Celebrating 60 years of the SMA Family Vocations Community


Family Vocations Community (aka Family Vocations Crusade) celebrates its DIAMOND JUBILEE this year. It was founded in 1959 and has given 60 years of support for the missionary work of the SMA, in particular, making an immense contribution to the education and training of SMA missionaries both in Ireland and throughout the world. In this article Fr Tom Curran SMA describes the history and growth of the FVC.


Fr John Joe Conlon

Dromantine was where it all began. Located just 10 km from Newry, Co Down, Dromantine had been the Major Seminary of the SMA since 1926. The place where students for the priesthood were educated and trained for their future work as SMA missionaries in Africa. In 1959 there were more than 70 seminarians there. The Superior was Fr John Joe Conlon SMA and, with numbers growing, he was forever seeking ways to finance the running of the seminary, particularly with local support. Up to then there was no local support and all the finances for running the Seminary came from SMA headquarters in Cork.

Through Fr Aidan Anglin SMA, Fr John Joe was put in touch with a Belfast businessman, Mr Tommy McKenna, who offered to help. There were two proven methods of fundraising being used in Cork – the Mission Box and the “Red Book” – which Tommy tried. The Mission (Mite) Box was left on counters of shops and businesses hoping that customers would dispose of their loose change by donating it for the Missions. This method has proven quite successful as a resource, even up to the present day. “The Red Book” was provided to Collectors who listed contacts willing to donate one shilling (5c) per week to support the missions. The Collectors brought the takings to Tommy at the end of each month for transfer to Dromantine. However, this was slow, painstaking and time-consuming work and, because very few people in Belfast knew or had heard about Dromantine, the resulting income was very low.

For Tommy, a better way of helping Dromantine had to be found. Two things were needed – people to become personally involved in Dromantine and Dromantine had to become better known.

Sponsoring Movement

Tommy McKenna with Fr Con Murphy

This led to the Sponsoring Movement. It was worked out that to maintain a student in the seminary cost about £100 per year at that time. If a group of people could be asked to “sponsor” a student for one year by contributing £100 it would go a long way towards realistically helping Dromantine. Say a group of 20 contributing £5 each or a group of 10 contributing £10. Then if that group would agree to make the contribution for 7 years it would have contributed to the education and training of a missionary throughout his course of studies. That was how it began. The group members were called Sponsors and the group leader was the Head Sponsor. The system was then called the Dromantine Sponsoring Movement. At the end of the 7 years the sponsors would be invited to Dromantine to meet the newly-ordained priest(s) they had sponsored. Now, if the groups could be multiplied, they could provide the means to educate more students. This basic methodology has continued until today, except that the 7 years became 8.

The first group was from Tommy’s family and close friends. It was something very new to be so closely involved with priests and their training. There was a traditional barrier between priest and laity. Many were sceptical. But many others were enthusiastic.
Contacts were made. And these contacts made new contacts and the movement gathered momentum. As each new Sponsor was enrolled, Fr John Joe wrote to them a personal message of welcome and inviting them to come to visit Dromantine. Tommy would bring small groups to Dromantine to meet the priests on the staff. Many had never before been inside a seminary. But these visits helped people to be “converted” to become supporters.
By the end of 1959, Sponsor Groups contributed £500. Meanwhile, Willy Marley had organised supporters in Newry thus expanding the Movement beyond Belfast.

1960: In 1960, the continuing expansion reached Ardglass, Portadown and Lurgan through great supporters like Marie Bell, John Lappin, Peter Mulligan and Hugh Murtagh.

1961: In 1961, Fr John Joe invited all the Sponsors to Dromantine to meet the priests and the students in a public relations effort to expand the movement and to better acquaint people with Dromantine. 200 people attended this event on the first Sunday in June which was called Sponsors’ Day and became an annual event. Fr Andy Anglin SMA became the first full-time Director of the Movement. As meetings were arranged in various places, Andy and Tommy would explain the Movement and this led to the forming of more and more groups. Contact people were identified in various areas who pointed out prospective Head Sponsors and frequently before a meeting ended a sponsor attending would decide to form another group. And so the movement spread to Letterkenny, Omagh and Ballygawley.

1964: In 1964 a Head Sponsors meeting was held in Dromantine to enable them to know one another, to share common problems and to help them become personally involved in Dromantine. Some of them formed the nucleus for the committee to organise the Dromantine Open Day which replaced the Sponsors Day at which the numbers attending had greatly increased and knowledge of Dromantine was spreading.


The SMA Collection Box

1966: In 1966, John Joe went to Cork to try to launch the movement there and subsequently in Dublin. For the Dublin venture help was provided by Harry Ledwidth who spear-headed the movement in Dublin for some years. So, by 1969 the Sponsor Movement was well and truly an all-Ireland affair. By then, too, with so many families involved, the potential for vocations from within the movement was realised and it was decided to change the name so that it became known as the Family Vocations Crusade. In renaming the movement there were three essential elements to the FVC – support for training SMA missionaries, daily prayer for the missionary work of SMA and the potential for vocations.
Following on from those early days, the FVC continued to expand and Directors were eventually appointed to administer the movement in each of the four Provinces and in Dublin.

1971: In 1971 Dromantine ceased to be the Major Seminary but it continued to be a hub around which so many of our Sponsors continued to support the formation work of the SMA, sponsoring and supporting our students in Maynooth. Sponsors Days and Open Days continue to attract visitors and Dromantine continued as a much-loved place for many.

Reaching Africa and Beyond

Marie Bell and John Lappin receiving Bene Merenti Medals from Fr Tom Curran

The FVC was founded to support the training of our SMA priests. When Irish vocations to the SMA went into decline in the 1990s, a new venture, the formation of our missionaries from India, the Philippines, Poland and the many countries of Africa, gave a new impetus to the FVC and broadened the vision of our sponsors to realise the catholicity of the Church and reach out to the wider world of mission to which the presence of Dromantine over the years was a living witness. Already, in the first three decades of this expansion, almost 350 missionary priests have been ordained, sponsored by the FVC to a great extent.

The declining number of Irish SMA has led to one more recent change. The appointment of a director of FVC from outside the Province and from one of the new units in the SMA which in turn benefit from the contributions of FVC members for the education and training of our missionaries.

Family Vocations Community – FVC

This presentation is not meant to be a complete history of the FVC, rather it sets the background and some of the developments of the movement. One thing that is striking is that from the very outset, the FVC was founded by and relied on laity for its initiation, its development and its success. Having such an army of co-workers helping the SMA to fulfil its mission is a real sign that the whole church is missionary and that all our supporters are engaged in our missionary work. To reflect the participation of so many in the work of the SMA, and thus being very much part of who we are and what we are as missionaries, we recently changed the title FVC to be the Family Vocations Community of the SMA. Because of the FVC, the Society of African Missions is today a household name in thousands of homes throughout Ireland.

Summer Camps
In 1969 Fr Jim O’Kane was Director of the FVC. He started the SMA Boys Club in Dromantine for the sons of Sponsors. As the club expanded the first SMA Holiday Camp was held in Dromantine and attended by 70 boys. These Camps have continued to date. Girls are now included. Each year there are two weeks of Camps for Boys and two weeks for Girls. These are open to children of our Sponsors.

60 years ago the FVC sponsors contributed £5 or £10 per year. Today many contribute €5 or €10 but some give a lot more

Would you or someone you know consider gathering a few friends, neighbours or relations to begin a new FVC Group to ensure continuity into the future?


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