October 4 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print

8-fr-terry

Priest who served on the missions reveals tale of being shot at

As we begin the Extraordinary Month of Mission called by Pope Francis, Spiritan priest Fr Terry Donnelly tells Missio Scotland’s Gerard Gough about his time in conflict-hit Sierra Leone and how he survived an assassination attempt.

A century ago, Pope Benedict XV released the encyclical Maximum Illud, which called on Catholics to bring the Good News to all peoples. To commemorate this anniversary, Pope Francis declared October 2019 to be an Extraordinary Month of Mission (EMM), a special period of prayer and action calling on us to renew our missionary commitment.

It’s no surprise that the term ‘extraordinary’ is used, because many of our missionaries who have travelled from Scotland to work in mission countries and territories are extraordinary people who have often led extraordinary lives. Have you heard the one about the priest who was a captain in Sierra Leone’s Navy and who survived an assassination attempt? Well you’re about to!

Spiritan Fr Terry Donnelly grew up in Barrhead along with two younger sisters, Margaret Mary and Susan, in a traditional Catholic household, but with their father having been born in India and serving in the Navy, they were given an early insight into a world far beyond the confines of East Renfrewshire.

Adventure

“Our sense of adventure probably came from our father who was in the Navy,” Fr Terry said. “He grew up in Bombay [now Mumbai], India, and toured the world, so we were always hearing stories about different places. It’s no surprise I ended up working as a missionary, but my sister Margaret Mary—who still lives in Barrhead—went off to northern Ghana to start a school, while my other sister, Susan, went to Mauritius to start a school too.”

While this sense of the wider world played a sizeable role in Fr Terry’s decision to serve on the missions, it was that bedrock of Faith in the family, a personal connection with the Spiritans themselves and some inspirational Faith figures that were pivotal in discerning his vocation.

“Growing up in Barrhead, there was Canon Troy who was a lovely character and a holy man who set a really good example,” Fr Terry recalled. “Fr Benny O’Keefe was another such character and even back then I thought ‘I want to be like these guys.’

“I had the notion of priesthood from an early age and knew of the Holy Ghost Fathers, because their seminary was in the Lake District near Barrow-in-Furness and we used to go down that way as kids as we had family there.

“I was inspired by our founders too. Our original founder, Claude Poullart des Places, at 23 was the youngest founder in the Church. He was only a student himself in the seminary and yet founded his own congregation. He was guided by his spiritual director, Louis de Montfort, who founded the Montfort Fathers. Poullart des Places founded a seminary in which there were no fees charged. Although he died when he was 30, having only been a priest for one year, his dream didn’t die.

God’s love

“He was succeeded after the French Revolution by Francis Libermann who had been a Jewish Rabbi. Interestingly, Libermann’s rules and guidelines for mission, written in the 1840s, are almost word for word Vatican II’s document on mission. Don’t go and tell people God loves them, particularly ex-slaves we started with in Sierra Leone; go and show them God’s love. Live among them and work with them.

“I have a great regard too for Jacques-Désiré Laval, who was Libermann’s first recruit and went to Mauritius and worked among the slaves. He was a doctor and priest. He is known as the ‘Apostle of Mauritius.’ He was a great unifier of society and it’s those kind of examples that really inspire me.

“And for me that’s what vocation is, feeling called to do something for others and doing it to the best of your ability. Contributing something to the community using whatever skills and gifts you have.”

Culture shock

Fr Terry’s skills and gifts were put to the test not long after he was ordained when the Spiritans sent him to Sierra Leone in West Africa in 1972, a country he would call home for the next 23 years, and while he found the people warm and welcoming—especially to missionaries—the environment proved a bit of a culture shock at first.

“I didn’t know a lot about the place,” he said. “I tried to garner what information I could about the country, but there was no Google back then! I had a bit of information from my father who was based there for two years.

“There had been Spiritan Fathers from the British province there, but they’d left in 1968—they were elderly and had come home. So in 1972, I was the first Brit to go back in as it was all Irishmen.

“My first impression of life on the missions was that it was different. I can still remember getting off the plane at 6am and stepping onto the tarmac and the heat hitting me and wondering if I could stand it.

“I also remember the stench of rotten fruit as we went through the market and thinking ‘I don’t think I can stick this, this isn’t for me. But two years later, I’d adjusted to the smells and the heat.

New mission

“I remember getting very good advice from an old priest when I went to Sierra Leone. He said: ‘For the first year, keep your eyes, your ears and your bowels open and your mouth shut!’ It was interesting culturally in Sierra Leone. You go into a place, a new mission, but for the first year you’d get little co-operation, they’d be polite, they’d listen to you and work with you but they’d be sizing you up. And then they’d come and they’d say, ‘Right we realise you are here for us and not for your own advantage. Now what do you want us to do?’

“I went to an island mission territory there and they’d previously been served by a native priest put there by the diocese after we’d handed it over to them. Sadly, he only lasted nine months. His morals were off the chart. He had sold most of the possessions in the mission house, so I had gone into a bare property.

“The people went to the archbishop and asked for the missionaries to be sent back to them. So I inherited this and I could see that they were wary, having had to deal with my predecessor and it was a struggle at first. Then, after about nine months, a big delegation of elders came to meet us. They sat down and said ‘we’ve decided we like you!’ I said ‘oh thank you.’ Then they asked what needed to be done and after that it was plain sailing.

“The Sierra Leoneans were very welcoming and it was they who helped me to acclimatise and settle in and make it a very positive experience.”

Legacy

The Spiritans’ legacy in Sierra Leone, and elsewhere, is marked by development and an increase in the standard of education, which is all the more impressive given the conditions that priests like Fr Terry have had to work in.

Sierra Leone suffered years of corrupt government, coupled with a military coup and a civil war. Missionaries are often looked to in troubled countries during times of conflict to provide leadership and, at times, help resolve the situation, which often means putting their lives at risk and this was literally the case for Fr Terry.

“They started up a Navy after Britain had given them two gunboats, but they had no idea about navigation,” he said.

“However, they knew, from my time in the island mission that I went up and down the rivers and the creeks all the time, so I got roped in as the instructor/navigator/chaplain to the Navy and then found myself being promoted to captain.

“That was interesting, especially during the war, some of the situations you were called into. I remember one day, the men let me know the night before that they wanted to go out for training the next day and I told them I’d be free after Mass. So I had 7am Mass, then had my breakfast and went down and they were loading this thing up with ammunition and I said: What are you doing lads?’ And they said they were ‘going out to tackle the rebels.’ I thought it was to be a training exercise, so I said: ‘I’m a man of peace.’ They replied: ‘Don’t worry father, no problem, you drive, we shoot!”

Assassination attempt

However, when Fr Terry was appointed to investigate governmental corruption, he found himself in the firing line. “One of the government ministers that I was investigating—who was a Catholic as it happens—hired an assassin to kill me,” he explained. “The hitman emptied his AK-47, but not one bullet hit me. An AK-47 kicks back as soon as you pull the trigger, you see, so if he had aimed at my feet, he would have probably got my body, but he aimed for my body and my head. So I had bullets flying past my ears.

“The assassin was then tackled, arrested and taken to our clinic to be patched up. After that incident I was told I needed a bodyguard. Originally they’d assigned me between six and eight presidential guards but I couldn’t live with having that many guys walking around everywhere with me so we agreed on just one. And lo and behold, who was the bodyguard assigned to me? My would-be assassin!

“He was a Muslim man as it happened by the name of Mohammed. They had told him of his new role inside the military prison and warned him not to let any harm come to me. He slept outside the mission house every night and if I was called out to a sick call he’d be there. He’d be there with the holy oils if I had to anoint someone. He was the best altar boy I ever had at the end of the day. He actually heard about two other assassination attempts and we caught them before they ever got near.”

Ceasefire

Diplomacy and conflict resolution is far from simple, however, and as Fr Terry explained, it can backfire tragically.

Fr Terry said: “During the civil war, the Church had helped to negotiate a ceasefire and elections.

“In Sierra Leone, the way elections are conducted is that various parties—including the rebels—would put their name up on the list of candidates and people would vote for whatever party they wanted.

“We managed to convince the rebels that if they were truly fighting for the rights of the people then they’d vote for them, but they got no seats. So they came back with a vengeance and they’d go into a village and ask people which hand they’d used to vote, and when they said which one they’d chop it off. Then they started getting the kids to chop the parents’ hands off. It was horrible. They became child soldiers and we ended up involved with their rehabilitation.”

Cologne Diocese

Mercifully, for Fr Terry and fellow missionaries, sometimes sources of conflict were far less serious. He recalls one incident where he was captain of another ship that was fiercely guarded by its crew.

“I had a boat when I arrived on the island,” he said. “We’d gotten it as a gift from the Diocese of Cologne and people would say: ‘Father’s rich he has a boat,’ and I would say: ‘It’s not my boat it’s your boat!’

Some months later, someone wanted to borrow the boat and I said: ‘No problem.’ He came back and said: ‘You need to go down and talk to those kids, they’re messing around on the boat and won’t give it to us. So I went down and I said to the kids: ‘What’s the problem?’ ‘They’re trying to steal our boat,’ they replied and the adults countered: ‘No it’s father’s boat.’ I said: ‘They’re right, you’ll need to ask them!’

“Later on, during the war, the Navy wanted to take it one day and spoke to me about it and I said the same thing: ‘You’d better ask the kids!’

“The kids actually took great pride in that boat. They couldn’t start the engine as it was too heavy for them but it was kept clean, it was cared for, they could paddle it out to the bay and go fishing or whatever and when I went away for a few days, they’d all pile in—with their parents’ permission of course. I’d tell them where I was going and they’d say: ‘Oh I’ve an auntie or a granny who lives there.’ I’d have about 10 kids in the boat and they’d all pile in and out.”

Next mission

Fr Terry’s missionary work didn’t end when he left Sierra Leone though. Upon his return to the UK in the mid-1990s, he was posted to London where he was initially charged with fundraising for the province, before helping to set up a project that would leave a lasting legacy of care.

“The project is called Kairos Community Trust, which aims to help addicts and alcoholics. It is quite a successful programme,” he said. “I went in there in 1998 as finance manager. I was there for five or six years, before we handed over to lay staff. For me its big success is that a good number of the staff are former addicts or alcoholics.

“To see them now sharing their gifts and experiences is great.”

Now back home, Fr Terry has become even more aware of the need to support missionaries abroad and, in particular, the work of Missio Scotland.

“We always have to go back to the Gospel and go out and share the Good News with the world,” Fr Terry said.

God’s love

“And we do that in a very practical way. There’s little point in going and telling people God loves them if they are starving or suffering or in poor health, but if you can go and show that love of God in a practical way, by caring for them, bringing

education to them so they can develop themselves, bringing better access to healthcare, teaching others so that they can then support themselves and so on, it makes a real difference.

“Missio Scotland does tremendous work, especially with the Church side of the development. It’s often easy in the missions to get money to build a school, a hospital, to do this and that, but it’s not always so easy to get money for pastoral needs and that’s why we rely on a charity like Missio, not just for the social side of things, but the pastoral too, so it’s important that everyone supports the work of Missio Scotland.”

To support Missio Scotland during this month of Extraordinary Mission, visit www.missioscotland.com, www.fb.com/missioscotland, follow @Missio_Scotland on Twitter, telephone 01236 449774, or sond donations to Missio Scotland, St Andrews, 4 Laird Street, Coatbridge, North Lanarkshire ML5 3LJ

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