Funeral Homily of David Hughes

Fr David Hughes SMA

Funeral Homily – 15 January 2007

(Preached by Fr Fachtna O’Driscoll SMA, Provincial Superior at SMA Parish Church, Wilton, Cork)

Readings: Ecclesiasticus 2:7-13
Hebrews 4:12-16
John 14:1-6

 The coming of the hour of dawn seems to be a significant time when people accept the invitation to journey from this life to the next. Our last two confreres buried from this church died at almost the exact same time of morning, soon after 8am. That final turn in the bed after a somewhat protracted illness seemed to allow them move gently into God. These two men’s lives warrant comparison: both lived to a ripe old age; both were ordained during the course of the 2nd World War; both served their early missionary career in Egypt, a mission to which not a large number were ever assigned; and both enjoyed healthy mental functioning until shortly before they died. David Hughes can now connect again with Owen Maginn and rehearse stories of Choubra and St George’s, Heliopolis. One thing we can be sure of: there will be much laughter.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled”, Jesus assures us in our gospel passage today. There is no indication that Davie was ever troubled by the prospect of death. Since his heart attack in 1988 he had been almost twenty years preparing for this eventuality. “Trust in God still, and trust in me…. for there are many rooms in my Father’s house… and I am going to prepare a place for you…. and I shall return to take you with me, so that where I am you may be too”. David had a firm conviction in the resurrection on the last day. He believed it himself and he devoted his life to sharing this belief with others. These words of the gospel are consoling words for David’s family of birth and his SMA family with whom he lived for the guts of seventy years. Today we pray for the repose of his gentle soul, that his time of purification before enjoying the fullness of the beatific vision will be short.

David Hughes was born in Cabinteely, Co Dublin on 7th April 1917. Less than three months would have seen him enjoying his 90th birthday. He came from a family of three girls [one of whom was a Presentation Sister serving in Manchester, England] and two boys. After his early Primary schooling with the Irish Sisters of Charity in Milltown he moved on to the famous Christian Brothers in Synge Street. Having read about missionary life in a CTS pamphlet he almost stumbled upon the SMA and pursued his studies in Clough and Dromantine. Ordained in 1940 [by virtue of dispensation for not having yet attained the canonical age] in a class of twenty, he was first assigned to Egypt. Due to the 2nd World War his passage there was delayed some months. When he did eventually travel by sea it was quite an eventful journey, one that Davie used to tell with some relish. Suffice it to say there was more than good fortune in their reaching the shores of Africa at all.

But the sentiments of our opening reading this afternoon would surely have been nourishing his heart, even if it is highly unlikely that the words of Ecclesiasticus were on his lips. “You who fear the Lord, wait for his mercy: do not turn aside in case you fall. You who fear the Lord, trust him, and you will not be baulked of your reward”. Fear of the Lord in the best sense of respect and awe before God’s presence was ingrained in Davie’s psyche. He would have relied on “the Lord who is compassionate and merciful” to bring him through the acutest danger.

His early period in Egypt was spent in Choubra in Cairo. Here he taught in two different schools and in fact he was to devote the first twenty-five years of his priesthood to the teaching profession. These first years were difficult as provisions were in short supply. For a man who became renowned for hospitality and the quality of his table it must have been difficult to accept such poor fare; oftentimes the only meat available was camel meat, and the house had no fridge to preserve food or cool the water. The last twelve of the seventeen years he was to spend in Egypt were spent in St George’s College, Heliopolis. Many of these years were spent as Superior and it was through his efforts that the school attained the very high renown that it achieved. Davie was very precise and supremely efficient. Indeed, even in retirement, he could wither you with a damning look if you were to be any bit off the mark in the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours.

Davie enjoyed good relations with the majority Moslem population in Egypt but it was his relations with the Oriental Coptic Christians that he specially treasured. He greatly admired the quality of their liturgies, the diversity of their rites, and the precision of their icons. He visited Coptic monasteries in the desert and was a frequent visitor to St Catherine’s at the foot of Mt Sinai.

Notwithstanding his enjoyment of life in Egypt, Davie’s soul stirred with thoughts of a different experience of Africa. “The word of God is something alive and active: it cuts more finely than any doubled-edged sword: it can slip through the place where the soul is divided from the spirit; and it can judge the secret emotions and thoughts”. This we are told in our second reading today from Hebrews, the actual reading of the Mass on Saturday morning when Davie died. The word of God was alive and active in Davie and he responded to its promptings. On request, he was assigned to the mission in Northern Nigeria to the Diocese of Kaduna. For the next twenty years or so he laboured in this vineyard. He taught at St John’s College, Kaduna; at the Minor Seminary in Zaria and the Teacher Training College. Eventually he left the teaching ministry and joined in parish ministry in such places as Our Lady of Fatima, Kano, Mabushi, Kaduna town itself and perhaps other places. He felt most at home in the ‘bush’ ministry to remote villages.

Davie’s efficiency, his decency, his ability was well respected by his colleagues in the SMA as by the people among whom he lived and served. This was testified to by the fact that he was on three separate occasions elected by his colleagues to be their representative to the Provincial Assembly, once by the men in Egypt in 1952 and twice by the men in Kaduna in 1968 and ’73. He was generally easy to get on with, was kind and always hospitable. These qualities remained with him as he moved into a different location of ministry after thirty six years in Africa.

In 1977 Davie took a sabbatical in Scotland doing parish ministry in the Diocese of Aberdeen. He was assigned to the Highland district around the town of Inverness. He especially enjoyed serving these isolated communities. When his sabbatical year came to a close he was asked by the bishop and agreed to continue on in this ministry. He was to do so for another ten years and who knows how much longer it would have continued had a heart attack in 1988 not intervened. This forced him to abandon his isolated communities and seek a job that would be less taxing. He was much appreciated by the bishop, clergy and people of Aberdeen as is noted in these words I quote from a letter written to him by Bishop Conti: “you were a tremendous help, a marvelous colleague, and an exemplary pastor”.

From the Highlands of Scotland he moved to the lowlands of Nottingham where he spent five happy years as chaplain to a group of elderly nuns in a convent in Cleethorps. An amusing angle to this apostolate was that the Sisters resided in St Hugh’s convent.

Ill health gradually became more pronounced so in 1993 he moved into retirement. First of all he spent four happy years in Dromantine and this was followed by almost a decade in Wilton and finally joining the community at Blackrock Road just about three months ago.

Recounting his life in this manner should not be interpreted to mean that Davie had no weaknesses. He did, just like every single one of the rest of us. But he did, as we can, take comfort in the second half of that beautiful passage from Hebrews. “For it is not as if we had a high priest who was incapable of feeling our weaknesses with us”. Yes, Jesus too experienced weakness; he was tempted in every way that we are, though without sin. With such a one as this on our side, what do we really have to fear? Davie has now conquered fear; we pray that we too will one day join him in that victory.

Ar dheis lámh Dé go raibh a anam dílis.