Colm Fitzpatrick speaks with a priest overcoming all obstacles
Receiving a diagnosis of an ultimately fatal disease can leave people in a state of despair and fear, but for one Irish priest, this is an opportunity to spread a message of awareness and hope.
In February of this year, Fairview native Fr Tony Coote [pictured] was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. This illness presents itself in various ways, but generally entails a weakening and wasting of the muscles, including slurring of speech and a difficulty in swallowing or coughing. Despite the negative prognosis, Fr Coote is continuing in the priestly work that he was inspired to do when he was much younger.
“I suppose the main influences on me being a priest were my uncle who has the same name as me, who was a Divine Word Missionary working in Argentina and Mexico – he used to write to me about the experiences that were happening over there”, Fr Tony explains.
“Sometimes he’d come home and he’d bring with him nuns and priests who’d sleep on the couches and floors of our house from all over the world – so we were used to priests and nuns being in our homes.”
Another important influence on his formation was a local priest who would bring a hamper to the house every week and have a cup of tea with his mother for company, after his parents separated. Fr Des Forristal from Iona Road Parish also played a role in his decision to become a priest, as he provided opportunities for Faith to be developed.
“When I was 18 and 19, he got a lot of young people involved in going away for the weekend, in having Faith talks and I got really interested in that. So, when I was 21 then I made an application to the priesthood based on I suppose those experiences. So, I’d seen how priests work and really liked it and I thought I’d really like to do that and help people in a similar way,” he said.
Fr Tony entered the seminary in 1985 and was ordained in 1991. For nine years, he worked in Ballymun Comprehensive School and from 2000-2008, he was chaplain in University College Dublin. He is now an administrator in Mount Merrion and Kilmacud in Dublin. Although there are many positive aspects of this role, Fr Tony enjoys promoting the inclusivity of the Church.
“My main thing is mobilising people and bringing them together and making the parishes as inclusive as we can and we’ve managed to achieve that. I think people feel very welcome and I did a lot of work with young adults as well and I learned an awful lot from them,” he says.
While working in UCD, he established an organisation called UCD Volunteers Overseas which involved students engaging in voluntary work abroad. In response to an increase in the rates of suicide among young people, he also headed up the Please Talk Campaign, a positive mental health campaign for students, encouraging them to talk about their problems.
In November 2017 and the beginning of this year, Fr Tony incurred some injuries which prompted him to see a doctor.
“I had a fall coming out the back of Mount Merrion Church on the steps and I thought I’d just missed a step,” he explains, noting that’d he played squash twice a week so it must have been a misstep.
“I injured my shoulder and my knee. But then on January 1, I had the family over for dinner and I fell at home. Then I went to the doctor, and after several tests with a doctor and a neurologist on the Wednesday of the snow – well on that Wednesday, I went to the hospital and the consultant told me I had Motor Neurone Disease,” he says.
“Like most people, you go into deep shock and I was so shocked I fell on the floor because it’s like a bolt of lightning and it’s a terminal illness, and it’s a very degenerating and difficult illness – there’s no cure for it.”
Motor Neurone Disease affects over 400 people in Ireland and there is still very little known about how it can be effectively treated. Fr Coote’s medication is 24-years-old and the Motor Neurone Disease Association can only provide three nurses, whose salaries are paid for by church gate collections.
Despite the lack of sufficient medical care and treatment, Fr Tony has been supported by his friends and family, and is still strengthened by his Faith.
“I suppose I went into shock but then I was contacting family and friends, but really in a way, my Faith is very strong and I’m not afraid of death. Of course, I’m afraid of dependence when you’ve been very independent but even though I struggle with it, I get up every morning and say ‘Lord thank-you for today, please help me through the rest of it’,” he says.
Rather than complain about his current situation, Fr Coote believes he is in the position to raise funds for research and for taking care of those suffering with the disease.
To this end, he is inviting people to become part of ‘Walk While You Can’, to donate, walk, organise a fundraising event or offer accommodation to around six people doing the whole walk. He will be beginning in Letterkenny on July 10 and finishing in Ballydehob on August 6. Fr Coote is also inviting people to carry a yellow balloon with them as a sign of hope.
Although the disease has physically affected him and his normal everyday life, he still continues to trust in God.
“The feeling I have most is frustration because everything is slower and things take longer. But I’m not angry and I don’t say why me. I understand that things happen in life and it’s in God’s hands. I leave myself in the hands of God and Jesus Christ, that I look forward to meeting anyway.”
For more information about ‘While While You Can’ and to donate, see: http://wwyc.ie/