Long voyages after ordination recalled

Fri, Aug 13, 2010, 01:00

“IN THE old days, lads often left Ireland after being ordained and went straight to California or Texas without even having been to Dublin or Croke Park,” recalls Fr Tom Fogarty.

The president of St Patrick’s College in Thurles is this week hosting a reunion of former seminarians who now work as missionaries “in English-speaking countries all over the world”.

More than 80 priests, mostly in their 70s and 80s, attended a “thanksgiving Mass” in Thurles cathedral yesterday where Archbishop Dermot Clifford praised their decades of “tremendous service” and wistfully observed that they were “walking a bit slower”.

Fr Fogarty (58), a former manager of both the Tipperary and Offaly hurling teams, trained at the seminary during the 1970s. He is now back at the college which is a centre for the education of secondary teachers. It closed as a seminary in 2002. But for 160 years, St Patrick’s College was one of the most important training facilities for the Catholic priesthood in Ireland – ordaining more than 1,500 priests – many specifically for missionary work.

After Mass, the priests strolled through the corridors, perusing photographs of their ordination classes. Beneath the images of fresh-faced young men is their destination: Auckland, Brighton, Great Falls, Miami, San Antonio, San Diego, Salt Lake City, Wellington and other cities across the world – where many continue to serve.

Fr Tom Keegan (82), a native of Kilbeggan, Co Westmeath, remembered going “straight to Australia” after ordination in 1957. It was his “first time out of Ireland” and on board the ship were “14 nuns going to New Zealand” and five priests “going to different parts of Australia”.

He was posted to a parish in Toowoomba where his first task as a curate was “to milk the cows”. He’s still there, has had “a great life”, and, apart from the occasional trip home, plans to “lay my bones out there”.

Fr Michael O’Hanlon (78), from Dromahane, Mallow, Co Cork, has come home to retire after 39 years in the US. He too was dispatched “straight after ordination” to Cobh where he boarded the Mauretania. He was posted to “a rural parish the size of Ireland” in Billings, Montana.

His colleague, Tipperary-man Msgr  Richard O’Keeffe (76) also sailed on the Mauretania and has just retired after more than 50 years of service in Tucson. He recalls, as a 23-year-old, seeing the Statue of Liberty after four days at sea, then taking a train to Chicago and then going “alone down through the bible-and-corn belt” to Arizona.

Fr Pat O’Donovan (76), a native of Newcastle West, Co Limerick, stayed closer to home, and after his ordination in 1959, was sent to England where he served for 49 years. Reminiscing about his days as a seminarian, he recalled that “times were tough” and students “barely had enough to eat”. He said the trick was to have a Tipperary lad as a roommate because their relatives would occasionally smuggle in supplies.

He was lucky enough to share with Tom Tobin from New Inn (now a priest in Great Falls, Montana) whose family once brought in “pheasant sandwiches” which were attached to a rope and hauled up to the young men’s room window “by a pulley”. Over half-a-century later he still remembers “they were gorgeous”.

Fr Martin Bugler (83), from Scariff, Co Clare, left Ireland by ship for New Zealand on October 28th, 1958, “the day that Cardinal Roncalli was elected pope” (John XXIII). He’s still there and now lives in a little house by the beach in Takapuna. “There’s a very rewarding departure lounge ahead of me,” he said, referring to heaven to where he expects to “go up to like a balloon”.