I heard yesterday (January 4th) of the death of Fr Leo O’Sullivan. A native of Dingle, Leo was a Kiltegan Missionary Priest. In or around 1968, when I was about 5, going on 6, years of age, he came to spend some time in our parish at home. It may even have been earlier than that as the priest’s house in Cloonloo was not built (as far as I recall) and Fr Leo lived with a local family while he was in our parish. He was a joy!
I remember my family going to Kerry with him the day he left Cloonloo. We went to an early Mass in Cloonloo Church (there’s a photo of that day at home.) Leo celebrated Mass on the Wooden Altar that was in the church at that time. Afterwards we went with him to Dingle. I remember him telling me, as we looked to the Atlantic off the coast of Kerry that New York was the next parish!! I believed him and, in my childish mind, wondered what it must be like there.
There was a kindness in him. I recall one Christmas him arriving in at home with presents for us. Among them a train set that was for sharing. I spoke recently about Fr John Casey bringing presents to my mother and her brothers on a Christmas morning in 1930 and, though the circumstances were thankfully different, there was something in Fr Leo’s train set that stayed with me. Indeed when I hear that Christmas ad for Barry’s Tea and the man recalling a train set he got from “Santa” when he was a child, there’s a connection there too. “Doesn’t that beat Banagher?”
I remember Leo calling in home shortly after I was ordained. He was back in Africa at that stage and I gave him my “blessing” on the street outside our house at home. Again, a photo of that (when/if I find , I’ll include here).
Through the years we kept in touch. Sometimes he helped me to fulfil my Mass requests and arranged for Missionary Priests to offer Masses that time didn’t allow me say. I’m glad we kept in contact. There were a few – too few – visits to Kiltegan. My parents loved to see him and I’m happy that I was able to bring them a few times to catch up and renew their friendship.
There was a priest from Gurteen, Fr Ciaran Needham, whose name I’d heard many times but never met. One of the times we visited Leo, we had the chance to meet Ciaran too and my father and mother were so pleased to see him. I was too. These were great men.
The next time we visited, things had changed a little. My mother’s balance wasn’t great and Leo got a wheelchair for her. Sadly, wheelchairs are all too common in Kiltegan, with many retired Missionaries there now. It made it a bit easier to bring her around but Mary wasn’t overly impressed to be in “the chair”. Other changes included the death of Fr Ciaran Needham. I left my parents with Leo and visited his grave. May he rest in peace.
Leo was a character and, wherever he went, there are stories about things he said and did. Someone told me that in one parish, he asked a nun “Who’s your man in the picture? I see him so many places and I didn’t want to ask in case I should know” “It’s Pope Paul VI”, the nun whispered and Leo thanked her for the update!! In our own parish too, there were moments of fun when he’d talk to people and have them (us) fooled to the eyeballs!! He limped, I’m told, one time into a hospital in Drogheda and when a nurse asked what was wrong he told her he had “woodworm” in his wooden leg!!
For all the messing, he loved his Missionary life and his heart seems to have very much remained there.
The last time I saw him was about two years ago. I had a baptism in Carlow and decided to go to see him. I found the man in his room but Leo wasn’t there. I was saddened to see him so vulnerable and confused. I’m not sure whether or not he knew me. I had a feeling he did but he never mentioned my parents or their deaths. Neither did I. I felt he didn’t know they’d died and, if he did, he’d forgotten. I came away with a heavy heart. There was another link with my past, slipping away.
I was so sorry not to have heard of Leo’s death in time to attend his funeral. I would like to have been able to do that much to say thanks to him, not just for an old train set, but for reminding me that good humour has a central place in ministry. Much is achieved through laughter. Leo O’Sullivan taught me that much! I’m grateful.
This year I had arrangements made to go to Kiltegan and thought I’d see Leo there. I was prepared for him not knowing me but looked forward to standing with him for a little while. I will visit him of course, but like Ciaran Needham and another man I always admired, Kevin Brehony, it will be in the place where the daffodils grow.
May they rest in peace. Amen.