Eamonn Casey: When The Irish Times met the bishop in Ecuador

Religious affairs correspondent Patsy McGarry on meeting Bishop Casey in 1997


There was light on in the church but its door was locked that dark Saturday evening in September 1997. A white-haired figure, wearing glasses, emerged. At 66 then he was taller and thinner than expected, wearing dark casual clothes and carrying an empty glass jug. But the rapid gait, with its short step, the shuffle, and slight stoop forward, were unmistakable.

“Dr Casey . . .,” I called and walked towards him. I identified myself. He was cool, civil, courteous. A child was dying in the church and he was going to the presbytery to get water to baptise it. Water in the village had been cut off in a row between rival political factions, but was turned on a short time before.

I followed him into the presbytery. It was bare, sparse, frugal. It was agreed I would wait. He filled the jug with water from a kitchen tap and returned to his duties in the church.

Ecuador’s San Miguel de Los Bancos had one paved street then with mucky red dirt tracks leading off towards the mountains all around. Most of its 5,000 population lived in wooden shacks along those tracks, rather than in the village itself. They are poor mestizos, descendants of mixed Indian and European blood, paid less than subsistence by wealthy landowners who lived in Quito, Ecuador’s capital, about 80km (50 miles) to the east.

Almost 15 minutes after he left to perform the baptism, he returned to the presbytery. He was tense but adamant. He was clear. He had made a rule some years ago not to do any more interviews, and he could not breach it. It was best that way, not to drag everything up again. He regretted what this meant for me. Coming so far for nothing, and all that, but there was nothing he could do. He was sorry.

Off the record

This was not entirely a surprise, but it was worth the effort just in case. You might say it was a matter of failing better. We agreed that everything thereafter would be off the record, and so it has remained, but a very pleasant couple of hours ensued. He was marvellous company and desperately lonely. His Spanish was poor as only one other person in the village spoke English.

He could not get enough news about what was happening at home. His animation when talking about Ireland was intense and moving. He also talked about Los Bancos; his affection for its suffering people and their many dead infants. Bronchial infections were a common cause of death among children, and of some adults too, in that humid region.

I had brought along a bottle of whiskey which I intended leaving him as a gift. That, and Nuala O’ Faolain’s book Are You Somebody? Everyone in Ireland, it seemed, was reading it then and I felt he would know most of the people mentioned in it. We opened the whiskey and hours passed.

I had admired him since I was a child when I saw that RTÉ Radharc programme on the work he did in London with the housing agency Shelter, which he set up. He was what I believed then a priest should be.

When I left him later that Saturday night in Los Bancos, enthused by his humour and whiskey I had already decided I would be at his 7.30 Mass that Sunday morning come hell or high water. I stayed up the street in a makeshift $5 a night ‘hotel’.

And there he was beforehand walking up and down the aisle greeting everyone, towering above them all. Extending his hand to me he went “Buenos dias”, then laughed. “Habit,” he said.

‘The Cross is hope’

It was a large spontaneous congregation of all ages. Without prompting, people recited the prayers of the faithful from the body of the church. His homily in Spanish, relayed with great enthusiasm and dramatic gestures, was about the victory of the Cross.

“The Cross is hope, the Cross is love, the Cross is victory,” he told them. He read from notes. It took him from Monday to Sunday to get the Spanish right, he told me. During the sign of peace handshake he walked down the aisle shaking hands with everyone, including his Irish visitor.

He invited me for breakfast afterwards in the presbytery. It included bread, hard-boiled eggs, tea and a local blackberry flavoured yoghurt-like drink. He said he missed marmalade. Two other priests and a deacon who shared the presbytery with him were also at the table.

Libia, a local girl, and a tiny, elderly Indian woman, Cecilia, served the tea and eggs. Cecilia was very welcoming to this Irish visitor. She enthused in Spanish. The word “gusto” featured a lot. He translated that she was very pleased for him that he had a visitor. From her reaction, it was clear he had few visitors.

The priests and deacon left to say Mass in outlying parishes. He had to say Mass again in the church next door.We walked to a low wall at the front of the church as he relayed some other Irish story. We shook hands.

I said I hoped I would see him again. His voice cracked, and tears appeared in his eyes. “Thank you…for the respect,” he said, and turned quickly towards the presbytery.