1920s - Beginnings…
St Patrick's Missionary Society had its origins in Nigeria, before 1920, where Bishop Joseph Shanahan, a member of the Holy Ghost Order, was running a huge diocese of 8 million people. The Bishop had only 23 priests to help him, so he decided to appeal to students about to be ordained in Maynooth, the National Seminary in Ireland, to give the first five years of their priesthood to Nigeria. At the time, it was normal for newly ordained priests to go to England or America for a few years but none had, so far, gone to Africa. The first student to volunteer was Fr PJ Whitney from the Diocese of Ardagh. He was ordained in June 1920 and later that year he accompanied Bishop Shanahan to Nigeria.
A Dublin priest, Fr. Thomas Ronayne, who had been ordained in Maynooth seven years earlier, had also volunteered and he went to Nigeria on the same boat. In the 1920's, ten more Irish diocesan priests joined them - and worked alongside the Holy Ghost Fathers in an area where people were very anxious to enter the Church and where missionary work was exhausting but very satisfying. As the years went by, the diocesan priests came to believe that what was needed in the Nigerian Mission was a permanent commitment. In due course they decided to set up a society of secular priests who would be full-time missionaries. Fr PJ Whitney was chosen to lead the Society.
In March 1930, St. Patrick's Missionary Society was set up on a trial basis with Fr. PJ Whitney as Superior. A headquarters was established at Kiltegan, Co. Wicklow where a tea-merchant named John Hughes had given an old house and 20 acres of land for that purpose. Kiltegan became a place in which the diocesan priests working in Nigeria could spend their holidays and also a base from which the emerging Society could be organised. Fr. PJ Whitney appealed in Maynooth, as Bishop Shanahan had done, and by the end of 1930 seven more diocesan priests had gone to Nigeria. He also travelled to Ireland, speaking of the needs of Southern Nigeria and seeking the support he needed to establish the Society as a permanent missionary body within the Church. He was very successful at this and, in 1932, the time was ripe for the official establishment of the Society.