A Jesuit of learning who chose a life of love and service


John Dunne SJ:JOHN DUNNE SJ, who has died aged 64, was a highly respected priest admired and loved by his community, his family and extended circle of friends. A colleague, Fr Brian Grogan SJ, described him accurately and succinctly. John, he said, had a “magnificent simplicity with his yes being yes and his no being a definite no”.

Despite the rapid progress of his cancer, he continued to work and travel. He knew his death was imminent but the Ignatian phrase “In all things to love and to serve” was taken seriously to the fulfilment of his comparatively short life.

John Dunne, known affectionately as Buster to his family and intimate friends, came from a relatively comfortable background. He was born in Dublin but the family moved shortly afterwards to Co Meath where they farmed at Ginnett’s Park, outside Summerhill. He went to national School in Trim and followed his sisters, Anne and Margot, to Coláiste na Rinne in Co Waterford for a year.

For his secondary education John’s parents, Tony and Joan, sent him to Clongowes Wood College in Co Kildare in 1956. There he came under the guidance of several influential figures, among them Fr Tony Baggot SJ who counselled John towards following the vocation already germinating in his mind. John was a regular on the Clongowes 1st XV and a love of rugby remained throughout his life.

After his Leaving Cert in 1962, John entered the Society of Jesus at the order’s novitiate in Emo Court, near Portarlington in Co Laois. On completing his noviceship, he moved to Rathfarnham Castle, then a Jesuit stronghold in Dublin. From there he attended University College between 1964 and 1967. His arts degree included English, French and archaeology.

Continuing on the road to ordination, he studied philosophy at Milltown Park in the years 1967-69. A two-year transfer to Limerick’s Crescent College gave him his first teaching experience when he tutored in French and religion. Returning to Milltown Park brought three years of intensive grounding in theology and the ultimate goal of priestly ordination on June 21st, 1974, by Archbishop Dermot Ryan in the Park’s Chapel. Fr John celebrated his first Mass on the following day in the nearby chapel of Gonzaga College.

His initial post-ordination year involved further study bringing him to Dublin’s Mater Dei Institute, where he became involved in career guidance counselling. This brought him into contact with the Institute of Guidance Counsellors, established in 1976. He threw himself wholeheartedly into this body’s activities which, as time went on, he helped steer as a member of its governing council and acting as its chairman from 1993 to 1997.

He returned to Crescent College in Limerick, now relocated to a modern complex at suburban Dooradoyle. John spent six years there during which time he “fell in love” with computer technology. He was later transferred to Galway’s Coláiste Iognáid, where he had the added responsibility of being rector of the Jesuit community in the city.

He had an ability to get on with people and to be unbiased and non-judgmental in his consideration of others’ opinions – qualities that endeared him quickly to his new community. In a house where senior and junior confreres had separate quarters, he recognised this as counterproductive.

With gentle persuasion, barriers were delicately removed and the benefits of integration realised. While it was physically a reality, the “generation gap” ceased to be a divisive issue. He successfully launched the idea of co-education and saw its introduction in both Coláiste Iognáid and Crescent College Comprehensive.

Completing his term as rector of Galway in 1987, John complied with his order’s request to join the teaching staff of Dublin’s Gonzaga College, where he was elected rector in 1993. His subjects at the college were French, computer studies and religion as well as some rugby coaching.

In 1998, he was chosen to become part of the small team attached to the provincialate at Loyola House – the nerve centre of Jesuit operations in Ireland – on Dublin’s Eglinton Road. He was the house superior, which in a quaint contradictory way meant being both “master” and “subject” at the same time. In 2002, he was appointed socius (assistant) to the provincial – a post he held with distinction until his untimely death. As socius, he developed contacts with Jesuit communities worldwide, evidenced by the large attendance at his funeral Mass and through the many tributes paid by Irish provincial John Dardis SJ.

During his time in Loyola House, Fr Dunne oversaw an extensive building programme in Galway and another at Cherryfield, in the grounds adjacent to Milltown Park, with a retirement and convalescent home for the society’s elderly members. It was here John spent the final week of his illness and was the first member of the province to die there.

The disastrous fire at Loyola House in 2007 also took place during his “watch”. The arson attack reduced the premises to a shell, destroying an invaluable library as well as some irreplaceable Jesuit records. The four house residents lost all their personal belongings including John’s voluminous collection of family and other photographs – he was an avid cameraman.

With his usual fortitude, he set about rehousing his homeless confreres and establishing a temporary provincialate office in the Irish Management Institute’s headquarters in Sandyford.

For most of his priestly life, during the academic summer recesses, he travelled to Long Island in the United States where he entered into parish activity, standing in for colleagues on leave. He made lasting friendships with many parish families – one in particular, the Basiles, adopted John and he saw their children grow to maturity, officiated at their weddings and baptised some of their next generation.

In 2002, he took a year-long sabbatical. He went to the University of California in Berkeley where he took a three-month philosophy course. Later, he went to Jesuit houses in Australia, visited Cambodia and saw the temples of Angkor Wat and Singapore and Malaysia. In Bangkok, he studied Buddhist philosophy before continuing to Kathmandu in Nepal for further exploration, through Jesuit co-operation, of eastern mysticism. His return to Ireland was by way of Zambia where he spent some time in Lusaka and Monze gaining first-hand experience of Irish Jesuit missionary life.

Despite 46 years within the Jesuit fold, John Dunne was exceptionally close to his family, especially his sister Anne SC, the more so after the death of their father in 1975 and sister Margot in 1984. He was the benevolent uncle, always on hand for support, comfort and advice to Margot and Shora Kelly’s three children Dara, Frankie and Aoife and their stepmother, Breda.

Speaking at his funeral, Fr Grogan referred to John Dunne seeing himself “as an ordinary man: he was not an academic and he liked the quip ‘You can tell an intellectual but you can’t tell him much.’ But about 50 years ago, John Dunne had made his decision not to do his own thing, not to win public approval or to make lots of money. He chose a life of love and service: he would serve the world through the Jesuit Order. This was his enterprise, and he fulfilled it in the demanding times in which he lived.”