Nurturing seeds sown in distant lands

Nurturing seeds sown in distant lands Zambia's Capuchin friars at their chapter earlier this year. Fr Patrick Flynn is front row, second from right, while the Irish provincial, Fr Adrian Curran OFM Cap., is fourth from left.

Fr Patrick Flynn may not have known what a Capuchin even was when, aged 12, he and his classmates were asked in 1955 if they’d like to sing in the choir at St Mary of the Angels Church on Dublin’s Church Street, but nowadays his knowledge of the order and of the Irish province’s missionary endeavours is encyclopaedic.

“Since the beginning of the 20th Century we’ve had missions in California, missions in South Africa, missions in Zambia, missions in New Zealand, we’ve missions in Korea,” he says. “We’ve had this huge outreach all our lives all the time, and it’s been a huge part of our province, a huge part of our work as Capuchins to have missionaries.”

Even parts of the world where Irish Capuchins hadn’t been concentrated had seen them engaging in missionary activity.

“We’ve even had friars in India. The first archbishop of Delhi-Simla was an Irish Capuchin by the same of Silvester Mulligan, and we’ve other friars – Declan McFadden and Xavier Riordan – and another one, Theodore Murphy, all working in India. The first priest working in Wellington was an Irish Capuchin, and we’ve had Irish Capuchins in Australia and becoming bishops up in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. These were all Irishmen,” he says.


For Fr Patrick, this “huge missionary endeavour” has always been essential to the character of the order.

“This goes back to St Francis, because St Francis was the very first founder of a major religious order to have a chapter in his rule on the missions. He said if any friar desires to go among the Saracens or infidels, let him ask permission of his minister,” he says, pointing to how at the height of the Crusades, St Francis of Assisi had himself gone to Damietta in Muslim Egypt to reach out to the Sultan, Malik al Kamil.

Fr Patrick joined the order after finishing secondary school, studying in Kilkenny and Cork before being ordained in Donegal, and as a student friar was deeply impressed by the stories and warmth of friars he met who had been on the missions, and by the camaraderie between them. Within a few months of his June 1968 ordination he would join them in Zambia, staying there until 1977, when he returned home for a sabbatical only to be given a succession of chaplaincy and formation posts in Ireland.

1991 saw him setting out for South Africa, where he spent 18 months in a Cape Town parish before returning to take up a chaplaincy post at Cork’s Bons Secours hospital, followed by a succession of Irish posts until his appointment two years ago as provincial Missions Secretary.

“Our biggest challenge now as Irish Capuchin friars is to implant the order where we have worked,” he says. “That’s been very successful, especially in Zambia today, because we’ve about 40 Zambian friars now.”

The point of missionaries is in some way to make themselves redundant, of course, and Zambia, which at one stage had 62 Irish friars, really seems to be a country where that has worked out. Describing the Diocese of Livingston, a diocese two-and-a-half times the size of Ireland which had been entrusted to the Irish Capuchins and which covered Zambia’s western province, Fr Patrick is effusive about how effectively the friars and others had worked there.

“The amount of work that was done especially by the sisters and lay people, and this whole missionary endeavour! It wasn’t just preaching the Gospel, but there were huge building projects going on, hospitals, schools, trade schools, leprosaria being built, and all these were being maintained by hugely committed men and women who were doing fantastically good work all the time,” he says.

The Irish friars were accompanied in this by friars from New Jersey, by religious sisters from a range of different orders including the Holy Cross Sisters and the Presentation Sisters, and lay people – the missions could never have succeeded without their work, Fr Patrick says, pointing to their work educating girls and running hospitals – with there also being a lot of young lay teachers from Ireland working in the country especially in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“And it was so successful, because our first bishop, the first bishop in Livingston, was an Irish bishop, Bishop Phelim O’Shea, a Capuchin from Clondrohid in Cork, and he had a huge interest in women’s education, and he always said if you educate a woman you educate a family, and that was his whole drive,” he says.

“Today that has paid off – I was in Zambia this year, and I could see the changes around the emancipation of women: women driving cars, women taking out their own mortgages, women holding down very responsible jobs,” he says. “And that all goes back to the fact that from the early 50s and before it, girls were always included in education, so they were never left behind. So when you had schools all through Zambia, the missionaries educated boys and girls. And the girls have in many way ways surpassed the boys – because very often they’re more stable!”

The spiritual fruits of the missionaries’ labours in Zambia are just as obvious, he says. “I mean, the way the people celebrate their liturgies. I was there at Easter and our Easter Vigil took four-and-a-half hours! Our Sunday Mass at Easter took two-and-a-half to three hours. On Good Friday we started at two and I think we finished at something around six. These people just enter into this whole experience of prayer and celebration.”

Although there are just three Irish Capuchins working in Zambia now, with one 87-year-old working with novice friars starting in religious life, the province is still deeply involved in the country, as with other mission territories like South Africa and South Korea.

“The biggest outlay for us in expenses is education for our young friars and maintaining them and educating them. That’s why the mission office is here today: because we are continuing to support them, and we will for a while longer until they get completely independent,” he says.

“It’s an ongoing process. They’re a group of young men finding their feet, and of course the African people will do things their own way.”


What’s changed, in practice, is that previously the Irish Capuchins were engaged in sowing seeds in Zambia, and now that those seeds are growing the challenge is to nurture them so they continue to grow.

“That’s exactly what we’re doing and what we’re trying to encourage. Like, why is the mission office here? The mission office is here to maintain support in all sorts of ways for the friars on mission.”

Wondering whether the old links people perceived between the Irish Church and the mission territories have faded – in the past people understood the Irish Church as a missionary one, where “our missionaries were our heroes” – Fr Patrick says that people “don’t think missionary anymore”.

Ireland itself, it is regularly observed, is mission territory now, and asked whether Irish missionary experience abroad might help in this, Fr Patrick highlights the importance of friendship and meeting people’s needs.

“I remember one time hearing a little comment that sometimes missionaries went onto the missions and they told the people what they needed, without asking them ‘what do you need? how can we help you?’ But I very often think that the very first step, and the very first step always when you’re talking about evangelisation, is you make friends with the people before you do anything,” he says.

“I’ve always felt that was something that the Capuchins were particularly good at.”