Born on 31 December 1872 at Togher, Hollymount, Co Mayo, in the Archdiocese of Tuam.
Died at St. Joseph’s College, Wilton, Cork, on 30 January 1947.
Stephen studied in the colleges of the Society.
1887-1890: Student in the Apostolic school at Blackrock Road, Cork
1890-1894; philosophy and theology at the SMA seminary in Lyons, France
1894-1896: completed theological formation in the SMA seminary at Choubra, near Cairo, Egypt
Member of SMA: 18 June 1892
Ordained: 17 May 1896 at the seminary chapel at Choubra by Guido Corbelli, Bishop of Peluse and Vicar Apostolic of Egypt.
During his student days in Egypt, Stephen was on the teaching staff of St. Louis’ Secondary college, Tantah. After ordination he continued on at Tantah, becoming Director of students in the ‘Free-school’, which was attached to the fee-paying college and which catered for the poor. During this time he learned to speak Arabic. In 1900 he became Superior of the mission at Zifta (a station on the Nile, where the OLA sisters had a boarding school and day school, and where SMA priests convalesced), a post which he occupied until 1906.
Prefect Apostolic of Liberia
In 1906 he was appointed Prefect Apostolic of Liberia. At that time Liberia was considered perhaps the most difficult of the Church’s West African missions. Earlier attempts to establish a mission there by other missionary societies had failed. The mission had now been confided to the SMA and Stephen was nominated to lead the first expedition. His appointment was related to his performance as a Councillor to the Prefect Apostolic, Mgr Duret, during his time in Egypt.
Stephen spent four years in Liberia where, in the face of the greatest difficulties, he succeeded in firmly rooting the Church, establishing stations at Kekrou and at Kakata. Confronted with the death of colleagues, the constant companionship of illness, deprivation and isolation, the hostility of Protestant missionaries and the indifference of the population, he was to provide a superb model of missionary evangelisation for his successors.
Leading the New Irish Province of SMA
Stephen’s recall to Ireland as superior of the Irish branch of the Society, in 1910, was as unexpected as it was unwelcome. In that year a decision had been made by Propaganda Fide to erect the Irish branch of the Society into a full Province. However, the founder of the Province, Fr Joseph Zimmermann SMA, was to be withdrawn from Ireland because of differences with Society superiors in France – among other things it was felt that Fr Zimmermann was too autonomous in outlook. His recall had led to disaffection within the branch. Moreover many of the Society’s supporters including bishops, clergy and laity – who greatly admired Fr Zimmermann – now withdrew their support. Those bishops who were involved in the financial administration of funds collected to support the new Province became unhelpful. A particularly urgent problem facing the Irish branch was the fate of the Apostolic school at Wilton where staff and students had gone into revolt against Society authority. These were the circumstances in which Stephen was called upon by his superiors to take charge of the Society’s Irish branch and to be its first Provincial Superior.
Provincial: 12 July 1912.
Resigned due to ill health: 26 August 1913.
The years spent in Liberia had taken their toll. It is recorded that on his return from Liberia Stephen was ‘a worn-out missionary, spending weeks and months in the South Infirmary hospital with fevers‘. But above all there was the strain of dealing with the immense difficulties of the fledgling Province. By the time he resigned Stephen had succeeded in re-opening the Apostolic school. He had also taken steps to recover control over the Province’s finances and in eliminating debts. There was the joy too of seeing the first ordinations for the Province and the Departure ceremony of missionaries to Liberia which was entrusted to the care of the Province as its first mission. Moreover he had already ensured that the future of the Province would be in good hands; for shortly after his arrival in Cork, and realizing that his stay would be short, he had written to the Superior General, Bishop Paul Pellet, requesting the assistance of a young SMA priest who he had known in Egypt – Maurice Slattery. In the latter months of his Provincialate Stephen went to La Croix Valmer in France, hoping to recover. However when it was clear that he would be no longer fit to continue, and having submitted his resignation, he took up an appointment as Councillor to the Superior General at Lyons, where he also taught English in the seminary. Stephen is remembered as a ‘very entertaining professor’ … a brilliant linguist who ‘made his classes interesting by the comparisons he was able to make with other languages’. At the end of the first world war Stephen was anxious to return home and was able to fulfil his wish in 1919 when he took up an appointment in the SMA Brothers’ novitiate at Kineurry, near Westport, Co Mayo.
Stephen was next assigned as Spiritual Director to the Province’s theological seminary at Blackrock Road. When the seminary was transferred to Dromantine, Co Down, in 1926, Stephen became Spiritual Director in the Apostolic school at Wilton. An account of Stephen’s life by a colleague noted: ‘It was as spiritual director that he was most at home and at his best. He used to quote freely from St Francis de Sales, and was not unlike him in his own mind and manner. He had read very much of the spiritual life, in French and in English. But it was in his personal interviews with the students that he did the greatest good… He completely won their confidence, solved their questions and doubts, and inspired them with the ideals of priestly holiness and missionary zeal. And he did all that in a brotherly, paternal way. He was the ideal “spiritual father”‘.
In 1930 Stephen was co-opted as a Provincial Councillor and was elected to the same position at the 1931 Provincial Assembly. He retired in 1937 and spent the last decade of his life in ailing health at Wilton.
He is buried in Wilton cemetery.