Fr Jeremiah (Der) Healy SMA
The death has taken place of Fr Jeremiah Healy at 8.45am on Friday, 30 March at the St Theresa’s Nursing unit, African Missions, Blackrock Road, Cork. For the previous 24 hours or so the community had been praying with him and for him as his moment of death arrived. With him when he died were some of his SMA confreres, nursing staff and his devoted friend of many years, and a longtime SMA supporter, Ms Hilda Kilrane.
Within his family and the SMA he was known as Dermot or Der. He was the born in Castle Countess, Tralee, Co Kerry on 23 March 1926 to John and Mary (née McCarthy), the first of their four children. Next to Fr Der was his sister Lena, followed by Teddy and his late brother, Lauri (RIP). (Lauri was named after the Papal Legate to the 1932 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, Cardinal Lorenzo Lauri.)
He attended the local CBS National School in Tralee and completed his secondary education at St Mary’s CBS, The Green, Tralee.
The year before Der decided to join the Society of African Missions, the SMA Vocations Director was allowed by the Bishop of Kerry to visit the schools in the diocese, subject to the approval of the local Parish Priest. He was able to visit every school bar one – Tralee CBS! And it was that very year that the SMA had the most vocations from Kerry, indeed all from Tralee CBS. Four young men joined the SMA that year: Der Healy, Elisha O’Shea and the Kennedy brothers: Michael and Tom. All four of them were to give lifelong service as missionary priests and, as Fr Bill Foley SMA (a fellow Tralee man) reminded us at Der’s burial: all four now lie resting in the Wilton cemetery until the Day of the Resurrection.
How did Der (and the other three) decide to join the SMA? Among the SMA priests from Tralee, at the time Der joined, was Fr Tommie Drummond SMA who had recently returned on holidays from his mission in northern Nigeria. His return had an amazing influence on the people of Tralee, particularly these four young men. Fr Tommie was the unofficial SMA Vocations Director that summer of 1945 in Tralee. Maith thú, a Athair!
Der went to the SMA Novitiate & House of Philosophy at Kilcolgan, Co Galway. At the end of two years he took his First Oath of membership, on 1 July 1947. He then studied Theology at the African Missions seminary, Dromantine, Co Down. He became a permanent member of the Society on 12 June 1950. In 1951, Der, along with Tom Kennedy, went to UCC to study for a BA degree. Both were ordained to the priesthood on 13 July 1952 at the Sacred Heart Church, Western Road, Cork (now a parish run by the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart [MSC]). As they were both studying at UCC at the time it was more convenient to be ordained in the city than make the long trip to Newry Cathedral where most SMA priests were ordained. The ordaining bishop was the late Dr Cornelius Lucey, Bishop of Cork. Fr Der completed his BA Degree at UCC in 1954. The following year he graduated from London University with a Diploma in Education. Destined for the teaching ministry in Nigeria, it was a decided asset to have a qualification from a British university. His first appointment in Africa was to the recently-created diocese of Jos in Nigeria, which was then under the leadership of Bishop John Reddington SMA.
Every SMA missionary had to spend several months adapting to the local culture and learning the language etc. Der was sent to Shendam for this Tyrocinium period. He was then appointed as Education Secretary in the dicoese but, quite quickly, he was asked to join the teaching staff of Mary Immaculate Teacher Training College, Kafanchan (1957 – 1963). Appointed Vice Principal, Der was a teacher par excellence. One of the principal concelebrants at his funeral Mass was Fr Bernie Cotter SMA who also served on the staff there with Der. Writing of him at the time of Der’s Golden Jubilee, Fr Bernie said: “It was my privilege to work with this most gracious and helpful confrere in CMI, Kafanchan.”
The Prefecture of Ilorin was erected in 1960. At the request of Msgr William O’Mahony SMA, Fr Der left the Mary Immaculate TTC and moved south to Ilorin. His early years in Ilorin were in the education apostolate, particularly as Principal of the Teacher Training College at Mount Carmel (1963 – 1965). When he left the education ministry behind, Der moved into fulltime pastoral work.
He worked in Osi and Oro parishes before completing his years in Nigeria as Rev Fr i/c of Ekan-Meje parish in the south of the Prefecture. During his years in Ekan-Meje he persuaded the Dominican community in his home town to give him a Church Bell which he installed at the Parish Church. A photo of the handover of the bell from the Dominicans to the SMA had pride of place in Fr Der’s room in St Theresa’s.
This photo was one of the symbols carried to the Altar at the Requiem Mass. The other symbols were a Candle – symbol of Der’s baptism and his commissioning to be a light to others; a pencil and pen symbolizing his teaching ministry and an African Stole to remind us of his calling as a missionary priest.
In 1974, an acute heart condition forced his retirement from the missions. After recovering his health, Der was Editor of the African Missionary. During those three years, Der had an enormous outreach to SMA supporters throughout the country and beyond and used the power of his pen to inofrm them of the SMA and our missionary work. In 1978 he asked to be allowed to return to the pastoral ministry and so went on loan to Limerick diocese where he was to spend 14 very happy years – first in Adare parish (1978-1981) and then at Ardagh (1981-1994). It was fitting that V Rev Tony Mullins, Administrator of the diocese of Limerick, was among the principal concelebrants at Der’s funeral Mass.
After 18 years in Limerick diocese he moved to the SMA House, Claregalway where he helped out pastorally in neighbouring parishes and also in the SMA House with visitors etc.
In 2007, due to increasing ill health, he retired to the African Missions, Blackrock Road where he lived a quiet life as increasing sight failure restricted his activities. But he was never ‘out of touch’ – the Radio was always on and Der was up to date on all that was happening in the world. His lifelong interest in all sports was sated by Sky Sports channels. His support for his beloved Kerry team never waned, even in the (rare) bad times. In soccer he followed Chelsea; in Cricket – any team which could beat England.
Right up to the day before his death, Fr Der concelebrated the community Mass at 10.30am. Now he celebrates it with the heavenly choir.