Humble and devoted pastors to their flocks

Humble and devoted pastors to their flocks Fr Des Wilson Photo: The Irish News
In their contrasting ways two much-loved priests offered selfless pastoral service to different faith communities, writes Martin O’Brien

The diocese of Down and Connor was both in mourning and in thanksgiving last week after the deaths on the same day of two of its most beloved and distinguished priests, Fr Des Wilson and Msgr Ambrose Macaulay.

They were known and respected throughout Ireland and beyond: Fr Wilson for his work as a community activist in Ballymurphy and a peacemaker and Msgr Macaulay for his distinction as an ecclesiastical historian.

Both passed to their eternal reward on November 5 and Bishop Noel Treanor, his predecessor Dr Patrick Walsh and retired auxiliary bishop, Dr Anthony Farquhar led the mourners at their funerals.

Fr Des (94), who was brought up in the Ormeau Road area of south  Belfast died in Nazareth House Care Village after a long illness while Fr Ambrose (85), a native of Cushendall, Co. Antrim, died in his sleep at his home not far from St Brigid’s Church, in the south of the city, where he was parish priest from 1989 until his retirement in 2010.

Ask anyone and they would say both men were like chalk and cheese. Des, the contrarian social justice campaigner with an eye for publicity  who recalled to me in an interview for this newspaper in 2014, that he had been ostracised by then Bishop of Down and Connor William Philbin in the 1970s and summarily removed from his listing in the Down and Connor directory. (He was only rehabilitated after the arrival of Bishop Cahal Daly to Down and Connor in 1982.)


Ambrose, the shy reserved ever orthodox son of the Church with a reputation in particular for his wonderful ministry to the dying and their families, who only ever gave an extensive newspaper interview in his life to The Irish Catholic in 2016 when I persuaded him of an opportunity to  publicise his last and acclaimed book The Catholic Church and the Campaign for Emancipation in Ireland and England (Four Courts Press).

However, looking at both men in the round, it might be just too easy to make too much of the obvious differences between them.

They were certainly very different but more in style and approach than in anything else and while it might be tempting in this culture of lazy labelling to see one as a ‘progressive’ and the other a ‘conservative’ that might be a tad trite and a disservice to the depth of both.

In substance, they were priests to the core, preachers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, intellectuals of calibre, humble and devoted pastors to their flocks, loyal to their Church and loved by those they touched, as evidenced by the huge crowds who attended their wakes, the removal of their remains and their funerals in St Brigid’s and in Corpus Christi, Ballymurphy respectively on Friday and Saturday last.

They were men of simple tastes with no interest in personal advancement.

He was a voice for the voiceless”

By coincidence, the Gospel reading at each of their funerals was the story of The Beatitudes. It seemed so right and fitting.

Both were masters of the written word: Ambrose the historian and author of six books of Church history spanning mainly the 18th and 19th   Centuries in Ireland and Britain, and Des, the author of several books including his autobiography The Way I See It and columnist for more than 30 years in the Andersonstown News.

Fr Ambrose’s sudden death struck me personally because he was a friend, guide and confidant for more than 40 years. We met first in October 1973 when I arrived as a fresher at Queen’s University where he was Catholic chaplain and spiritual guide and supporter-in chief of the QUB GAA club which I immediately joined.

Fr Macaulay, as I always referred to him, had a central role in my life. He was celebrant at our wedding and at our eldest child’s wedding, he baptised our first grandchild in 2017 and was our parish priest for more than 20 years.

I was privileged to be among the members of the Queen’s GFC Past Members’ Union – led by Sean O’Neill, the Down GAA legend and close friend of Ambrose – who carried his coffin from his home a little of the way to St Brigid’s for the removal at which Fr Edward O’Donnell, his successor as parish priest there, recalled his devotion to St John Henry Newman.

Fr Ambrose’s close friend and successor as chaplain at Queen’s, Fr Joseph Gunn, the parish priest of Bangor, delivered the homily at the funeral.

It was an especially poignant occasion because parishioners had been looking forward to honouring Fr Ambrose at an event on November 15 (now cancelled) marking his central role in the building of the new St Brigid’s Church 25 years ago.

They were priests to the core, preachers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, intellectuals of calibre”

It can’t have been an easy occasion for Fr Gunn. He had driven Fr Ambrose to retired Bishop Walsh’s home where the three of them had lunch the day before his death.

Fr Ambrose had regularly said Sunday Mass in Donaghadee in Bangor Parish, and had done so just two days before his passing.

Fr Gunn told mourners, who included his close friends Cardinal Sean Brady and Msgr Ciaran O’Carroll, the rector the Irish College in Rome and more than 50 priests: “He managed to make being a parish priest look easy! His guiding principle was never to divide people and he always tried to be merciful in his estimation of people.”

He added: “An essentially shy man, he relished company and was a warm and generous host, a marvellous raconteur who loved fun. He welcomed and encouraged young priests such as myself when we were starting out. Priestly fraternity was in his bones.”

Fr Gunn continued: “Since his sudden death I have been casting around for a phrase to somehow encapsulate what is was that made Ambrose the priest, relative and friend that he was. I think that ‘joyful hope’ sums it up very well.”

Msgr Macaulay is interred close to the front of St Brigid’s.

Meanwhile, in West Belfast it is difficult to convey the love and esteem for Fr Des Wilson.

Ciaran Cahill, co-ordinator of Springhill Community House, the project which Fr Des founded, said: “We feel a huge loss that will never be filled. Fr Des was a father figure to many. We have lost a priest; we have lost a father.

“Fr Des said Sunday evening Mass here every week until the start of the year. The pastoral care he gave was incredible. Only God knows the number of times he gave money to people out of his own pocket to put food on the table or for coal to heat a home.”

At his funeral his friend of almost 50 years, Fr Joe McVeigh, the Fermanagh priest and republican, delivered a 28-minute homily that received a standing ovation from all in the Church including the three bishops, with Bishop Treanor getting to his feet first followed by Dr Farquhar and Dr Walsh.

They were loyal and loved by all”

One wonders what Bishop Philbin and his right-hand man, Canon Padraig Murphy would have made of it all.

Fr McVeigh told the congregation that included Gerry Adams TD: “Fr Des was a man with a vision of how the Catholic Church should be – a Church in which the leaders stand with the powerless, a Church that abhors any kind of authoritarianism and clericalism. He often said that the Church of the future should be a Church of small communities made up of people who want to keep the vision of Jesus alive.”

He said: “I am pleased to say that in recent years Bishop Noel and Des became good friends and a close bond had grown between them. Des was really happy about that.”

The chief celebrant at the Mass, Fr Patrick McCafferty, the parish priest of Corpus Christi said in his introductory words of welcome: “Fr Des was a voice for the voiceless. His was a fearless voice. His strong defence and championing of this community was articulated out of his deep understanding of the Gospel and its radical demands.”

The congregation included more than 25 priests and four Indian-born members of the Missionaries of Charity from Armagh whose founder St Mother Teresa of Calcutta withdrew her sisters from Ballymurphy in controversial circumstances in 1973.

Fr Wilson’s funeral was held in Corpus Christi at his request and he was interred in Milltown Cemetery.

Ambrose and Des, priests and servants to the last, they helped to encompass the genius and inclusivity of our Church. May their gentle souls rest in peace.

Martin O’Brien’s feature length interviews with the late Fr Wilson and Msgr Macaulay, entitled ‘I believe in the Church’ and ‘I have a duty to recall the past’ published respectively on July 31, 2014 and December 8, 2016 may be accessed at