Fr Henry McCann is one of the few priests who can relive his ordination in full, even though it took place 25 years ago. The parish priest and hospital chaplain recently celebrated his Silver Jubilee, and, in light of the occasion, had a look at the video footage of the ceremony that took place June 30, 1996, in Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Moneyglass, Toomembridge, Co. Antrim.
“I’m younger looking and very thin,” Fr McCann jokes about the video. “It has been a great help in that a lot of people were looking at the video online and noticing members of their own family who had gone. It was a great historical thing. It was a lovely thing to have as a memento anyway.
“For a long time actually I thought that the video had gone missing,” he tells me over the phone. “The VHS, I thought either I’d leant it out to somebody or whatever, but I found it in one of the boxes in one of my moving’s, so I converted it into a digital format and put it onto YouTube for posterities sake. It was the first ordination in the parish – there were ordinations other places – for 50 years.”
Ever since he was young, Fr McCann knew he either wanted to be a priest or a doctor. In the end, the priesthood won out, and feels he is in “a very privileged position”.
“I either wanted to be a doctor or a priest as a child,” Fr McCann begins. “I didn’t get the points for medicine, so my second choice was biochemistry. I was going to do biochemistry in Liverpool University, but Queens University Belfast offered it here so I stayed closer to home.
“We have a very musical family and I joined the chaplaincy choir in Queens and sure half the male voices in the choir were already students of the priesthood. Before I knew it, I was being called away to vocations weekends and seeing the chaplain, his sort of lifestyle, I said I could do that yes.
Fr McCann is the third of eight children, and explains that they were all raised in the Faith”
“I remember going home again and phoning my dad and saying, what would you think if I became a priest. Dad said, ‘well I’d be very chuffed, it would be very hard work, a very hard life, and if it doesn’t work out there’ll always be a room back in the house’. I thought I would give it a go and if I’m happy, I’ll continue with it. It’s been difficult yes, it has been difficult at times, it’s a very privileged position to be in with the families and people you know, enjoying their faith,” he finishes.
Fr McCann is the third of eight children, and explains that they were all raised in the Faith. They were heavily involved with the local church choir, which he calls “a very magical time, very mysterious and engaging”. Since becoming a priest, Fr McCann has been able to combine his interest in medicine with his vocation, working as a chaplain to a number of hospitals.
He worked in Antrim Hopsital, Coleraine, first and now in Ulster Hospital. Reflecting on the experience during the pandemic, he says it was a stressful time.
“It was a stressful time, we were having emergency meetings as chaplains to see what would happen,” Fr McCann says. “We were noticing that the staff were more nervous than perhaps the chaplains were. We spent a lot of time with staff, going round to wards, not necessarily one-to-one with patients, but with the staff originally.”
“We were trying to keep their spirits up, and listen to their stories and pray with them. After a month, that seemed to calm down a bit. But yes, it’s difficult when you’re coming in contact with patients, when families couldn’t make it because hospitals were closed to visitors, and you were having to sort of at least be the go-between, between the families and loved ones.”
Fr McCann has enjoyed his time as a parish priests so far, although it’s not always been an easy one. He remembers an incident that took place shortly before Christmas 2002, when he was hit over the head with a figure from the Church crib while celebrating Mass.
“We had set up the crib figures in front of the ambo the Saturday before Christmas, I think Christmas was a Wednesday,” Fr McCann begins, laughing at the memory. “Anyway, this fella came into the Church shouting and so on and came up the middle – I thought he was special needs. So he came up the middle and then went to the side and put his bag down.
With 25 years down, Fr McCann laughs when asked if he’s looking forward to the next 25”
“I thought, let him get settled, ok. Then he came over to the crib and the figures and I thought, maybe he wants to pray, that’s fine I’ll continue doing the Gospel. And he came down, took the statue of a shepherd and hit me over the head. I wasn’t knocked out, but I was bleeding badly so I lay down and then he started to kick me in the side. And that’s when the parishioners realised what was happening. I was home in bed that week.
“But anyway,” Fr McCann continues, “what happened was that the parishioners had phoned the media, so the parish priest had to speak to the media while I was away in hospital getting staples in me head. They asked, how is Fr Henry and Fr Jim said, ‘Oh, Fr Henry is in a stable condition’!”
With 25 years down, Fr McCann laughs when asked if he’s looking forward to the next 25.
“I think it’s an arbitrary number, I suppose. I understand it’s a quarter of a century and all of that, but you take each day as it comes. Yes there are rhythms of the year and all that, but the time does fly if you’re enjoying it.