Fr Gerry (90) on Dan O’Rourke, memories of Roscommon… and saying Mass with the Pope!

‘Phelim Murray hit me in a practice game and I’m still sore from it!’

Fr. Gerry O’Rourke isn’t that keen on shaking hands, but it’s not because he’s unfriendly. On the contrary, he’s very friendly, good-humoured and charismatic. These days he prefers to greet people by pressing a fist gently against the other person’s fist; it’s easier on his hands, which have caused him a lot of pain due to his receiving too much chemotherapy after being diagnosed with cancer a decade ago.

  He was cured of the cancer, but the excessive chemotherapy has left him with fairly constant pain in his hands and feet. He’s philosophical about that, and confirms that he can blot out the pain when he’s engaged with people, which is how he appears to live much of his fascinating life.  

  We meet in Roscommon town, where Fr. Gerry is staying with a relation while on holiday in Ireland. He recently celebrated both his 90th birthday and 65 years in the priesthood. It has been no ordinary life; he has a highly distinguished ‘body of work’ behind him, details of which slowly emerge during a very enjoyable afternoon spent in his company.

  He is in remarkable shape; still full of energy and passion for what he does. He is a very fine and frequently self-deprecating conversationalist.

  Fr. Gerry has lived most of his life in America and is a highly-regarded figure within the Catholic Church, where his tireless and innovative work across a range of areas – and in a number of countries – has marked him out as a leadership figure with the common touch.

  Born in Ballyfarnon, Co. Roscommon on May 27th 1925, he spent most of his youth in Abbey Street in Roscommon town.

  He was the eldest of the eight children of Denis and Elizabeth-Jane (‘Tilly’) O’Rourke. His mother, known to everyone as Tilly (nee McLoughlin), was a native of Arigna. Her father had been a teacher and so was her husband (Fr. Gerry’s dad). While Fr. Gerry was born in Ballyfarnon, the family moved to Wexford when his dad got a teaching job there. When Fr. Gerry was five years of age his father began teaching in Derrane – and that’s when the O’Rourke family moved into a house in Abbey Street in Roscommon town.

  “I have very happy memories of growing up in Roscommon town. Our house was near where the tax office is now. I went to the De La Salle College. I enjoyed school in Roscommon; I particularly recall Brother Augustine, who was a great teacher and a great human being.

  “We were a very political family. My uncle was Dan O’Rourke (of political and GAA renown) and my father went on to become a Fianna Fail councillor after he finished teaching. Uncle Dan was a long-time Fianna Fail TD and indeed a founding member of the party. He was a wonderful man, a great speaker and a great leader. He went on to become President of the GAA.”

  Fr. Gerry loved playing gaelic football and remembers the greats of the era.

  While he was good enough to feature in a few challenge games for Roscommon seniors, he plays down his own prowess and prefers to marvel at the giants of the game he had the privilege of encountering.

  “I was certainly very much into football. Later in Summerhill College I captained the school team and I was ‘house captain’ in Maynooth. In Roscommon, I played for Coman’s. I remember being selected to play for Roscommon in challenge games against Offaly, Westmeath and Sligo.

  “There were great players around. Phelim Murray hit me in one practice game and I’m still sore from it! I played at left full-back and I would haunt you!”

  He recalls Jimmy and Phelim Murray, Eamonn Boland, Bill Carlos, Brendan Lynch, Donal Keenan and all the great players of the era, many of whom went on to claim the Sam Maguire Cup with Roscommon.

  Away from football, the young Gerry O’Rourke won a scholarship to Summerhill College in Sligo. It was there that, inspired by a talk from a visiting priest, he realised he had a vocation and would study for the priesthood. He attended Maynooth, “with six guys from Elphin” being among his classmates. Peers included Fr. Pat Brady, Fr. Bobby Jones, Fr. John Joe Hanley and Fr. Paddy Murray, brother of the great Jimmy Murray in Knockcroghery.

  He was ordained in 1950 and, with a surplus of priests in Ireland, accepted an invitation to begin his pastoral work in Wisconsin in America.

  “It was a tough assignment. They were having the worst winter ever there when I arrived (in 1950).”

  It was the time of The Korean War. At ‘Fort McCoy’ in Wisconsin, up to 100,000 men were being prepared for joining the war. Fr. O’Rourke recalls that there were a number of young Irishmen amongst them. “One died of exposure at Fort McCoy” he recalls.

  After a number of years in America, Fr. O’Rourke returned to Ireland and was appointed to Fairymount in West Roscommon in 1959. He became very involved in the local community, and was one of the founders of Western Gaels GAA Club. Around this time he helped train the Roscommon minor footballers and recalls driving the then 14-year-old Dermot Earley to his first minor games with Roscommon.

  “He was magnificent” Fr. Gerry says of the late, great football star.

  In the mid-1960s Fr. O’Rourke responded to an appeal by Pope John XXIII for priests to go to South America to work as missionaries. He quickly found himself “on an amazing adventure” in Sao Paulo in Brazil. He was there for four years in all, but “wasn’t able to master Portuguese” and so began a new chapter in his life, representing the St Patrick’s Missionaries on trips to the USA and Europe.

  He was later appointed to New Jersey and has now spent a number of decades in the USA. Over the years, he has been engaged in a range of impressive projects, heading up many of them, all aimed at making life better for people.

  In particular, this man, who places enormous emphasis on the role and power of forgiveness in our lives, has done remarkable work on seeking to help and reconcile people of different faiths and backgrounds across the world – frequently in war-torn areas.  In 1983, the Mastery Foundation was established. It’s a non-profit, volunteer, interfaith organisation. With the Foundation, Fr. O’Rourke led annual peacemaking workshops on this island for over a decade.

  “We’ve gone to Ireland for many years – we’ve also gone to Israel – and we work with people who have been suppressed by religious breakdown and persecutions.”

  In the early years of their engagement in Ireland, Fr. O’Rourke and colleagues from the Mastery Foundation often met with clergymen from The North who were “on a death-list.” Talks and courses were held in secret. They also engaged with prisoners and former prisoners, and of course with community leaders. It was and remains a relatively little-publicised but hugely important part of the process of reconciliation.

  In places like Northern Ireland, people, he notes, are now ‘fighting’ on political, rather than religious grounds – “that’s a breakthrough.”

  Also in the 1980s, Fr. O’Rourke was appointed to head up a renewal-centred campaign in the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

  “We wanted people, regardless of their role in life, to take the spirit of the Gospel and continue that spirit of renewal throughout life…it allowed people to listen to the Gospel in a new way.”

  Then – and now – he enthuses about forgiveness. Continued from previous page –>  He speaks with passion about it, saying “forgiveness opens everything up.”

  He says that forgiveness has nothing to do with condoning the evil that has happened to a given person; “if you are willing to forgive your perpetrator totally, if you are willing to let go of the barriers and forgive unconditionally, you will be healed…and there will be an opening for a miracle in your life.”

  He adds: “If you’re into leadership, you need to be a master of forgiveness,” and cites Nelson Mandela as an example.

  Fr. O’Rourke has served as Director of Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. He was involved in the formation of the United Religions Initiative in the early 1990s; “we’re in about ninety countries now…we try to bring peace and harmony to people of different religions.”

  He accepts that there’s a vocations crisis within the Church but adds that “I’m a full-time priest and there should be part-time and ‘weekend’ priests.” He elaborates by saying that there are many married priests in the Church and gives the distinct impression that he is open to further flexibility in this area that could help solve the vocations decline.

  Fr. O’Rourke is a remarkable man and one who is very proud of his Roscommon roots. He returns to Roscommon almost every year; on this latest visit he enthused about what he has seen. 

  “Roscommon is great; it’s wonderful to see the vibrancy here. By any international standards, the Sacred Heart Church is beautiful. It is outstanding. The Church is kept beautifully. It’s also clear to me that Roscommon is in a very bright place. The people clearly love their homes.”

  The town has changed a lot since his childhood. He was here during the second World War. He recalls that there was a prison and a jail across from his family house in Abbey Street and that the people had experienced a lot of oppression.

  Having spoken at some length, but only due to my prompting, about his work in the USA, he’s in his element now chatting about Roscommon town in the 1930s and ‘40s.

  The names – of families and friends – come easily to him.

  He recalls being a classmate of Seamus Duke (the late father of the journalist Seamus Duke) in Summerhill College, and of Oliver McDonagh and John Francis McCourt in Roscommon.

  He’s only starting…

  “There was the Cotters…and the Somers family, and the Kennedys, the Burkes…Vincent Coleman. The Gannons, the McDermott’s, the Simons’, the McGuinness’, the O’Donnells.”

  On Monday, 23rd of November, Fr. O’Rourke will concelebrate Mass with Pope Francis in Rome. He says it’s “an unbelievable honour” to have received the invitation and describes the ‘new Pope’ as “a huge gift to the world.”

  He also met Pope John Paul II, “a wonderful, very personable man.”

  A few hours have passed, and it would be easy to continue talking to Fr. O’Rourke for the rest of the day. I am under no illusions that we have probably only glimpsed into his fascinating life and times.

  Now, in his 91st year, he is working away, at home and abroad. He reads a lot, emails a lot, and “does Skype”. Home is now at the St. Catherine of Siena Church in Burlingame in California, where his colleagues are a priest from Nigeria and a priest from Tipperary.    

  So, how does he keep so fit?

  “There are twenty steps to my room and I walk them a lot every day!” he laughs. 

   There’s an impish side to him, and, while his travels have been plentiful and his work as a priest has manifested itself on an international level, he’s a true Roscommon man at heart.

  When I arrived in the house in Roscommon town where he’s staying, he had been reading the Roscommon People. He pointed to our front page story about internal bickering within Fianna Fail –  the party of Dan O’Rourke, of Gerry Boland (“he used to call to our house for tea”) and of his father.

  “Do you know…” he says with a grin, as he points at the headline, “if I was living here in Roscommon, I’d be right in the middle of that!”

A well-known local family

Fr. Gerry O’Rourke was the eldest of eight children, four of whom are now deceased. Seamus, who died last year, worked in the Munster & Leinster Bank. Fr. John, who also died last year, was Parish Priest in Loughglynn. Paschal and Josephine are also deceased. Fr. Gerry has three surviving sisters, two of whom are living in Abbey Street in Roscommon. They are Eucharia and Nonie. Many readers will know Nonie from her long career working in Roscommon Vocational School. Another sister, Catherine, is a Mercy Sister who is now living in Sligo. For many years she was Principal in the Convent of Mercy, Roscommon. Recently, when major celebrations were held in America for the 65th anniversary of Fr. Gerry’s ordination, Sr. Catherine attended and sang ‘The Last Rose of Summer.’