“The spirit of idealism is so characteristic of the Columbans,” Archbishop Michael Neary of Tuam said in his address at Belcarra parish in Co Mayo at a Mass to mark the centenary of the Society on 28 October 2018.
In an affirming address at St Anne’s Parish, the Archbishop described the story of the Missionary Society of St Columban as “a story of an extraordinary missionary movement which began in 1916-18 and which a native son Fr John Blowick had a hugely significant role to play.”
Dr Neary continued, “Here in Ireland we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Columbans for their idealism, their courage and their dedication. Here in this place we would like to register our appreciation of the inspiration and the courage of Fr John Blowick and the members of the Blowick family and the local community in Belcarra.”
He said that over the century since the foundation of the Society, its members had made a huge contribution to the growth of local churches at home, “not to speak of the massive contribution that they have made to the places which they have served across the globe – building up parishes and dioceses to the extent that they could be staffed by their own priests and bishops.”
The Archbishop also recalled how, “Growing up we were always reminded of the indomitable courage of John Blowick and we were so proud of the fact that he was a local boy.”
He recalled the impact on Fr Blowick, as a young theology professor in Maynooth, of the talk by Fr Frazier about China and how it had forced him to realise that China was a pagan nation and that priests were so few as to be practically powerless in their efforts to cope with the enormous task they had set for themselves of catechising of China.
While lecturing on the Church in Maynooth, John Blowick was haunted by the words of Christ – ‘Go, teach all nations”. And yet after 1,900 years there were still millions in China alone who had never heard of the one true God nor of the love that caused his son to die for us on Calvary.
Dr Neary recalled that when he was considering studying for the priesthood in St Jarlath’s College there was a huge attraction not just for him but for many others to join the Columbans as a missionary. He paid tribute to his former classmate Columban Fr Brendan Hoban who had taken that path.
“I am very happy to be part of your celebration here this afternoon,” the Archbishop told the congregation of Blowick family members, as well as family and supporters of the wider Columban family. Referring to Fr Frank Nally’s homily, he noted that the Mass was taking place on the 130th anniversary of the baptism of Fr John Blowick, who was born on 26 October 1888.
In baptism, John Blowick “received his mission mandate to go forth and spread Christ’s Gospel and this was something that he took very seriously as a Christian, as a priest and a missionary,” he said.
In his homily, Columban Fr Frank Nally, who hails from Belcarra, recalled Fr Blowick’s role in founding the Columban Sisters in 1922.
“The Sisters could do a lot of work that the priests could not do in hospitals and schools. Education was seen as so important.”
He also paid tribute to the Columban Brothers who had existed for a while and notably Brother Colman in the Philippines who built many of the Columban buildings and schools.
More recently, Fr Frank said the Columbans had benefitted from lay missionaries from Ireland and abroad.
Elsewhere in his homily, Fr Frank paid tribute to the many members of the Society who hailed from the Archdiocese of Tuam, including former superior general Fr Tommy Murphy from Castlebar and the recently elected new Society Leader, Fr Tim Mulroy from Swinford – both of who were following “in the footsteps of John Blowick”.
Thanking the local schoolchildren for the effort they had made to produce colourful posters adorning the parish church on the mission of the Columbans, he also told the parish community, “Thanks for giving Fr John to us.”
Fr Norman Davitt of the Regional Council gave a short address after Communion in which he described it as a “privilege” for the Columbans to be in Belcarra to “honour the memory of John Blowick, co-founder of the Society.”
Thanking local parish priest, Fr Denis Carney and the community in Belcarra, Fr Norman said the gathering was “above all a time of great joy for the Blowick family”, from whom Fr John had received his idealism. “It didn’t just happen, it came from his family and there were two other priests in that family – Fr Peter and Fr Stephen.”
He highlighted that Fr Blowick was ordained for the Archdiocese of Tuam before he co-founded the Columbans. “He was very conscious of that and we are very privileged to have the Archbishop here to celebrate Mass,” he said.
In a personal anecdote, Fr Norman, who is six feet seven inches, recalled how when he went to Dalgan in 1960, Fr Blowick had just retired, so he hadn’t actually taught him.
In his class of 42, there also happened to be another student who was equally tall. There were also two other students who were quite small. Fr Blowick noticed that, and he wanted a photograph. He was in the middle and the two smaller students on either side of hijm and then the two taller students. Fr Blowick would sometimes show the photograph and would say this is the long and the short of it!
“He was always very interested in the students and he wanted the best for us. He wanted us to carry that idealism and faith with us on mission.”
“As we celebrate the centenary of the society, I do believe that Fr John is looking down on us from Heaven. I know also he is present in our memories as we honour him in the parish that he came from,” Fr Norman told the congregation.
Mary Blowick, a niece of Fr Blowick’s told Columbans.ie that she remembered him from the times he used to come to their house on holidays. “He was great; he was one of the uncles that you would love to see coming. He always brought loads of stories and he had a great interest in kids.”
“Whenever he was abroad, he would always bring back loads of presents – he was lovely to us as kids. There were seven of us and I’m sure it wasn’t exactly a holiday for him when he would come to visit, with all of us running around … I have great memories of him.”
Mary’s sister and brother Anthony brought up the gifts at the Offertory during Mass.
Fr Brendan Hoban from Castlebar told Columbans.ie that the Mass and gathering in Belcarra was “a very important day because Belcarra is very important”.
“I am from Castlebar originally and Belcarra was always part of our lives because of the Blowicks. That was a huge tribute to them today, a tribute a Fr John, Fr Peter, Fr Stephen and Joe Blowick,” he said.
He recalled that Fr Blowick was in Dalgan when he went there first. “I was one of those students – because I was from Castlebar near Belcarra – that had to go to talk to him every now and again. Once a week or twice a week.”
“He enjoyed a bit of fun – it wasn’t all serious stuff. He had a tremendous interest in students. He was very proud that Dalgan was different from Maynooth that he had come from – they set out to do a different style.”
“Even when I knew him late on in his life, he was still thinking worldwide; so he was on the missions without leaving here. I liked that about him, he was always thinking further and wider and that has stayed with me all my life with the missions.”
Fr Gerry French is a Columban from Mayo Abbey. He recalled meeting Fr John Blowick many times and talking with him. When Fr Blowick visited South Korea, he stayed in Sokcho, where Fr Gerry was missioned.
“Fr Blowick was very quick witted and would have been a beautiful Irish Times writer. He used to write theology notes and he always put in the character ‘Mrs Quidnunc’ – one of the feature writers at the time in the Irish Times used to use ‘Quidnunc’. He really understood the importance of the local place,” Fr French said.
Fr Denis Carney, parish priest of Belcarra and Balla explained that 2018 was a special year in the parish which marked the centenary of St Cronan’s church in Balla and then the Columban Centenary.
He explained during the ceremony on 28 October that Fr John Blowick’s brother, Fr Stephen had baptised him in 1960. “I remember my mother, who died a few months ago, saying to me ‘Fr Blowick always said you would be a priest and how ironic it is that you are back in his native place’.”
Fr Stephen Farragher, parish priest of Ballyhaunis, told Columbans.ie that as he grew up in a place called Daneale, which isn’t very far from Shrule, and so he was always very aware of the Columbans growing up.
“When I was considering going on for the priesthood, if I hadn’t gone for the Archdiocese of Tuam I would probably have gone for the Columbans. Columban Fr Frank Nally was my classmate. The link between the Columbans and the Tuam diocese was very much in our consciousness.”
According to Fr Stephen, Irish missionaries and the Columbans were “great ambassadors for Christ and great ambassadors for Ireland. I recall visiting the Columbans in Peru on one occasion with two friends of mine. A classmate of ours, Fr Des Hillary, did a few years with the Columbans in Lima in Peru. I remember being in the parish in San Juan Lurigancho on the outskirts of Lima and when the name ‘Irlanda’ was mentioned, you could see the smile on the faces of these poor people. Ireland was something that represented friendship and people who were with them in their struggles. That is true not just of the Columbans but of so many Irish missionaries.”
In Fr Denis Carney’s opinion, “Wherever you go, Irish missionaries are held in high esteem.”
He also noted Fr Frank Nally’s reference in his homily to the development of the lay missionary movement. “Basically, that is what we are trying to do – we might not call them lay missionaries yet, but we are trying to empower more and more people in our parishes. I think we can learn from that. Ok, the needs of the church in Belcarra mightn’t be the same as they are in Peru exactly, but at the end of the day it is the one gospel that we are trying to make relevant.”
He paid tribute to Columbans’ work in the area of climate change and he said the issue had now been put firmly on the agenda at the Council of Priests in the Archdiocese of Tuam.
“I think we have a lot to learn if we work together. While the number of people going abroad as ordained priests or religious sisters is declining and probably will decline further, I think we have to be open to the Holy Spirit. The Spirit that led John Blowick and Edward Galvin in difficult times – in the middle of a war. They took it on, went with it and 100 years on we are celebrating a success story.”