Africa, April 2020, Vol. 85 No. 3

Frank Conlisk

A future that holds promise…

It’s not often you get to meet two heroes of St Patrick’s Missionary Society on the same day. I was lucky enough to do just that on a recent visit to Kitale, Kenya. 

 

Fr John O’Callaghan, from Effin in Co Limerick, Ireland, has worked as a St Patrick’s missionary in Turkana for 52 years. You will know him from a number of articles he recently published in this magazine on the importance of education in Turkana, the protection of the environment and the gift that is the Turkwel River to the people of that semi-desert territory. John has now moved south to retire at our Society house in Kitale where he feels a different kind of ministry calls him. He helps out in the parish of Kibomet and adjusts to the easier pace – and the challenges – of aging. You may have read the account of the farewell celebrations held in his honour by the people of Turkana in the March issue of Africa. With John, at our house in Kitale, is another one of our “greats”, Fr Leo Staples. This report will be mostly about him. 

 

Fr Leo, from Co Wexford, Ireland was ordained for St Patrick’s Missionary Society in 1952. In that same year, he and two other newly ordained Society priests set off for Kenya by boat – the first of our priests to go there. Fr Leo is now 94 years of age and believe it or not, he is still living – and ministering – in his beloved Kenya and is the oldest member of our Society on the missions. All going well, when you read this, Fr Leo will be the oldest ever living member of St Patrick’s Missionary Society! While he has a few aches and pains and his eyesight is failing, he is still remarkably active, sharp-witted and full of good humour. He loves nothing better than a good discussion and is not above throwing the odd curved ball just to see if you are awake and if you will throw one back. There is a great joy in him and a sense of peace and contentment that many would envy, though he still gets frustrated and impatient at injustice or corruption or when the poor are hard done by. 

 

On my first evening at the mission, Leo offered to take me to see a project he had begun in 2006 – when he was already 81. Fr John was more than willing to be the driver. Next morning, the three of us set out on a journey of about 50km into West Pokot County on broken tarmac and dusty, dirt roads. Along the way, Leo filled me in. Over many years, on pastoral visits in the parish, he had noticed that children with physical disabilities were being badly neglected, generally. In some instances, they were hidden away from the family home and kept separate, as if their afflictions were an embarrassment and something to be ashamed of. They were seen to be of little or no value and to have no future of any worth. 

For some time, Leo felt that something needed to be done to improve the lot of these unfortunate children. He decided to found a home for them. They could be given primary school education at least, with shelter, food and clothing and more importantly, some hope for the future. Funds needed to be raised so Leo got his brother Fr Bob, on board. Bob was a diocesan priest back in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, in the south east of Ireland. I got the feeling that when Leo set his mind to something, things happened!   

 

The fundraising began in 2007 with The Great Wall of China Charity Walk which was completed in 10 days by Eugene Doyle and raised €13,210. What would become the “Bobleo Children’s Home” was off to a fine start! The first buildings were erected – a dormitory and a classroom – and in 2008, ten children were taken in. Funds were always tight as, apart from the need for food and clothing, the usual furnishings for school and dormitory had to be bought, as well as, wheelchairs for most of the children. Teachers’ salaries also had to be paid. The parents of the children were reluctant to pay school fees at this point as they didn’t see the value in giving these children an education. But Frs Leo and Bob worked their magic, the people of Wexford were generous and gradually the project began to grow. More children could be admitted, more teachers employed and more buildings and furnishings put in place. 

 

Fr Leo said he couldn’t thank the fundraisers enough – the people of Enniscorthy and indeed the people of Co Wexford and the entire South East. They held several coffee mornings, hosted by the First Friday Ladies of St Aidan’s Cathedral Parish, Enniscorthy and by Bishop Denis Brennan himself. The children of the parish primary school held “no uniform days”. There were Charity Golf Days at St Helen’s Bay Golf Club and donations from the Garda Third World Committee and from Electric Aid Ireland, the latter to organize the supply of electricity to the children’s home. Concerts, which were promoted free of charge by South East Radio and LK Marketing, were well supported. As recently as 2019, a large donation was made to fund the dining hall and classroom furniture. Many other individuals and groups have contributed. The outpouring of goodwill and support for this project has been exceptional. 

 

By 2014 Leo was thinking of retiring from the management of the home. Fortunately, the Brothers of St Charles Lwanga of Uganda were in the area and expressed an interest in taking it over. They did so in 2015. They soon realized that if the home and school were to be self-sufficient, fee paying, able-bodied, children would have to be admitted. Because the school had a good reputation, they had no difficulty in filling the desks. Today, there are over 120 able-bodied day/boarding children learning alongside 97 children with disabilities. Three Brothers manage the school with a full staff and classes run up to Year 2, second level. As able-bodied and physically challenged children learn and play together, not alone is everyone getting a good, basic education, but attitudes are changing too. Old prejudices are being broken down. And children, who, not too long ago had been discarded, now have hope for a future that holds promise and possibility. 

 

Brother Patrick gave us a guided tour of the compound and showed us the latest pieces of school furniture sponsored by donors from Enniscorthy. The staff and the children had already gone home for the long Christmas break. He mentioned that this was the first time that all the parents had taken their children home for a holiday period – another indication of how attitudes are slowly changing. You could sense his passion and determination as he explained that they planned to continue to develop the high school, to begin a technical school and to employ more physiotherapists. 

 

Before we departed, I asked Fr Leo to pose for a photo at the entrance, beside the sign which bears his name and that of his brother Bob, now deceased. As I photographed, he said that of all the things he had done in all his years on the missions, this was the project that gave him most joy. It wasn’t difficult to see why. 

©Africa, St Patrick's Missions Magazine

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