Religious order ‘overwhelmed’ by death of 10 priests in Covid-19 wave

Spiritans mourn priests, who worked on missions and in schools, as ‘inspired men’

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Ten priests from the Spiritan order died in the month of January, eight of them having tested positive for Covid-19.

Fr Dermot Kavanagh, Fr Leo McGarry, Fr Christy Burke, Fr Jimmy Peters, Fr Brendan Heeran, Fr James Delaney, Fr Padraig Donovan, Fr Tom Cunningham, Fr Tony Darragh and Fr Paddy Reedy died between January 8th and 31st.

In a statement, the order – also known as the Holy Ghost Fathers – said the number of deaths in such a short period of time was “overwhelming”.

Six were in their eighties and four were aged between 90 and 97. All but two had tested positive for Covid-19. The order declined to state which two had not tested for the disease.

In addition the order lost seven priests during the first wave of Covid-19. Three of them tested positive for the virus and three others had Covid-related symptoms.

In a statement, the Irish Spiritan Province said the emotions of those involved ranged from “extreme sadness to bewilderment”.

It added: “We sympathise with all who have lost loved ones in the current climate where all families and communities are unable to grieve as they normally would. For us mourning so many, each of whom also had an extended family, in such quick succession in the present circumstances, feels overwhelming.”

The priests involved were mostly retired from active ministry. All had served on the missions.

The order runs some of Ireland’s best known schools: Blackrock College, St Michael’s College, Templeogue College, St Mary’s College, Willow Park Senior School and the Holy Family Community School, all in Dublin, along with Rockwell College in Co Tipperary.

Almost all of the priests spent most of their working life abroad with the exception of Fr McGarry who taught in St Michael’s College on Ailesbury Road.

The latest funeral to take place was that of Fr Tom Cunningham (91) who was originally from Strathroy, Omagh, Co Tyrone and who spent most of his life on the missions in Ireland, Nigeria, Angola, Australia and Papau New Guinea.

Delivering the homily, his friend and fellow Spiritian priest Fr Brendan Carr compared Fr Cunningham to a “great oak”.

Fr Leo McGarry, originally from the North Circular Road in Dublin, had spent time on the missions in Nigeria and the US and was a teacher at St Michael’s College, Dublin.
Fr Leo McGarry, originally from the North Circular Road in Dublin, had spent time on the missions in Nigeria and the US and was a teacher at St Michael’s College, Dublin.

Speaking to the congregation at the Holy Spirit Parish Church in Kimmage, Dublin, Fr Carr said: “Many great oaks have fallen for us Spiritans over the last year. It has been shocking and we feel the pain.

“We who have known these great men know the beauty that is gone. They were inspired men, inspired and sustained by the love of their compassionate God who lifts up the lowly and mends the broken-hearted.”

One of 37 Spiritans ordained in 1955, Fr Cunningham was pre-deceased by two of his brothers who served in the order, Séamus and Colum, and by a sister Sr Breid who died in her 100th year in December.

Fr Carr, who served with Fr Cunningham in Angola, said he was a man who could make anything work – “an engine, a pump, a sawmill. He had an engineer’s mind.”

Fr Dermot Kavanagh from Rathnew, Co Wicklow who had been a missionary priest in Nigeria and the United States died on January 8th followed on January 14th by Fr McGarry. He was originally from the North Circular Road in Dublin and had spent time on the missions in Nigeria and the US.

Fr Burke died on January 23rd. He was from Kilmaley Co Clare and a missionary in Kenya.

The funeral of Fr Tom Cunningham C.S.Sp. at Holy Spirit Parish Church, Kimmage, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
The funeral of Fr Tom Cunningham C.S.Sp. at Holy Spirit Parish Church, Kimmage, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Fr Brendan Heeran from Keshcarrigan, Co Leitrim died on January 26th. He had also been a missionary in Kenya.

On the following day, Fr Jimmy Peters died in Nazareth House Dublin at the age of 98. He had served in Nigeria, Biafra, Gabon, Liberia, Kenya, the UK and Ireland.

Two priests died on January 28th. Fr Darragh from Co Derry had worked in Kenya and Uganda and Fr Jim Delaney from the South Circular Road in Dublin. He was 93. He had served on the missions in Kenya and the United States.

Fr Pádraig Donovan from Portroe, Co Tipperary died on January 30th. He had been a missionary priest in Brazil, the US and in Ireland. His funeral is on Thursday.

A day later Fr Paddy Reedy died. He was from Birr, Co Offaly and served as a missionary in Sierra Leone. His funeral is on Friday. There has been a funeral at the order’s church in Kimmage every day this week.