Fr Tom Kearney died unexpectedly at his brother’s home in Ardee, Co Louth, on Monday, 22 November 2021. His Funeral Mass was celebrated in the Church of the Nativity of Our Lady, Ardee, on Saturday, 27 November. The chief mourners were Fr Tom’s sister, Anita Carroll, his brother Seamus and his sister-in-law Margaret, Fr Tom’s many nieces, nephews, grand nieces and grand nephews, parishioners and members of the Society of African Missions.
Fr Malachy Flanagan SMA, Provincial Leader, was the Principal Celebrant, assisted by Fr Noel O’Leary, Local Leader of the SMA Wilton community where Fr Tom lived and Fr Tom Curran SMA, SMA Dublin community, who worked with Fr Tom in Ijebu-Ode diocese, Nigeria.
Before the Mass began, Canon Peter Murphy conveyed the sympathy of Archbishop Eamon Martin as well as those from the people of the parish to the Kearney family on Fr Tom’s sudden death. Messages were also received from the emeritus-Archbishop of Tuam, Most Rev Michael Neary, where Fr Tom had ministered for 20 years; from the British Provincial Superior, Fr Tom Ryan SMA, recalling Fr Tom’s service in the parish of St John Vianney, West Green, London, for nine years; and from Sr Kathleen McGarvey, Provincial Leader, OLA Ireland. Fr Tom had worked with the OLA Sisters both in Nigeria and London.
Fr Curran preached the homily, an edited version of which is given here.
Fr Kearney was later laid to rest in Ballapousta cemetery, Ardee.
A phobail dílis Dé… Eyin ara mi ni Oluwa… My dear brothers and sisters in Christ…
We come today to pray… to give God thanks for the life of Fr Tom Kearney SMA… In doing so we also come to think and reflect on the mystery of death itself… realising its reality in the life of each of us. Life itself is a journey, a pilgrimage… with an end, a goal… to be with God. Our reflection on life and death enables us to think a little, too, on our own role as Christians and what it means for us to be followers of Jesus Christ.
St Augustine reminds us You have created us for yourself O Lord and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.
St Paul writing to the Romans, as we heard in the Second Reading, puts it another way: “Alive or dead we belong to the Lord”…
with the implication for all of us that all we are… or do… or say… is for God. The one certainty for all of us is death… What matters, in our journey to that certainty, is the quality of our life, the quality of our living.
In a very real sense, life itself, is part of the act of dying. For the Christian… life… living… is to spend oneself for God and for others – a giving, a spending of ourselves. It is in that sense that St Paul reminds the Romans, again in that Second Reading, that “the life and death of each of us has its influence on others”.
This giving of one’s life for others is central in the life of the missionary… his or her life is spent with others and for others for the sake of the Good News of Christ… their life is spent in bearing witness to Christ… lives modelled on that of Christ himself, who is the missionary par excellence, and who gave himself totally for us, culminating in his death on the Cross on Calvary.
Today we come to celebrate the life and death of one especially called to be a missionary, Fr Tom Kearney.
He was one of a family of three – Anita and Seamus and Tom – children of Patrick and Rose Kearney. And as we come to mourn and pray with Seamus and Anita we are conscious of the double heartbreak for Anita and her family with the passing to the Lord of her beloved, Aidan, last Sunday, just the day before Tom. May he rest in peace.
For Tom Kearney, life began some 20 km away at Dundalk where he was born on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, February 11th 1935. Sometime after that the family moved to Ardee. Isn’t there a touch of Divine Providence in the fact that Tom’s final journey as a missionary was back to where it all began here in Ardee? He was brought up in a genuinely Christian home, and was educated first by the Christian Brothers in Dundalk and later by the Marist Brothers there too. Tom felt drawn to serve God as a missionary priest and he came to the novitiate of the Society of African Missions at Cloughballymore (in Co Galway) in 1952 and joined the SMA, becoming a full member of the Society in 1957. He brought with him a profound interest in nature and in created things, notably bees and plants and animals, an interest that was to affect his work over the years. He completed his studies in Philosophy and Theology at Dromantine and was ordained to the priesthood along with 11 classmates by Bishop Eugene Doherty in the Cathedral of Saints Patrick and Colman in Newry on 18th June 1958. He celebrated his First Mass the next day in St Mary’s Church in Dundalk.
Four months later Tom was in Nigeria. Assigned to the Archdiocese of Lagos, he arrived there on 15th October, after a two-week voyage by sea. The ship was the MV Aureol aboard which many of our missionaries sailed to Africa over the years. Tom’s first contact with Africa was at Bathurst (the modern Banjul, capital of the Gambia) and they visited Monrovia, Liberia, and Accra, Ghana, before disembarking at Lagos.
For the next 25 years Tom was assigned to various parts of the Archdiocese. These assignments began with a short spell in the city of Ibadan where Tom immersed himself in the local culture and was introduced to the Yoruba language. For Tom, learning Yoruba was a difficult task. Yoruba is a musical or tonal language and Tom, as he would admit himself, had hardly a note in his head. However, he managed to capture the language and to speak it with great fluency without any of the normal tones and yet he could be understood perfectly and communicated very well with the people throughout his missionary life there. Tom was to serve in various parishes with beautiful names like Ajilete, Ado-Odo, Ijebu-Igbo, Iperu, Ijebu-Ode, Esure, Oru.
- When Tom first arrived in Nigeria, the country was under British colonial rule, and Tom was to see Nigeria becoming an independent nation in 1960.
- When Tom first arrived in Nigeria the hierarchy of the country was still mostly European, and Tom was to witness the transformation resulting in the hierarchy being almost entirely African by the end of his time there.
- In 1969 part of the Archdiocese of Lagos was cut off to become the Diocese of Ijebu-Ode and Tom opted to work in the new diocese under its first bishop, Rt Rev Anthony Șanusi.
Tom was in Nigeria during the traumatic Civil War of 1966-1971 and was to suffer one of the consequences of that war. When returning to Nigeria in 1978 he was deported because his name was the same as another missionary who had been expelled. Tom returned to Ireland and resolved the problem and returned to Nigeria.
When we come to Tom Kearney the missionary priest there are two aspects to his missionary work the shepherd to his people and steward of creation – the pastor and the farmer. Whatever he undertook, Tom applied himself with great dedication and commitment.
As a pastor he was very serious about the training of catechists, the teaching of catechism, the administration of the sacraments, the celebration of Mass, the running of the many outstations in his parishes. He was strict and meticulous, ensuring that everything was done correctly, and he didn’t suffer fools gladly which on occasions led to misunderstandings and conflict.
Long before it became fashionable, Tom preached a Gospel of self-reliance and care of creation, evident in his commitment to agriculture and in many other initiatives. He was appointed Director of Community Development for Lagos and represented the Archdiocese at various conferences in places like Lesotho and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. On the farming front Tom was a great man for projects – ducks, fishponds, even pig-raising. He set up a rabbit farm in the hope of providing meat for the local people at a cheap price. The farm was extensive, and commercially was a great success, and Tom, ever the man of ideas, had plans to use the rabbit fur to make scarves and shawls, and the pelts to make purses. But it all came to an end in 1974 when the Bishop appointed Tom to be his Vicar General and the farm had to give way to the pastoral. He was to continue his love of farming and gardening and being in touch with nature with the small garden, his polytunnel and his aquaponics or fish-feeding project in Wilton in his recent years since retirement. By coincidence, only yesterday, I received the latest SMA African Missionary and there on the front page is Tom pictured, inspecting his polytunnel and the heading is “I am one person who has one responsibility – make things better”. We could all be that one person. Tom was like that, a man ahead of his time…
There is a time for everything, as the First Reading reminds us: a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to be born and a time to die.
In Tom Kearney we see a man completely dedicated to the missionary task – a truly missionary priest, his priority was the spread the gospel. He engaged with everybody, not just the high and mighty, but with everyone and got on well with the people of his various parishes. This was amply demonstrated in his last parish, Oru-Ijebu, when the local king, the Oloru of Oru, conferred a chieftaincy title, the Fesinboye of Oru, on Tom in recognition of his great work among the people. I think that means the one who practices his religion faithfully is honoured.
Tom spent over 25 years in Nigeria. It would be too easy to close the chapter with that. But it is important, I think, to note that the 25 years spent in Africa were at a time of great change and development for the Church in Nigeria. To continue the agriculture analogy as outlined in the Gospel, the missionaries – priests and brothers and sisters and laity – were like the sower sowing the seeds that today are reaping the fruit. Much of the seed fell on good soil and today there is a thriving church with numerous vocations and many new parishes have grown from the initial few. In the stages of development of the Nigerian Church, the work of the Society of African Missions was made possible through the trojan efforts of missionary stalwarts like Tom… and today we must note his own personal contribution to that growth. We thank God for that achievement. We thank God for what has been done.
When he considered that he had made his contribution in Africa, he opted to come to St. John Vianney parish, in West Green in London, to work with the British Province of the SMA. There he once more endeared himself to the people, especially the young, and served there for 9 years. In 1993 he returned to Ireland and took appointments in the Archdiocese of Tuam, serving for 5 years at Granlahan and 5 years at Glenamaddy before coming to Keel on Achill Island where he spent 9 years ministering to the people there.
His life, whether in Africa or in London or in Tuam, or in Ardee or Bundoran with his family, or at Wilton, was one of influence on others. His own personal contentment, his care for and interest in people, his love of nature and gardening… are things we can remember. Perhaps the Gospel today reminds us that, though we all can make a contribution, it is God who is the Sower and the Reaper and all that we are or do or say is done for God because it is for that that we have all been called.
Today, then, we thank God for having known him… for his long life… for the influence he has been on our lives. We pray God to give him eternal peace. Perhaps it is fitting that we lay Tom to rest on this the last day of the Church’s year. As a new year dawns, we pray that Tom will rest in the arms of the God whom he served so well. We ask God to prepare us all for life in his presence for ever. The prayer of the Psalmist is a prayer for Tom and for each one of us:
“There is one thing I ask of the Lord, for this I long…
to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life…
to savour the sweetness of the Lord…
to behold his temple”.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam uasal.
Fr Tom Curran SMA