Grateful for 50 years of priesthood

Mary O’Donnell speaks to the founder of the Columba Community in Derry

Derry-born Fr Neal Carlin, who founded the Columba Community in his home city over 30 years ago amid The Troubles, has just celebrated the Golden Jubilee of his ordination.

Reflecting on his ministry over the last 50 years, he told The Irish Catholic that his biggest sentiment is one of gratitude – to God, his family, Columba Community friends and others he has come to know over the years.

Much has been achieved through the listening prayer of the Columba Community, including the development of four centres – Columba House of Prayer and Reconciliation, in Derry, and St Anthony’s Retreat Centre, White Oaks Rehabilitation Centre, and IOSAS Visitor’s Centre, Celtic Peace Garden and Sanctuary, all situated just across the border in County Donegal.

However, Fr Carlin points out that their ministry has, most importantly, been about people and the development of “a model of church that enhances people’s lives and allows them freedom to express their talents and giftedness”.


He remarked: “I would see my main work, over the last 35 years in particular, as developing basic Christian community in a holistic way.”

Referring to the title of the book, to be published in September by Columba Press, about his life and the work of the Columba Community, Wait upon the Lord, the 74-year-old said that the Community would regard this as their motto.

As well as having meaning for his personal journey of having to wait 17 years on official recognition from the local Irish Church, Fr Carlin said that this motto featured strongly in the development of all the centres built by the Community and the works carried out in them.

He added: “We emphasise the prayer of listening so as to be guided and helped in discernment as to the next peaceful step we should take in ministry.

“The Catholic Worker motto, of ‘see, judge and act’, has always been an inspiration to me and our community. We prayed and listened before being guided in a most miraculous way to the building which is now Columba House. From there, we visited the prisons of Ireland.”

Fr Carlin recalled visiting Long Kesh Prison twice a week for nearly six years during The Troubles, offering Sunday Eucharist and developing prayer groups in the H Blocks.

Joined by members of the Columba Community, he prayed in Columba House with many thousands of people who suffered during those troubled times, and developed a ministry of healing for the sick.

An all-night prayer vigil for discernment on the way forward in 1986, led to the Community being given an old farmhouse across the border in Donegal, which became a haven for many ex-prisoners and young men hunted out of Belfast and Derry for anti-social behaviour.


This became known as St Anthony’s Retreat Centre and the Community went on to develop five hermitages there as accommodation for retreatants. These have recently been renovated and up-graded in the redevelopment of St Anthony’s as a centre for directed retreats.

The first of these will take place in August, with one at the beginning and another at the end of the month being led by Mrs Breige O’Hare. Places are limited to eight and Fr Carlin is delighted with the response so far, saying that many people’s lives have been blessed and enhanced by these short retreats, which offer opportunities for quiet, prayer, reflection and rest.

He went on to talk about the opening, in 2001, of White Oaks Rehabilitation Centre for the treatment of alcohol and drug addictions, gambling and other addictions, after much reflection and prayer by the Columba Community.

Noting that over 15,000 people have completed the centre’s 30-day residential programme, Fr Carlin estimated that when at least four other members of the family who have been influenced by the person’s addiction were added to this figure, some 75,000 people have found help and now have a more contented lifestyle.

Looking back over the years of working as a teacher and school chaplain, doing parish work in Scotland and Ireland, working with prisoners and the sick, he remarked that the most fulfilling and rewarding of all has been the ministry in White Oaks, with people in recovery from alcohol and other addictions.

Talking about the Centre’s Medallion Day, when ex-residents receive a medallion for being one year or 12 years in contented sobriety, Fr Carlin said: “The gratitude and joy is palpable. To see husbands and wives, with their children, back together again and to hear them speaking of their lives now like a resurrection from the dead, is most encouraging.”

Remarking on how the addict comes to recognise, with sorrow, their mistakes and the hurts that they have inflicted on others, and genuinely want to make restitution, Fr Carlin said he felt greatly privileged to be surrounded by “humble people who have realised their powerlessness over addiction”.

In conclusion, he held up the Twelve Step model of recovery as a good basis for parish renewal programmes, saying: “It is the Bible message in somewhat more acceptable language to those who have a problem with organised religion and who still recognise their need for God.”

Fr Carlin can be contacted at St Anthony’s on 074 936 8370.