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Serving in the Islands of Our Lady of Solitude

Earlier this year, Mill Hill Missionary, Fr John Doran, spoke with Missio Scotland’s Communications Officer, Gerard Gough, in depth about his life and time spent on mission. Continuing on the latter theme, Fr John talks to us a little more about his time in The Falkland Islands.

IF someone was to tell you they’d been sent on mission to Las Islas de la Nuestra Señora de la Soledad (The Islands of Our Lady of Solitude), you’d be well within your rights to wonder where on earth they’d actually been sent to. It is, however, one of the names given to what we know nowadays as the Falkland Islands.

During an expedition from London to South America in the late 17th century, Englishman Captain John Strong discovered the sound between the two main islands in the Falkland Islands. He named it Falkland Sound for Anthony Cary, 5th Viscount of Falkland, who partly sponsored his journey. Later, the name Falkland was adopted to the entire archipelago.

In the 18th century, Admiral George Anson led a Royal Navy expedition to circumnavigate the globe, during which he noticed the remote group of then uninhabited islands 400 miles off the course of south-eastern Patagonia in Argentina. He thought to himself that it would be a fine place for a naval base.

Britain and France both had designs on the islands in 1760s, but Spain warned them off and in 1770 they posted a small garrison there. However, that garrison left 30 years later when Argentina broke away from its colonial rulers and thus it ‘inherited’ the islands. Their grip on the islands, however, was slack and 100 years after Admiral Anson’s recommendation, Britain moved in.

The French called the islands Les Malouines after the home port of many of the French sailors, St Malo. That became Las Malvinas in Spanish, but the original name given by that first Spanish garrison was Las Islas de la Nuestra Señora de la Soledad (The Islands of Our Lady of Solitude).

However, by 1982, the solitude was shattered and old disputes from the 18th century were re-ignited. TIME magazine called it: “The most unlikely conflict between the most unlikely enemies since the hobbits fought over middle earth.” Indeed prior to the Falklands War Argentinian sailors still wore a black stripe on their trousers to commemorate the death of Nelson, so close was the former friendship between the two nations. Fantasy gave way to reality, friendship to enmity and within three months, the Argentinians suffered 649 casualties with a further 1657 injured. British deaths numbered 255, with 775 more wounded.

First impressions

Fr John Doran arrived on the islands some five years after the war had ended, by which time an airfield and large garrison had been established. Having toyed with the notion of being a soldier in his youth, there was a sense of predestination to Fr John’s mission.

“On the night of the great storm on October 17, 1987, I flew from RAF Brize Norton to what we call the Falkland Islands, to be the assistant priest to the late Mill Hill Missionary, Monsignor Tony Argreiter,” Fr John said. “Our parish was huge. The Falklands is about half the size of Wales—two big islands and lots of smaller areas. The Apostolic Prefecture covered them, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands and the UK’s Southern Atlantic Ocean overseas possessions. In terms of people, it was tiny, with only a few parishioners in the Falklands and even fewer on the other islands such as St Helena.

“Part of my job was to be an Officiating Chaplain to Her Majesty’s Forces in the South Atlantic—Falkland Islands, Ascension Island, South Georgia and ships at sea. In late 1981, I had the Gordon Highlanders as part of my flock!”

In the midst of beginning his missionary service, Fr John had to get used to a harsher climate than he might have experienced at home in Merseyside or indeed during his time previously spent on mission in the Philippines.

“The islands are beautiful in a wild way, like parts of Scotland and Donegal in Ireland,” Fr John said. “A tourist poster bragged that the islands offered ‘Scottish summers and English winters,’ which may not persuade everyone to pack their long-johns and head off for an expensive trip to the Falklands. The poster didn’t mention the wind though! On most days, winds rattle in from the mountains of Patagonia or from the Antarctic or across the ocean from the north or east! In the end, I got used to it and then I came to love the wind. On the rare days that there was no wind, I didn’t feel fully alive.

“A pilot also once told me that he could see forever because the air was so clear and unpolluted. The RAF police dogs picked up scents at almost three times the distance they did in the UK, for the same reason!”

Wounds of war

Fr John was aware of the scars left behind by the war both on the islanders and the Argentinians and is able to explain the former and play his part in offering some comfort to the latter.

“To outsiders, the islanders may have seemed slow to move on from the events of 1982, but to be fair, you have to take into consideration that they awoke one morning to 14,000 foreign troops streaming ashore—seven for every man, woman and child on the Falklands. It would be like 35,000,000 foreign troops invading Scotland. To their credit, these troops behaved well and were highly regarded by those who fought them, but it was still a sizeable event.

“In 1988, I celebrated my first Mass in the Argentine Military Cemetery. It was just me, one soldier and an RAF photographer. The photographer was not my idea, but then I thought maybe a photo would eventually find its way to Argentina and the next of kin would see that their dead were not forgotten about or not being prayed for. The next year, the Red Cross and the British Forces arranged a visit for the Argentine next of kin to the cemetery. I was privileged to be given a part in planning that visit.”

Mission across the miles

If you’re thinking that this particular mission Fr John was asked to undertake is somewhat strange that’s entirely understandable, but keep in mind the universality of our Church and our calling to spread the Good News to the ends of the earth.

“What’s all this got to do with Missio you might ask?” Fr John said. “It’s very simple, without Missio you would have no missions in such remote places and no priests or religious there either. The Mill Hill Missionaries and Missio Spain helped to pay for these priests and brothers in the South Atlantic, while the Falklands Islands Government helped with our transport, as did the British Forces.

“In 1953, we took over from the Salesians and 50 years later, we handed over the care of the islands to the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, who have provided priests for the last 20 years—resident in the Falklands and St Helena. Ascension Island and Tristan Da Cunha are also visited regularly.

“In my last months there, I began to think how great it would be if we could coax some monks to come and set up a little monastery, especially if they came from the UK and Argentina. It hasn’t happened yet, but I pray that one day it does! Perhaps, Our Lady of Peace would be a good name for it, or Our Lady of Solitude.”

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