Thursday 22 August 2019

Mission accomplished

Fr Sean Devereux with parishioners in The Gambia.
Fr Sean Devereux with parishioners in The Gambia.
Fr Sean Devereux worknig on a buildnig in The Gambia funded by Wexford people.
Fr Sean Devereux, back home in Wexford last week.

By david looby

FR Sean Deveuereux has returned to County Wexford to take up ministry in Cushinstown having spent 14 years in Africa helping to develop schools and communities there, while learning to appreciate the continent's complexity.

Fr Sean takes up his new position as parish priest of Cushinstown, Rathgarogue and Terrerath on August 9 and he is excited about the prospect of working with the lay communities in these areas.

Today Fr Sean, 51, has a fresh lease of life having recovered from a very serious bout of malaria, which saw him medevaced out of Africa to Ireland in February 2010. He said: 'I don't remember anything about that period. The last thing I remember was being put in an ambulance in The Gambia. I was very, very ill. My sister said the night I was brought in, the doctor told my family that I was the sickest man in Beaumont.'

Within six days he awoke and his recovery took one year. He served at Clonard church before returning to The Gambia in 2011.

'I know that people here in Wexford and in The Gambia were praying for me. The illness changed my thinking. It has led me to practise mindfulness. I thank God at the beginning and at the end of every day. I still get tried in the afternoons and the illness had a big impact on my liver.'

Fr Sean first came to be in The Gambia through a visit to see his cousin Sr. Philomena Barry and he immediately fell for the country. Before beginning his ministerial work in The Gambia, he worked in Bride Street Church for two years and in Cleariestown for eight years, along with serving in St. Peter's College and Poulfur. Having worked in the Christian Media Trust, he asked the then Bishop Brendan Comiskey for leave to work in The Gambia.

'Bishop Comiskey gave me one year's leave to go to The Gambia. I had training in radio and in journalism and Bishop Michael Cleary, who was very involved in the country, was interested in setting up a social commentary centre which would involve radio, television and print. I based the centre on my experience of what we had here.' Fr Sean said it was an interesting time to be in The Gambia, as the first television station had only just opened.

'Everything was very new so we all ended up pooling our resources. I had no knowledge of TV or putting together and editing pieces in a studio. The country is 97 per cent Muslim.'

With a population of 1.8 million, most of whom are Muslims, Fr Sean said he was always treated as an equal and made to feel welcome by the selfless and friendly people of The Gambia.

Fr Sean worked with his Muslim colleagues in a communications unit with the Diocese of Banjul. He led a team of people, training them in various media skills and in recent years the country's university has developed a journalism course. He was involved in a Catholic newspaper which had a copy run of up to 20,000 editions and the media centre's radio station had a very high listenership.

'Many people couldn't read so listening was more important. We broadcast programmes in various languages.'

He quickly learnt how well respected Irish people were in The Gambia, largely due to the work of priests, nuns and lay volunteers who had helped establish a Catholic education system there.

'It was a system that invited all people into the schools and the classrooms.'

They also worked on health, agriculture and horticultural development.

'Irish people were at the coalface of many things. This was at a time when The Gambia was rated one of the poorest countries in the world. Unemployment was very high and the roads were in a poor condition.' Fr Sean was appointed parish priest of a new parish and a church was built in a large sand yard.

'Beacuse of the work of Irish missions and of Bishop Cleary the relationship with the Islamic community in Gambia was amazing. I never, ever had any animosity or criticism. We worked together as brothers and sisters for the purpose of creating a better life for people. It was a real joy to work there. Within many families you would have both Christians and Muslims which helped to break down mistrust.'

Fr Sean said there is a constant fear in Africa of youths being radicalised.

'Islam preaches peace and forgiveness, (not violence).'

One of the most difficult aspects of life in The Gambia for Fr Sean was the high infant mortality rate, while the life expectancy is just 58 years old.

'Children were dying in villages because they didn't have access to paracetamol to lower their temperature and they didn't have access to basic medicine. That is very painful. I met many children who would get malaria and they didn't have €5 to buy medicine. One of the most difficult things for me was trying to make sense of the awful poverty the people had to live in and the terrible conditions they endure, especially at this time of year, which is rainy season there. You see the people suffering tremendously and then you come home and you are trying to balance the two and you can't, but then since 2009 there has been terrible suffering going on here.' He said some children only eat every two or three days and this leads to the high mortality rate.

From 2011 he worked in Our Lady of Fatima Bwiam covering an area the size of County Wexford.

He had eight stations to attend to celebrate mass. 'We would celebrate mass in people's yards and under a tree. We had a very full ministry and we managed to say mass on weekends. The key to it was the lay people. In every community you had two or three lay people who were key in running the place and leading services and preparing children for baptism.'

After his bout of malaria, he felt the time was right to return to The Gambia, but after four more years he is happy to be back in County Wexford.

'I am really driven and I am excited about getting back into work.'

He plans to reach out and listen to his new parishoners as he steps into the shoes formerly filled by Fr Odhran Furlong and Fr Martin Doyle.

'When I was ordained there were three priests there. We still have the same number of churches and communities like to have their own priests so we have to manage that.'

From a small village like Tacumshamne, which lost its priest, Fr Sean said he is acutely aware of the impact this can have on a community.

'Tacumshane was one of the first places to lose a curate. The reality is that the church is not the priest and the parish is not the priest. The parish is the people. The Vatican Council spoke about the people of God and we've forgotten a little bit about the church being for the people of God.'

He said a strategic plan is needed in the diocese due to the ever reducing number of priests and their age profile.

'We need to up it a gear and face the reality. I have no doubt that we will do it.'

Fr Sean said Gorey Community School and Kiltealy school raised a lot of money for a new school in The Gambia, which cost €80,000, while New Ross Credit Union and Westgate Design raised a lot of money for education in the country. He thanked Joe Ryan from Campile for helping to build a nursery school.

'The 14 years experience has certainly helped me to grow a lot. People would sometimes say "you might as well be a development worker" but I see that as part of living out the church's social teaching. Peope asked why did we run a new school for 1,200 kids who were all Muslims but you are doing it because you are giving the children and the village a source of working towards their own development and starting them on the path to education.'

Looking out the window at the rain pouring down on Thursday, Fr Sean said: 'One of the things coming back is the climate. It was sub tropical and now I'm having to get used to the cold.'

Gorey Community School send some of their Transition Year students to The Gambia each year for 10-12 days and the funding Fr. Sean receives goes towards sponsoring kids and young people in mainstream education.

Wexford People

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