Moving homily to larger than life Fr Fritz at Friary in Wexford
tHE LATE missionary priest Fr Fritz O'Kelly drew people to the Friary in Wexford town like bees to honey,' Fr James McCurry, the Minister Provincial of the Greyfriars told the congregation at his funeral mass last week.
'Fritz O'Kelly in this County Wexford "swept o'er the land like a mighty wave."
'The man would become a magnet drawing people to the Friary and the Church like bees to honey,' Fr James said in a homily to his late friend and colleague who died earlier this month at the age of 90.
'Today all Wexford grieves his loss, as do his fellow Friars, and his beloved family. At the same time we give praise to God for his love of us all - larger than life - supernatural and now eternal.'
Fr James said most of those in the Friary to attend the mass, where the late priest lay in a woven grass basket in memory of his days in Africa, had their own Fr Fritz stories and they were many and varied.
'They will be retold and embellished in your families for years to come. I myself first came to know Fr. Fritz 30 years ago on our own private and ne'er to be forgotten journey by car from Dublin to Cork.
'Fritz drove on the Irish roads as if he were still in Zambia. The steam was coming out of my beads! He sang half the way, and talked the other half. I sat on the edge of my seat in gobsmacked amazement.'
Fr James said nearly 10 years had passed 'since a scraggy-bearded missionary named Fritz O'Kelly, in his threadbare grey habit, moved home to Ireland from a strange village in Zambia named Mwinilunga.'
He said his religious order, the Franciscan Friars Conventual, had been invited to return to Wexford at the very site which these same Greyfriars had first established around the year 1240.
'Little did the folks of Wexford know the impact that this epic character named "Father Fritz" would have on the town of Father Murphy and the pikemen rebels of 1798.
'Indeed, 'tis no exaggeration to state that this long-haired friar was a new "rebel hand [who] set the heather blazing and brought the neighbours from far and near",' said Fr James.
He said during his meetings with Fr Fritz, he gave him a snapshot of his life.
'He talked of his family, his German mother Olga who converted from Lutheranism to the Catholic faith at age 17; his Irish father Jeremiah, an executive for the Great Western Railway.
'He talked of his teenage years during World War II and how he interpreted and played football in the Curragh with the 168 interned German sailors rescued from.. the Bay of Biscay.
'He even told me how later he tried to join the Luftwaffe, the German air force - he ever the rebel who recoiled against an alliance with the English! The Luftwaffe said "no"; Fritz opined that he could have helped them lose the war sooner!'
'Fritz O'Kelly would never get tongue-tied. He became the friar of the golden gob. I think we can say of Fr. Fritz O'Kelly that whenever he told a story, it was either true or really true!'
Fr James said Fr Fritz's life on the missions was unbelievably difficult.
'Fritz the hearty Corkman nearly starved to death. I shudder to think that he actually ate "rat" sandwiches, heads and all. Even worse, he and his fellow friars, especially in those early years, were constantly combatting paganism and violence at every turn.
'Fritz lost count of how many times he was beaten, robbed, and threatened. My blood still curdles when I think of his stories about all the moving coffins he witnessed,' said Fr James.
'It should be no surprise, then, that the hardship of life in the missions drove Fritz to drink - his recovery from which would be one of those remarkable "amazing grace" experiences which Fr. Fritz could and would use afterwards to help hundreds, if not thousands, of people caught in the grip of human weakness.
'Over the past 30 years of his sobriety, Fritz would often testify that he had become an incorrigible alcoholic during the earlier years of his missionary life. And the more transmoglified Fritz became, the more moving coffins he saw!'
Fr James said the miracle of his recovery from alcoholism began in the 1980s, when his nephew Billy invited Fritz to go on pilgrimage to Medjugorje. Fritz went. 'He did not see the miracle of the dancing sun or whirling moon, but was given a greater miracle - a surprise gift that he neither sought, wanted, or expected.
'Upon Fritz's return from Medjugorje to Ireland, an order from his religious superiors awaited him, with the news that he must go to an alcoholism treatment program in Gloucestershire. Obediently he went. 'One year later he was a transformed man.
'He returned to Zambia and founded AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), which is now spread widely through the land. Fritz would maintain his sobriety for the next three decades by importing Barry's Tea to the Zambian copper belt and later consuming gallons of it in the Wexford friary.'
'Into his priestly and Franciscan ministry, Fritz infused one special extra ingredient: humour. He was ever the man of the razor-sharp wit and quick riposte. You'd ask him how he felt, and he'd reply with a twinkle of the eye: "Terrible, thank God."
'How did Fritz keep up his humour. I have my own theory: Barry's Tea! Oh did Fritz love his tea - Barry's gold - two bags to every cup - strong enough to trot a mouse across,' said Fr James.
'One day he went to the doctor, and told the doctor that every time he drank his tea he got a stabbing pain in his eye.
'The doctor told him, "Fritz, take the spoon out of the cup!" 'I told you: Fritz's stories were either true or really true!'