November 2020 marks a significant milestone in the history of St Patrick’s Missionary Society. On November 22nd 1920 Fr Pat Whitney departed from Dublin to work as a missionary in Southern Nigeria. He was a priest of the diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnois in Ireland and had been ordained in Maynooth the previous June with sixty-one classmates.
The first three decades of the 20th century in Ireland were a period of tremendous enthusiasm for missionary work. No less than five Irish missionary congregations, men and women, were founded between 1916 and 1937.
Pat Whitney was going to a territory which had been served by the Holy Ghost Fathers. However the area and its population were huge and its bishop, Joseph Shanahan, from Tipperary, looked to Irish diocesan priests to supplement the mixed Holy Ghost team of Irish and French missionaries. The then seminarian, Pat Whitney heard him speak in Maynooth and without hesitation responded to the appeal.
Nigeria was as he expected. As he later wrote ‘a full life with plenty of hardships, cares, disappointments; sometimes a life of labour that seems to bear but very little fruit – and yet with all a happy one’. The enormity of the task convinced him that it could not be accomplished by people like himself, as he then was – a priest going out for a certain period and then returning home. And so began the germination of an idea that he called a ‘stunt’.
What was needed was an organisation or society that would support secular (diocesan not religious) priests on permanent commitment to missionary work in Southern Nigeria. It was a dream that consumed him over the next twelve years. Indeed during this time he helped the missionary Congregation of the Holy Rosary Sisters (Killeshandra) ‘get off the ground’.
Over those years and after much discussion, sometimes quite troubled, between Bishop Shanahan, the Irish bishops, the Vatican and other involved parties all the pieces eventually fell into place. In 1930 a property in Kiltegan, Co Wicklow, was donated and after due procedure the Society of St Patrick for Foreign Missions was canonically erected on St Patrick’s Day 1932.
Msgr Whitney’s herculean work of evangelisation through education was novel at that time and still remembered in that corner of Nigeria. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic celebrations have had to be postponed but March 2021 has been tentatively chosen to mark his arrival there. The contribution of Irish missionaries to Church, health and education will be highlighted.
From the top: Fr PJ Whitney after his ordination; Fr PJ (standing on the extreme left with hat in his hand) and Bishop Joseph Shanahan (centre) with missionaries, teachers and catechists in Calabar, 1920; Fr PJ in his parish Nigeria in the 1920s.
(Photos: ©St Patrick's Missionary Society, Kiltegan)