After 70 years, Fr Davitt marks his platinum anniversary
Missionary priest (96) has also worked in Britain, India and Papua New Guinea
Fr Norman Davitt does not smoke and has lived moderately, but says: “The genes are good.”
It will be a long time before we see the likes of Fr Norman Davitt again. He is 96 and on August 19th, he will celebrate the 70th anniversary of his ordination. It is “very rare” for a priest to celebrate the platinum anniversary of his ordination, as “you have to be at least 94 to get there”, he said.
Well, he’s done it.
Almost. In fact celebrations begin next Sunday at the annual Divine Word Missionaries open family picnic in Donamon Castle, Co Roscommon. This event takes place on the last Sunday in July but because of the Mayo-Roscommon match in Dublin on Sunday it became a moveable feast. You could hardly have a family picnic when all those likely to attend are at prayer in Croke Park.
A Divine Word Missionary himself, Fr Davitt has been living at Donamon for 19 years. Over which time he has endeared himself to local people. He will be 97 on March 29th next and is still driving, cycling, and saying Mass.
“A quick one at that!” a local woman said. “He cycles his bike from Donamon Castle to Oran triangle, into Roscommon, out to Castlecoote and back to Donamon. I have seen him do this before he said Mass in the morning,” she said. “He has said Mass in nearly all the parishes in Roscommon. He was often in Frenchpark, Ballinagare. ” she said.
But Fr Davitt is not a local – he was born in England.
That was in 1921 at Saltley near Birmingham, the second of five brothers. But, with a name like Davitt, there must be some Irish. And there is.
His grandfather was from Mayo. Better. “He used say ‘I’m Thomas Davitt. I’m from Ballyhaunis and I’m connected to Michael Davitt’ (of the Land League).” Or some such. Redemption, yes, but a close-run thing.
He was nine when he announced he was going to be “a missionary” . This may have been due to his mother. A convert, she attended Mass most days.
‘Yeah, sure!’, summarised the reaction then but the ambition persisted. So much so that when a priest arrived in the parish looking for vocations Norman was introduced to him by the local parish priest.
The bearded priest was Fr King, a Divine Word Missionary home from China. The die was cast, but Norman’s father was not at all happy. “He was strongly opposed to my becoming a priest, but mother pleaded with him,” he recalled.
At the age of 12 he set off for the rest of his life, arriving at St Richard’s College at Hadzor, near Droitwich in Worcestershire. He was there for six years until 1939 and the outbreak of the second World War when he was sent to Donamon.
Donamon Castle, believed one of the oldest inhabited buildings in Ireland with references going back to 1154, was taken over by the Divine Word Missionaries in March 1939, six months before the war began. The congregation was then primarily Dutch-based. It was founded by a German priest Fr Arnold Janssen to preach the gospel in places it had never reached.
As Fr Davitt put it, he and others arrived in Donamon to “the anomaly of being students under the Germans while our brothers were fighting them in France”.
On August 15th 1947 he was ordained and believed he was headed for China. Not so. He was appointed an English teacher at his old College Hadzor and to seek vocations, going from school to school.
He spent three years in Ireland doing much the same work, mainly in Donegal. But he was fed up. He reminded his superiors repeatedly he had joined to be a missionary. In 1955 they relented and he was sent to India.
He stayed nine years, “going home once in five years. It was very hot, in fact, the place I was in, Hamirpur, was renamed ‘Hotspur’ by the Jesuits”. They were forbidden to be outside during the day and still two priests died of dehydration.
In 1963 he returned to Europe to attend a retreat near Rome. Later he set off for Papua New Guinea where he was to spend more than 30 years. At one stage there he got malaria and was sent to the highlands. One of his missions was at 7,000 feet where he was taken by helicopter.
It was in Papua New Guinea that he celebrated his Golden Jubilee as a priest in 1997. Then, in his mid-70s, he began to feel it was time to move on. He ended up back in Donamon where he has helped run the Divine Word Cards enterprise as well as ministering throughout the county and further afield. He “keeps busy”.
As to his long life, there is no mystery. He does not smoke and has lived moderately, but the basic reason is simple. “The genes are good,” he said. Two of his brothers lived to 90 and another will be 90 next October.