Fr. James Conlon, SMA – 50 years of priesthood
by Fr Peter McCawille SMA
Fr. Jim Conlon, SMA, a native of Cork city, is among a group of eight SMA missionaries who are celebrating the Golden Jubilee of their ordination this year. He was ordained at St. Colman’s Cathedral, Newry, Co Down on 18th June, 1952 and he set sail for Nigeria, West Africa in October to take up his first missionary appointment.
Fr. Jim was born on 15 July, 1927 into a family of three boys and three girls: the eldest, Fr. Hugh also joined the SMA, worked for many years in Nigeria and died in 1999; Sr. Mary is an OLA Sister who spent many years in Nigeria and now resides in OLA Convent, Ardfoyle, Cork city; Mrs Bernie Healy lives in Dillon’s Cross; Mrs Sadie Hayes lives in Blarney Street, and the youngest, Frankie, lives in Douglas, Cork. His father, Hugh, was a native of Waterford and his mother, Mary (née Corcoran), came from the South side of Cork city.
He completed his primary education at St. Patrick’s National School, St. Luke’s Cross and moved in 1937 to C.B.C. (‘Christians’) for his secondary education. ‘Christians’ is a famed rugby college in Cork city and down the years has produced many wonderful players who played for Ireland with distinction. Jim took an active part in all games and though he played on a Bowen Shield-winning rugby team during his time in CBC his first love was hurling.
His joining the SMA owes a great deal to the influence of his brother, Hugh. However, the first SMA he ever met was the renowned J.C. O’Flaherty, long-time editor of the SMA Magazine, whom he used meet during school hours when Jim visited his aunts’ sweet shop in MacCurtain Street. The sweet shop was just beside Sayers which dealt in antiques and paintings. J. C. O’Flaherty, frequented Sayers and became friendly with Jim’s aunts who worked next door. Towards the end of his time in ‘Christians’ Jim wrote to the SMA Novitiate in Kilcolgan, Co. Galway expressing an interest in becoming a missionary. However, they never replied and when he later wrote indicating an interest in joining the Dominicans he received his acceptance letter for the SMA immediately.
In 1945 he joined a class of fourteen at the Novitiate and spent two very enjoyable years there. He remembers in particular the influence of Fr. Peter Paul Rogers, a native of Belfast who had been appointed Spiritual Director in 1946 after a spell in Liberia and who died in March 1947.
Among Fr. Jim’s rather unusual recollections of his time in Novitiate is the day that he saw a small plane crashing into a hill near Kinvara. Jim was in a group of students out for their evening walk when they saw the plane, with three people on board struggling to negotiate the hill while it was on its way to Shannon. Though the plane was destroyed there were no injuries and he recalls that one of the propellers was later brought to the Novitiate and embedded in concrete near the boot hall.
It was the first of three plane crashes that Fr. Jim has witnessed over the years. The second took place in Ibadan during his first spell as a member of staff at the Major Seminary. He was on the third floor one day supervising a new building when three small trainer jets appeared and began doing stunts. One dived down straight over the airport and never pulled out of it. They saw it come down, heard the crash and saw the cloud of dust and smoke.
The third crash took place in Benin City on the occasion of the funeral of the Military Governor’s mother. During the funeral two Russian ‘Mig’ fighter jets did a flight past over the funeral. They climbed up again, turned and began to descend – one did not come out of the descent and crashed into a backyard. Nobody on the ground was killed but the pilots in both crashes were killed. Fr. Jim was standing only 200 yards away.
Among staff members in the Novitiate that he remembers in particular were Fr. Ned Harrington, a native of Abbeydorney, Co. Kerry who died last year, and Fr. John A. Creaven (who later became Irish Provincial and now works in Galway Diocese) who was only a few years ordained when he succeeded Fr. Harrington as a philosophy lecturer. Fr. Jim remembers with fondness Fr. Creaven’s affable and gentle nature – (‘He played football with us and there were queues outside his door for confession’). In 1947 Fr. Jim took a step closer to priesthood when he began his studies in theology at the SMA Major Seminary, Dromantine, Newry, Co. Down.
The history of Dromantine reaches back to the Middle Ages and the property was passed on to the SMA in 1926. In September 1926 Dromantine opened its doors to its first batch of SMA seminarians. The first class of priests (eleven in number) to be ordained from Dromantine were raised to the priesthood by Bishop Edward Mulhern in Newry Cathedral on 16th June 1927. From its opening in 1926 until the transfer of the seminary to St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth in 1972 a total of 587 SMA missionaries were ordained from Dromantine.
When Fr. Jim reached Dromantine College in 1947 the Superior was a West Cork man, Fr. John Cadogan. Another member of Staff was Fr Robert Molloy, SMA, a native of Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo who has been a priest for sixty-five years and now resides at the SMA House, Blackrock Road, Cork. The beautifully expansive grounds of Dromantine College provided a haven of peace and tranquillity. There was a wonderful friendly atmosphere there and plenty of opportunities to engage in a wide range of sporting, prayerful and intellectual pursuits.
Fr. Jim’s path to priesthood was somewhat disturbed when he had the misfortune to break his nose in a game of rugby during the Christmas holidays back home in Cork in 1949. He came back to Dromantine after the holidays and had treatment in the Mater Hospital in Belfast. However, he missed three weeks of lectures and he was asked to repeat the year. He spent the remaining few months back in Cork and returned to Dromantine in June for the end-of-year Retreat and to renew his temporary oath as a member of the Society of African Missions.
On completing his theological studies he was ordained to the priesthood at St. Colman’s Cathedral, Newry on 18th June, 1952 by the Bishop of Dromore, Bishop Eugene O’Doherty. The newly-ordained Fr. Jim and members of his family went back to Dromantine for lunch immediately after the ordination
After the long and exhausting journey back home from Newry after ordination he celebrated his First Mass at St. Joseph’s Church, Mayfield the following day. It was a memorable occasion for Fr. Jim and his family. In recalling the occasion he pays a special tribute to the priests in the parish. ‘I remember in particular Fr. O’Connor. We called him the parish priest even though Mayfield wasn’t a parish then. He was a very kind and generous man. He gave away everything he had to help the plight of the less fortunate. Canon Feeley saw ghosts and spirits all over the place. Canon Stritch was famous in the area for gathering up electronic equipment from the British after the war and managed to get a television going’.
Fr. Jim spent a short holiday at home with his family before setting sail for the mission fields in October 1952. The class was officially sent off at the Departure Ceremony at the African Missions, Blackrock Road in Cork city. In those days the Departure Ceremony held on 1st October, the Feast of St. Thérèse, was a memorable event and it was attended by huge crowds who gathered to say good-bye to the departing missionaries.
The first leg of Fr. Jim’s journey to Africa, the train journey from Cork to Dublin, was not without incident. ‘We hadn’t yet reached Thurles when I realized I had forgotten my passport. I got off the train at Thurles and sent a telegram home asking them to locate the passport. On reaching Dublin the Station Master had a note for me which assured me that the passport would reach Dublin on a later train for Belfast. I picked up the passport at 4.00p.m. at Connolly Station’.
The same evening they left the North Wall in Dublin for Liverpool before sailing from Liverpool on L’Oriel for West Africa, a journey which lasted two weeks. There was nobody to meet them in Lagos and Fr. Jim McAfee, SMA who had been an army chaplain managed to commandeer an army truck which brought their luggage to Services Inn where they were to spend the night. The next morning Fr. Jim, and his classmates, Fr. Eugene Casey (Kerry) and Fr. Bill Kennedy (Dublin) travelled by plane to Benin City to take up their first missionary appointments.
Fr Jim remembers vividly his arrival at Holy Cross Cathedral, Benin City where he spent the night. “I was asked to say the 9.00a.m. Mass the next morning and I was told that it was a Missa Cantata with a sermon attached. I was a bit nervous and on getting to the sacristy I met Bishop Kelly who was lending a helping hand in the sacristy. After the Mass he came to me and told me, with a glint in his eye, that it was the first time he had ever heard any priest deliver a sermon after the Creed’!! Fr. Jim spent two years in Holy Cross Cathedral with Fr. Tom Bartley, SMA.
In 1954 he was asked to move into the Minor Seminary as a temporary replacement for the Rector, Fr. Tommy Murray, SMA who had just been asked to take over as Regional Superior for the area. The Regional Superior had been asked to go home to replace Fr. John Reddington (who had just been appointed Bishop of Jos) as Vice-Provincial and Superior of Blackrock Road. Fr. Jim’s temporary appointment to the Seminary in Benin lasted for twelve years.
The Major Seminary was moved to Ibadan in 1956 and during his nine years there he spent a short time as Rector, succeeding Fr. T. J. Moran, SMA. He left the Staff of the Seminary in 1965 and spent the next year supervising the building of the students’ refectory and the library block.
In 1966 he was called home to take over as Superior of the SMA Novitiate, Kilcolgan, Co. Galway, a post he held for a short time before returning to Benin City Diocese in 1968. He worked for a short time in the Minor Seminary before taking over for a short spell as Secretary to Bishop P.J. Kelly, SMA. He also spent a few years in Holy Cross Cathedral with Fr. Jim Healy, SMA and then moved to a new station called Ugo, later built up as a full-fledged parish by Fr. Michael Boyle, SMA, before being transferred to Uromi. The parish priest in Uromi was Fr. Vincent Boyle, SMA. It was during his time in Uromi that Fr. Jim had the misfortune to encounter armed robbers one night. So upsetting was the ordeal that he travelled back to Ireland to get some much-needed rest.
Recovered the following year, he took up a fresh appointment in Sunyani Diocese in Ghana, working as Secretary to Bishop James Owusu (‘a most caring and considerate man’). It was a tense time in Ghana and he remembers the encouragement and support he received at that time from Fr. Bart McCarthy, SMA.
Fr. .Jim left Ghana in 1985 and went back to Ireland. The SMA Provincial, Fr. Con Murphy, (now in Nairobi, Kenya) asked him to take up an appointment as Spiritual Director at St. Augustine’s Seminary, Jos, Plateau State, Nigeria. He accepted to go there but he asked to pursue a few refresher courses in spirituality before going to St. Augustine’s.
In 1986 he was back in Ss. Peter and Paul Major Seminary, Ibadan as Spiritual Director, in addition to teaching the history of spirituality. Fifteen years later he is still there as the ever-steady spiritual director, nurturing the spiritual lives of eighty-seven students to whom he gives his undivided attention, meeting each of them six times a year for a half-hour interview.