Fr Finbarr O’Leary, a Cork man who became a priest despite never attending secondary school, recently completed his second masters at the age of 82. His vocation took him from a rural Cork farm to Wales, South America, America and back home again.
Fr Finbarr’s interest in the priesthood stems from the visit of a Sacred Heart missionary when he was 12.
“He came to the primary school in Inchigeelagh, Co. Cork – he probably was fundraising, but he also invited any young lads who were interested in priesthood to speak with him,” Fr Finbarr tells me. “I met up with him and expressed an interest. We saw it as young people as basically a journey into the unknown, opening up the imaginative side of ourselves and so on.”
However, when Fr Finbarr finished primary school, he and his family moved to a new farm and he didn’t attend secondary school.
“I was working on the farm,” he says. “When I was about 19, I saw a car coming up the avenue and I could see the door and my mother greeting a man and pointing towards me down in the field. I was spreading manure with a dung fork!
“This immaculately dressed priest came across. He said, are you Finbarr O’Leary? Yes, I said, I am. He said to me, has priesthood ever crossed your mind since? I said, oh, it has but it’s impossible now. My father has got much older, I’ve no secondary education. It’s quite impossible.
“But he said, with the Lord, he can sometimes make the impossible possible. He said something very surprising: ‘because you missed out on secondary school, there is a pre-philosophy course being run in Mount Melleray. I’ll book you in provisionally and if you decide, you can enter in September. If not, well that’s up to you’. Then he more or less left having made the offer. I saw that as the Lord’s call and I said, I’ll have to give it a try.”
That September, Fr O’Leary entered the pre-philosophy course, and the following year moved onto philosophy proper.
“I was hoping maybe to go to a seminary in Ireland to do my theology,” Fr O’Leary says. “During those years I actually listed as a student of the archdiocese of Cardiff and Wales. A priest came looking for vocations and I thought, Wales is Celtic, it isn’t too far from Ireland, I’ll enlist.
“When I finished my philosophy, I was waiting and looking to be sent to Carlow or Dublin, but I was actually sent to the English speaking college in Lisbon, in Portugal without a word of Portuguese. I did four years of theology, and was ordained June 4, 1966. That same day, I travelled back to Cork and celebrated my first Mass in Inchigeelagh the following morning.”
Fr Finbarr was posted to a mining community in Wales, where he served as curate for six years. After that, he was appointed parish priest in Eastern Wales.
“I found that I had so little to do, I thought, this is the time to pick up on my education,” Fr Finbarr explains. “I decided to do open university, it took me a couple of years to do it. I was conscious that my training as a seminarian was intended to be quite academic and tended to have little to do with social skills, how you deal with people, especially people with difficulties of one kind or another.
“I applied for social work and teaching at the same time. I got both of them, but I decided to go down the social work route. The archbishop realised that there was somebody in his diocese who knew something about childcare and I was appointed director of the Catholic children’s society Wales.
“We worked in the whole field of pro-life, including adoption and fostering. We worked especially with women who were pregnant and did not decide to choose the road of abortion.”
After 10 years, Fr Finbarr’s archbishop asked him to take over a larger parish, but he felt that he was being called in a different direction. He asked for permission to head to South America on mission.
“I joined the St James’ society which works in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru,” he says. “I volunteered for the Peru mountains, but was sent to Ecuador. Again the archbishop there realised I had some qualifications. We were beginning a new diocese in a place called Santo Domingo, Los Colorados, and I was basically asked to develop a whole network of projects. We ended up with 80 staff and 16 projects, from micro-finance to services for children suffering from malnutrition, disability, all various services.”
“Then, what happened after a number of years – I think it was 2006 – I was appointed as director of the St James’ Society, in Boston, commuting down to Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru. After 2009, I remained to establish another foundation for people with disabilities. We developed interesting projects such as equine therapy. Basically, children with disabilities can be helped with their muscles through riding a horse and building a relationship with them.”
Finally, after coming home to Ireland one summer, Fr Finbarr spoke with a former classmate – then-Bishop of Cork and Ross John Buckley – and asked if there were any vacancies: “He said he’d keep it in mind. He telephoned me, he said I want you to be an administrator of a parish in Barryroe in Cork. Then he moved me to the next parish, Timoleague, as an administrator. It’s only this year I officially retired.”
Fr Finbarr keeps himself busy, working with the Céilí community in Ireland and recently completing a masters in Scripture studies and spirituality.