Imagine the surprise of the congregation at Mass this morning when instead of the usual (retired) priest or the parish priest, they saw someone who looked a bit like St Patrick himself! Long grey-white hair and a plentiful beard. The usual celebrant had been temporarily replaced by someone who, appropriately for the feast day of the patron saint, turned out to be a missionary priest.
Massgoers in Tydavnet, County Monaghan in the Clogher diocese, listened with interest as Fr Denis Hartnett MHM introduced himself. He was there to promote the St Joseph’s Advocate magazine of the Mill Hill Missionaries, who took that name from the location of their motherhouse in North London and were founded by Cardinal Vaughan in the late 19thC. But it wasn’t a hard sell.
Instead, Fr Hartnett shared with the congregation his story of being a missionary in Sudan for over twenty years. His order came there in the 1930s. It was a fascinating story of life in this African country. He explained in a very vivid way how the peaceful existence of village life was suddenly shattered by war. Clapping his hands once to produce a startling “bang!” that would have awoken anyone not paying attention, he explained how one day he was startled by the sound of gunfire and came out to discover that all the surrounding huts had been set on fire.
At this stage, he said all he could do was run for his life as men armed with AK47 rifles descended on the village. The local women were rounded up, taken to a stockade and were raped. Plunder, rape and pillage: a very different story than usual for Saint Patrick’s Day!
After the Mass, I asked Fr Hartnett if he had come across Fr John Skinnader CSSp, a missionary priest who comes from the neighbouring parish of Donagh (Emyvale) and who returned last October to Southern Sudan. During his time back in County Monaghan he attended the celebrations for the centenary of Edenmore national school, of which rugby international Tommy Bowe is also a past pupil. Fr Hartnett knows him but his work was in a different area. Fr Hartnett has been going around the country telling his story on behalf of his missionary order. After saying Mass in Tydavnet, he immediately went to another chapel in the parish to say Mass, at Urbleshanny in Scotstown. So if you did not get a chance to hear him, you can find out more about St Joseph’s Missionary Society here.