Good Shepherd to return. Today, the mission is flourishing there once again thanks to the seeds she had sown and the ‘battles’ she had fought.

Sr Mary was to remain in Nong Khai for 37 years writing projects, contacting benefactors, welcoming visitors, planning, constructing and ‘dreaming big’ in response to the ever changing needs. When illness and age finally restricted her active presence in the field, she continued to support, encourage and accompany the sisters and dedicated mission partners, so that the needs of the poor were met. She was known affectionately as ‘Khun Mare’ (mother) and provided solace to all in the projects who she continued to visit as long as possible until, over the past year and a half, they in turn would visit her. Her last ‘trip’ to a project was in June 2016, when she cut the ribbon to open our new Life Centre in the Garden of Friendship, a building whose foundations she had blessed six months earlier.

On the day before Sr Mary died, she said that she felt – ‘someone had opened a door’ – a door that was ‘no longer locked’. She did not elaborate but we believed God was calling her home.  Sr Mary Hayden died peacefully on 30 July 2017.

‘You have crossed the barren desert, but you did not die of thirst.

You have wandered far in safety though you did not know the way.

You have spoken words in foreign lands and all did understand.

You shall see the face of God and live.

Be not afraid. I go before you always. Come follow me, and I will give you rest.'



Be Not Afraid, John Michael Talbot (adapted).


This account is a brief summary, and includes extracts from Sr Mary Hayden's Eulogy - click on the links at the top for full acknowledgment of her life.



Good Shepherd Nong Khai

Good Shepherd Nong Khai

Good Shepherd Partners in Mission (sisters and lay) have a presence in 180 villages across 4 provinces in NE Thailand. Visit the renewed Nong Khai website to learn about the dynamic projects and programs

Garden of Friendship in Nongkhai, Thailand

Garden of Friendship in Nongkhai, Thailand

The Garden of Friendship has flourished from former rice fields to a thriving and multi-faceted support service for people in need of health care. Now it has a fine new facility