I got an ‘alarm clock’ call before half six on the morning of Friday June, 4, 2010. I was in Lourdes with the Cloyne Diocesan Pilgrimage since the previous Tuesday — I had come in 2007 so this was my ‘4-in-a-row’ trip. We had an early start that Friday morning with Mass at the Grotto at half eight and were to be ‘on duty’ at 7am at the Hospital where our Assisted Pilgrims were staying.
In truth I’d slept little that Thursday night — there’s a line somewhere in the Bible about Jesus ‘pondering things over in his heart’ and that’s how I was feeling after that fateful Thursday.
On the Thursday morning Sean Barry, a fellow Brancardier (Lourdes voluntary helper), said that a lady staying in the Hospital wanted to meet me. After the Stations of The Cross that afternoon I made my way to her room. I told her who I was and she said to sit on the bedside.
A lady in her late 80s, she told me her name was Eily Prendergast from Conna, a retired nurse. She went on to explain that on September 7, 1961, she was on duty in St Stephen’s Hospital in Glanmire when my father dan had died. I was stunned and burst into tears as she explained that she was with my dad when he had died. It was stunning that, here in Lourdes, 49 years after his death, I should meet this wonderful lady. We became great friends and remained so til the day she died last February.
You can understand now why I didn’t sleep much that Thursday night ‘pondering things over in my heart’.
At a Mass in Lourdes you might have 1,000 people, sometimes at a Grotto mass you might have treble that. When Communion is being distributed to the throng maybe a dozen priests assist. Each is accompanied by a Brancardier who holds a white umbrella over the priest’s head.
The umbrella has three functions: it can stave off the excesses of heat or rain, and thirdly indicates to the vast crowd just where to queue to receive.
That June morning I was assigned to an oldish priest — or so I thought — with a slightly unusual accent. I quickly realised this ‘oldish priest’ was in fact a retired Bishop. Padraig O Donoghue, retired from England, was now helping out in a West Cork parish. He had accompanied our Cloyne clergy to Lourdes. Each year for the next eight or nine years Bishop O’Donoghue came with us and became an integral and most welcome part of our Pilgrimage.
Humility is a virtue and Padraig had it in spades. Maybe some time onin the future the question will be asked ‘What former Irish Post Office Clerk and English Bishop played Hurling with Donegal?’.
What a man, what a story. To quote the Bible again, ‘the stone which the builders rejected has become the corner stone’. In telling us in Lourdes of his younger days, Padraig never said he felt totally ‘rejected’ when told at 23 he was too old to become a priest in the Diocese of Cloyne, but it must have certainly have been a setback.
Born in Mourneabbey, as a teenager he had joined the Post Office. While working in Leterkenny he donned the County Hurling jersey in the Ulster Championship! Transferred down to Cobh in East Cork he joined the GAA club there. While in the harbour town his thoughts turned to the priesthood and, despite his initial disappointment, he persisted. He went to England and pursued his clerical studies.
In 1967, he was ordained a priest for Westminster Archdiocese.
Even at 33 years, the hand of history was on this holy man. Having spent 40 years in Westminster and then as Bishop of Lancaster for eight years, Bishop Padraig retired in 2009 and came to serve in Bantry Parish.
In Lourdes, Bishop Padraig O’Donoghue was a wonderful friend to so many. He led ceremonies for us in the absence of a Bishop and later, along with Bishop William Crean, added so much to our experience there. He was a lovely preacher, no hi falutin stuff above our heads, just down to earth Christianity.
We learned later about the decades of work he did with emigrants, the poor and the homeless but in Lourdes he was just one of us and we were so glad to get to know him.
He told me of his love of the GAA, his native Clyda Rovers and his grá for the Irish language — it was lovely to hear him ‘give out’ the Rosary as Gaeilge with a tinge of an English/ Scottish brogue.
In 2011 he spoke of his pride in Ray Carey and Paudie Kissane being on the Cork All Ireland winning football team. He exuded joy and peace and three or four of our Brancardiers became very special friends to him on our trips. He cared for us all but those who helped him as human frailty crept up were very close to him. I know, talking to these lads this week, they are sad but so happy to have helped a very special man. He had met Popes, Presidents, Kings, Mother Teresa and so many other global leaders and dignitaries, yet he was at home with us each June in Lourdes, so happy to be there.
Lourdes in June is usually a teeming place with tens of thousands of pilgrims from the four corners of the world. An amazing place because despite the crowded throngs and obvious suffering, peace and love still envelopes the Domain.
Sister Marie Thérèse O Connell was similar. She had connections with Mallow, Kilworth and Cork. In 1958, she took a summer job working in a souvenir shop in Lourdes. She entered the Poor Clare convent in Lourdes and never went home.
Padraig’s vocation was to go out, preach the Good News and minister to the poor. Marie Thérèse chose the contemplative life of prayer. Both are Saints, in my opinion.
Sister Marie Therese died in 2015 and is buried in the community cemetery just near the bridge in Lourdes. Each year from 2016 to 2019 a group of us would visit the cemetery on our Pilgrimage and Bishop Padraig accompanied us. It was easier for him in the last few years to ‘take a spin’ in a wheelchair on this trip. To access the burial ground one has to go down 20 steps. We lifted the wheelchair down the steps and Bishop Padraig led us in prayer. Yards away, thousands noisily walked across the bridge but the cemetery was an oasis of quiet and heaven-like peace. Here Padraig O Donoghue was in rapture. He often lingered in silence by the graveside when the prayers and hymns were over.
On one occasion the plane returning with Assisted Pilgrims was grounded in Tarbes Airport for over three hours. No-one could disembark and it was a claustrophobic and somewhat frightening time. The voice of Bishop Padraig came over the plane’s tannoy system reassuring everyone that all would be well, and it was.
Bishop Padraig O Donoghue died last weekend. His death notice read: ‘Bishop Padraig, late of Garrynagearagh, Mourneabbey’ — Garrynagearagh is oft translated from Irish as Gairdin na gCaorach, the Garden of the Sheep. That’s where Padraig began his life, a great pastor who truly cared for his flock. May God Bless you and keep you and thanks for so many great memories. We were the lucky people to have met you Bishop Padraig.