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Extraordinary lives are lived on mission

A CENTURY ago, Pope Benedict XV released the encyclical Maximum Illud, which called on Catholics to bring the Good News to all peoples (Missio Ad Gentes) and to commemorate this anniversary, Pope Francis declared October 2019 to be an Extraordinary Month of Mission (EMM), a special month of prayer and action calling us all to renew our missionary commitment.

It’s no surprise that the term ‘extraordinary’ is used, because many of our missionaries who have travelled from Scotland to work in mission countries and territories are not just extraordinary people, but have led some extraordinary lives while on mission too. Have you heard the one about the priest who was a captain in Sierra Leone’s Navy and who survived an assassination attempt? Well you’re about to!

Spiritan Father Terry Donnelly (above), grew up in Barrhead along with his two younger sisters, Margaret Mary and Susan, in a traditional Catholic household, but with their father having been born in India and serving in the Navy, they were given an early insight into a world far beyond the confines of East Renfrewshire.

“Our sense of adventure probably came from our father who was in the Navy,” Fr Terry said. “He grew up in Bombay, India, and toured the world, so we were always hearing stories about different places. It’s no surprise that I ended up working as a missionary, but my sister Margaret Mary—who still lives in Barrhead—went off to Northern Ghana to start a school, while my other sister, Susan, went to Mauritius to start a school too.”

Inspiration for vocation

While this sense of the wider world played a sizeable role in Fr Terry’s decision to serve on the missions, it was that bedrock of faith in the family, a personal connection with the Spiritans themselves and some inspirational faith figures that were pivotal in discerning his vocation.

“Growing up in Barrhead, there was Canon Troy who was a lovely character and a holy man who set a really good example,” Fr Terry said. “Fr Benny O’Keefe was another such man and even back then I thought ‘I want to be like these guys.’ I had the notion of priesthood from an early age and I knew of the Holy Ghost Fathers, because their seminary was in the Lake District near Barrow-in-Furness and we used to go down that way as kids because we had family there.

“I was inspired by our founders too. Our original founder Claude Poullart des Places, at 23 was the youngest founder in the Church. He was only a student himself in the seminary and he founded his own congregation! He was guided by his spiritual director, Louis de Montfort, who founded the Montfort Fathers. Poullart des Places founded a seminary in which there were no fees charged. Although he died when he was 30, having only been a priest for one year, his dream didn’t die.

“He was succeeded after the French Revolution by Francis Libermann who had been a Jewish Rabbi. Interestingly, Libermann’s rules and guidelines for mission, written in the 1840s is almost word for word Vatican II’s document on mission. Don’t go and tell people God loves them, particularly ex-slaves that we started with in Sierra Leone, go and show them God’s love. Live among them and work with them.

“I have a great regard too for Jacques-Désiré Laval, who was the first recruit of Libermann and went to Mauritius and worked among the slaves. He was a doctor and a priest. He is known as the ‘Apostle of Mauritius.’ He was a great unifier of society and it’s those kind of examples that really inspire me.

“And for me that’s what vocation is, feeling called to do something for others and doing it to the best of your ability. Contributing something to the community using whatever skills and gifts you have.”

A Spiritan in Sierra Leone

Fr Terry’s skills and gifts were put to the test not long after he was ordained when the Spiritans sent him out on mission to Sierra Leone in West Africa in 1972, a country he would call home for the next 23 years and while he found the people to be warm and welcoming—especially to missionaries—the environment proved a bit of a culture shock at first.

“I didn’t know a lot about the place,” he said. “I tried to garner what information I could about the country, but there was no Google back then! I had a bit of information from my father who was based there for two years. There had been Spiritan Fathers from the British province there, but they’d left in 1968—they were elderly and had come home. So in 1972, I was the first Brit to go back in as it was all Irishmen.

“My first impression of life on the missions was that it was different. I can still remember getting off the plane at 6am and stepping out onto the tarmac and the heat hitting me even then and wondering if I could stand it! I also remember the stench of rotten fruit as we went through the market area and thinking ‘I don’t think I can stick this, this isn’t for me. But two years later, I’d adjusted to the smells and the heat.

“I remember getting very good advice from an old priest when I went to Sierra Leone. He said: “For the first year, keep your eyes, your ears and your bowels open and your mouth shut!” It was interesting culturally in Sierra Leone. You go into a place, a new mission, but for the first year you’d get little cooperation, they’d be polite they’d listen to you and work with you but they’d be sizing you up. And then they’d come and they’d say ‘right we realise you are here for us and not for your own advantage. Now what do you want us to do?’

“I went to an island mission territory there and they’d previously been served by a native priest put there by the diocese after we’d handed it over to them. Sadly he only lasted nine months. His morals were off the chart. He had sold most of the property in the mission house, so I had gone into a bare property. The people went to the archbishop and asked for the missionaries to be sent back to them. So I inherited this and I could see that they were wary, having had to deal with my predecessor and it was a struggle at first. Then, after about nine months, a big delegation of elders came to meet us. They sat down and said ‘we’ve decided we like you!’ I said ‘oh thank you.’ Then they asked what needed to be done and after that it was plain sailing.

“The Sierra Leoneans were very welcoming and it was they who helped me to acclimatise and settle in and make it a very positive experience.”

The Spiritans’ legacy in Sierra Leone, and elsewhere, is marked by development and an increase in the standard of education, which is all the more impressive given the conditions that priests like Fr Terry have had to work in. Sierra Leone suffered years of corrupt government, coupled with a military coup and a civil war. Missionaries are often looked to in troubled countries during times of conflict to provide leadership and, at times, help resolve the situation, which often means putting their lives at risk and this was literally the case for Fr Terry.

“They started up a Navy after Britain had given them two gunboats, but they had no idea about navigation,” Fr Terry said. “However, they knew, from my time in the island mission that I went up and down the rivers and the creeks all the time, so I got roped in as the instructor/navigator/chaplain to the Navy and then found myself being promoted to captain!

“That was interesting, especially during the war, some of the situations you were called into. I remember one day, the men let me know the night before that they wanted to go out for training the next day and I told them I’d be free after Mass. So I had 7am Mass, then had my breakfast and went down and they were loading this thing up with ammunition and I said: What are you doing lads?’ And they said they were ‘going out to tackle the rebels.’ I thought it was to be a training exercise, so I said: ‘I’m a man of peace.’ They replied: ‘Don’t worry father, no problem, you drive, we shoot!”