As integral to a parish as a priest is the local sacristan. Like a civil servant to the recently elected politician, he or she ensures continuity in change. Since 1973, 91-year-old Mary Geraghty has been a continuous presence as sacristan and volunteer in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Gainstown, Co. Westmeath.
As she says herself, she never did the work for praise or acclaim, but in order to give back what she had received”
“I was brought up with it because my mother was sacristan there, it could have been 50 years,” Mrs Geraghty tells The Irish Catholic. “In my time going to school, I always had something to do with the Church. If it wasn’t scrubbing, it was cleaning or off doing something. My mother was very good that way.
“It kind of grew on me. When I did take it over from her when she passed on, I didn’t realise I’d be that length in it. I gave it up for about a year, I had small children and I couldn’t give it the time it needed. I went back again and I’m 48 years now.”
As she says herself, she never did the work for praise or acclaim, but in order to give back what she had received.
“Everything I do I like to give to something,” she says. “I do knit a lot for charity. I knit the nativity which goes out for the schools and the church and different places. I’ve one done for Tanzania, a man going out there asked me to do one for them. For Easter, I did ducks and eggs and things for the persecuted Christians in the Holy Land. All through the Covid I was knitting for charity.
“I’d never take anything for anything I give, people appreciate the help then. I helped the cancer people, I helped the orphans – I’m always knitting. It’s occupational therapy. It was great during the Covid because you see you were occupied and your mind was on different things, you weren’t just sitting around looking out. You were doing something all the time.”
It was much to her surprise then, when she was awarded the Benemerenti Medal, an honour bestowed on members of the laity for great service to the Catholic Church, by Pope Francis earlier this month.
“I didn’t realise how much it meant until people contacted me – it’s gone mad now, everyone is at it now,” she says. “Everyone is greeting me, sending messages and everything, Facebook, text you name it. It’s the only medal with an image of the Lord that I know of now. You’ll always get the crucifixion or Our Lady, but on this the Lord has his hand up to bless you. It’s the most wonderful medal to have, I’ll treasure it.”
The work she does has changed over time as the parish has developed”
For Mrs Geraghty, the Church had always been part of her life. Her mother would wheel her in the pram to say the rosary or while she worked. As she grew older, she helped out in the church and she can remember how her mother took care of the priests, even cooking them breakfast.
“I remember Dr John Kyne (Bishop of Meath until 1966) he often called to the house,” Mrs Geraghty says. “We used to be amazed at the way he was dressed you know? All I can remember is he had a big medal at the front of his jumper. But he was very good.”
The work she does has changed over time as the parish has developed.
”Oh there’s been a big change, they didn’t have the finances we’d have now,” she explains. “It used to be all white boards and as children we scrubbed it. Things weren’t as fancy in those days as they are now. It was all wood and different things, now it’s carpet and the like.
“They used to collect money every time something had to be done. My father used to say they’d collect the oats for the horses – the priests were on horses back then. I had many priests in my time, good friends. A lot of them have died and gone on now.
“I had a priest there, Fr Kilmartin, we’d go to the church when anything would be on, Communions and the like. He’d say what he wanted and then you did it. Christmas was the same, he always came and discussed it with me. Then he’d come and I’d have it done. He always thought I was a brilliant sacristan, but I only did what he wanted!”
In her time, the number of people attending Masses have dwindled, but she is hopeful that it will pick up again. The hunger to return to Mass after the pandemic is still there, she says.
“People are distraught at the moment about it,” she says. “There are people who’d love to go back to Mass. I see it, but as I say, I’ve no line on it – the only line I have is the clothes line.”
Mrs Geraghty considers the work she did – and continues to do – as sacristan a privilege.
For the first communion, I’d go out of my way to have everything nice for them”
“I could go to the church every day and meet the Lord,” she says. “When I’d go to open it I’d be in the presence of the Lord. That kind of thing would be always on my mind. That’s why I’m there so long, it’s part of my life and it always was. I love helping people if I can at all. I’d keep up with the school, finance them in every way through my hands now, I won’t say I ever gave them dosh, but I always liked to help them. For the first communion, I’d go out of my way to have everything nice for them.”