Fr Tom Treacy, SMA, died peacefully in the St Theresa’s Nursing Unit at the SMA House, African Missions, Blackrock Road, Cork on Saturday, 11 December 2021. He was 76 years of age, and had spent 48 years in Nigeria, West Africa. His Funeral Mass took place in the Sacred Heart Church, Belclare, Tuam, Co Galway on 15 December, followed by his burial in Claretuam cemetery, just metres from his family home.
Fr Malachy Flanagan, SMA Provincial Leader, was the Principal Celebrant, assisted by Fr Ciarán Blake, Cummer Parish Priest (of which Belclare is part), and Fr John Brown SMA, a classmate of Fr Tom’s who also preached the homily. The Archbishop of Tuam, Most Rev Michael Neary, presided at the Mass and addressed the congregation before leading us in the Final Prayers and Commendation. A number of SMA confreres and local diocesan clergy also concelebrated at the Mass.
The following is an edited version of Fr John’s homily. Note that in it he interchanges Tommie (as the family knew him), Tom (as his confreres in the SMA called him) and Fr TT as he was known by the parishioners in Nigeria.
We are gathered here today to formally return a missionary son of this parish to his creator. We present Fr Tommie Treacy back to God with gratitude, for his presence among us has been a blessing not just for his family and neighbours here in Claretuam, for the Society of African Missions, but especially for the people he ministered to in Nigeria. We bring Fr Tommie back to this house of God, this parish Church of the Sacred Heart, where he was baptised. We place his coffin before the pascal candle which speaks to us of resurrection and new life with God. We celebrate this Requiem Mass asking for God’s forgiving mercy while commending him as a person suitable for God’s presence.
As people of Christian faith, we believe that all life is from God; we come from God we go back to God. God endows each with specific talents, which if developed and used positively gives joy to the bearer and blessings to society. And we can add to that: if there is a spirit of love and service in our lives, if we have worked so that those without opportunity in life have opportunity, that those without education have education, that those without justice have justice; then we are making a big contribution towards the creation of the Christian society that Christ asks us to build. Fr Tommie was a person who, in joining the SMA, set out to do what he could for the peoples of Africa. With his easy relaxed manner and great love of people Tommie was to make a huge contribution to the educational and spiritual development of many in the northern Nigerian states of Kaduna and Kano. Now after 51 years of service we can say with St Paul, he had fought the good fight to the end, he has run the race to the finish, he has kept the faith and all there is now to come is the crown of righteousness reserved for him. (2Tim 4 7-8)
Tommie came to the SMA in 1963 with 42 others doing the initial Spiritual Year in Cloughballymore. He was to proceed to University College, Cork (UCC) for his university studies and after that to the SMA Major seminary at Dromantine, Newry, culminating in his ordination to the priesthood with fifteen others on the 16th December 1970. In August 1971 the six of us going to the dioceses in the north of Nigeria left Ireland as the troubles in the north began with interment without trial. We flew into Kano and remained there for a few days while experiencing the heat the sights and sounds of a city on the southern edges of the Sahara Desert. Fr Tom was not to know at this stage that it would be in Kano that he would spend the greater part of his missionary life. We were to spend the remainder of 1971 learning the language and customs of northern Nigeria. Tommie’s first appointment was to a rural parish with Fr Brian Horan of happy memory.
Fr Tommie began his teaching career at the beginning of his second tour in 1973 with his appointment to St Joseph’s minor seminary in Zaria. Several of Tom’s students in that Seminary would become priests. At that time the Archdiocese of Kaduna had only two Nigerian priests and it wasn’t at all clear that the SMA’s ambition of setting up the local church with its own bishop and local clergy was going to happen anytime soon. Work therefore in the minor seminary was of great importance not just to educate but by interaction and example of lifestyle, convince these young men that a vocation to the priesthood was a calling not just to spiritual well-being but an opportunity to do something meaningful for their own people. In the years that followed many young men offered their services to the church, while Tom showed that he was convinced of the need for a local clergy by taking every opportunity available to him to encourage, promote and financially support the training of Nigerian religious both men and women. This was particularly true in later years when the young but growing SMA region in Nigeria was struggling to find its financial feet. The parishes where Fr Tom ministered were among the largest and most regular contributors of funds for that cause. Through promotion and collections, he helped to make the new region known and financially self-sufficient.
After a few short years in Zaria, Fr Tom was asked to become leader of St Thomas’ Sec the only Catholic Secondary school for boys in Kano. From its earlier years St Thomas’ gave quality education to Christian and Muslim boys from the city of Kano but later was to play a major part in educating native Kano Christians, known as Magazawa, several of whom have now entered the diocesan priesthood and last year the SMA. The Sisters of St Louis had developed an initiative of Archbishop Peter Jatau (the first indigenous Archbishop of Kaduna) whereby rural children became boarders in St Louis Primary school; from there they went to St Louis Secondary for girls, while the boys went to St Thomas’. There was great satisfaction for Tom and all local church personnel especially the Sisters of St Louis that the Christians of Kano State, for so long barred from educational opportunities, now had good education and the openings that followed therefrom available to them. Fr Tom used his considerable talent as an organiser and persuader, with his easy manner in dealing with state education officials, to raise standards both of ed and discipline. He had come to be of service to the peoples of Nigeria, to help those unable to develop their talents, to raise up those held back. What better gift can one give to a young person than the gift of quality education. Fr Tommie never had any doubt but that he was in the right place doing the right thing. He was at peace and he was happy in his work.
Tom was a reserved person; never seeking the limelight. He wasn’t given to seeking agreeable company in which to relax, in many ways he ploughed his own furrow. However, when company found him he was charming, witty and very engaging and could enjoy himself until the small hours. Fr TT was hospitable and no one knew this better than those departing and returning missionaries from across the northern half of Nigeria. Navigating one’s way through Kano airport wasn’t always easy but knowing there was a welcome and a bed for you afterwards greatly relaxed the nerves.
Fr Tom was a patient man but it was as PP that he showed greatest patience. He believed in sharing the work of running a parish with his parishioners. He was a great believer in the value indeed the need for a Parish Council in the parishes he served. But keeping a Parish Council on side is not always easy. While in charge of St Thomas’ School, Tom was also PP of St Louis parish in Kano. The Parish Council members there had opinions on all agenda items and needed an opportunity to express them. One famous Council meeting began after the early Sunday morning Mass and was still in session at midnight; yes midnight! It is said they were debating the relative merits of two plans before them for their proposed new church. The reason they remember that the meeting lasted beyond midnight was that at that hour a member called for the Angelus to be said whereupon an argument arose as to whether the church requires us to say the Angelus at midnight. Is the Angelus not a midday and evening prayer? The decision on the Angelus is as far as I know not recorded in the minutes but you must admire the patience of Fr TT who after all had a school to look after a few hours later.
By 1990 Fr Tommie had left school life and gone full time into parish work – he was to serve initially in Our Lady of Fatima (OLF) parish in Sabon Gari and later in the SMA parish of St Charles in Nomans Land. These are very similar parish communities with huge numbers (OLF had more that 20,00 members with 14,000 attending the Masses on any given Sunday) which made great demands on time, patience and perseverance. There were numerous prayer and society groups, tribal and town meetings, each seeking recognition and attention. The most popular of these were the Charismatic Renewal, the Holy Name fellowship and the Legion of Mary. These first two especially required special attention in that they could be influenced by the preaching in protestant churches of an evangelical or fundamentalist nature many of whom were strongly anti-catholic. Scripture was understood literally and Tom soon realised that the answer to their scripture quotations was not reasoned argument or reference to Church teaching but another scripture quotation supporting his point of view. It was not our traditional method of evangelising but a skill that needed to be acquired for inner city success. To deal with such people I remember Fr Tommie telling me that he had undertaken a detailed study of the book of Revelations. The struggle to hold the Catholic line was difficult but Fr Tom had the sharp intellect, the patience and the quick wit to deal with it all.
Fr Tommie put great effort into this work; he prepared his homilies assiduously; backing up his assertions with biblical references, speaking with conviction and faith. As earlier in St Louis parish, his big weapon was his Parish Council which he consulted and took the advice of on all matters. To be a member of his Parish Council was an honour; for parishioners looked to them for advice and guidance. Parish Council members in turn worked to make sure that developments in all aspects of parish life were brought to the Pastoral Council meetings.
Fr TT’s ability as an organiser was best seen in the way he set up his catechetical programmes. None was done better than the RCIA programme; (i.e. the 18-months course whereby adults are prepared for baptism and full membership of the Church). Each candidate, together with their own sponsor, attends the weekly instructions followed by discussion. The various stages were fittingly celebrated, the candidate was thoroughly prepared to receive the sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation and sometimes marriage. Preparation for Baptism, FHC, Confirmation and Marriage were done with the same meticulous planning and execution. Needless to say, Fr Tom depended on a large group of instructors and educators but the measure of the man was that so many were more than willing to give generously of their time and talents. They saw in Fr Tom a man of faith of total commitment to the ways of Christ. He was a bright light in their sometimes-dark world.
You will have seen in the media many very positive comments from Nigerians who knew Fr TT well. In truth he has a wonderful way with the Nigerian people and they were very comfortable in his presence. I would like to finish by quoting from two Nigerians. The first is Fr Charles Okonkwo who lived with Fr Tom for eight years in OLF parish. This is what he wrote. “Living and working with Fr. TT, as he is popularly called, I saw in him a dedicated priest, a man of prayer, an administrator per excellence, a compassionate priest and a person with a great sense of humour. Early in the morning, Fr. TT would be in the Chapel for meditation and to say his prayers. In the evening after his office work he did the same. The fruits of his prayer life were evident in his administration of the parish. He was an excellent administrator. He believed in carrying all parishioners along. To do this he took major decisions with his parish council and its sub-committees. I saw in him a priest with a meticulous sense of stewardship. Before receiving or giving out any money, even for priest’s feeding, he would always write it in his note book to account for it; and he was always on time in giving parish quarterly financial accounts to the diocese. To help in catechizing his flock, he complied and published a book of some basic Catholic teaching with answers to some ‘Pentecostal questions’ about the Catholic faith and practices. He was a priest that was always present to his parishioners. He was a very compassionate person and cared for the needy. He operated an outreach program through the parish Society of St Vincent de Paul. To fund the program, he made appeals for freewill donations for the poor, and also had a number of big ‘help the poor’ boxes placed at different places in the church. Each week hundreds irrespective of their religion were helped with food, medical bills and housing needs.Fr. TT treated every one with respect and dignity. I am grateful to God for the eight years I had living with him. When I succeeded him in the parish, his style of administration was my guiding principle. The news of his death hit me hard. He was a good man; and I pray almighty God to grant him eternal rest; and consolation to his relatives and those of us who knew him. May he rest in peace.”
Sr Patricia Ojo is Superior General of the Sisters of St Louis. This is what she wrote: “Fr Tom Treacy was to many of the St Louis Sisters, a trusted friend, a brother and of course a priest, especially to those who were privileged to work with him in Kano. He was known to us simply as ‘TT. That was how free and at home we were in his company. He was down to earth, simple, with no airs and graces about him.
I first met TT at close range when I went to work in Kano in the year 2000, and the first thing that caught my attention about him was his deep faith which he shared very readily with people. His preaching was inspirational and he was always very creative in the way he used everyday life stories and experiences to give the message. For him, it was always the ‘Good News’ of Jesus, and the good news is for everyone. One could see that he lived this in his own life, and in the way he related with people.
To him, everyone was important irrespective of who you are or where you come from. While he could be frank at times especially if he needed to make a point, you always saw the honesty and sincerity behind his statements and actions. He truly was a missionary to the core. While he was born in Ireland, Nigeria was his home, and with his usual sense of humour and wit, everyone was a brother or a sister.
He will be greatly missed by all of us, especially the WhatsApp messages he sent daily. They were short but they were, inspiring, funny at times and educative, always with one or two lessons to learn for the day. As Leonardo Da Vinci says, ‘As a well spent day brings happy sleep, so a life well spent brings happy death’, may he now enjoy the fullness of life with God in his eternal home.”
We say Amen to that. Eternal rest grant onto Fr Tommie, O Lord …
View Funeral arrangements here.