By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
After three and one half years as the 11th bishop of the Jackson Diocese it was time to follow in the footsteps of our diocesan bishops in the modern era who traveled to Ireland. Many may not know that for the greater part of a century half of the priests in Mississippi were from Ireland, the seedbed for vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Countless thousands of Irish missionaries were sent as heralds of the Gospel throughout the English speaking world. Of course, I like to say that the best came to Mississippi to serve in the Diocese of Natchez, Natchez-Jackson, and since 1977, the dioceses of Jackson and Biloxi, to the American Missions, as is commonly understood in Ireland.
Bishop Joseph Brunini had the joy of going to Ireland to ordain clergy for the diocese of Natchez-Jackson. In the latter part of his episcopacy the ordinations ceased, and the purpose of his visits was directed toward the celebration of Masses of Thanksgiving with the families of priests who had served, or were still serving in Mississippi.
Bishop Joseph Howze during the time of Bishop Brunini did the same in his ministry as the Auxiliary Bishop of the diocese of Natchez-Jackson. Bishop William Houck and Bishop Joseph Latino continued the pastoral visits to the locales and counties in Ireland where family members and priests could gather with the bishop to offer the Eucharist, the Church’s great prayer of Thanksgiving.
Although my pilgrimage of a week’s duration is not a large period of time, it still required a generous measure of organization and coordination. In this regard I thank Father Mike O’Brien, and his family and the family of Father Patrick Noonan back home in Ireland.
Originally, Father Mike and I had planned to celebrate two Masses of Thanksgiving, one in Roscommon and the other in Limerick with Father Noonan as the local guide. His unexpected death on July 4 added a third Mass, his Month’s Mind, or the Mass offered a month after someone has died, on the Vigil of the Assumption in his home parish church of Saint Ita’s at Church Raheenagh.
Our first Mass of Thanksgiving took place at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Roscommon and nearly 60 family members of the priests, living and deceased, who have served in Mississippi were in attendance: Father Brian Carroll, Father Gerry Hurley, Father Dan Gallagher, Father Frank Cosgrove, Father Tom McGing, Father P.J. Curley, Msgr. Patrick Farrell, Father Bernie Farrell, Father Tom Delaney, Father Mike O’Brien, Father Mattie Ruane, Father Sean Atkinson, Father Jim O’Riordan and Monsignor Noel Foley.
After the Mass we gathered at the Abbey Hotel to continue the reunion with the original Dominican Abbey, constructed in the early 1200s, providing the background setting, reminding me of how ancient the Catholic faith is in Ireland. Our second Mass of Thanksgiving occurred in the Library Room of the Strand Hotel in Limerick overlooking the River Shannon and the city center.
Although a much smaller gathering, the ambience was well suited for a comfortable and more intimate Mass and luncheon.
The families of Father David O’Connor, Father Mike O’Brien, Father Patrick Noonan, Father P.J. Curley, Father Jim O’Riordan, and Father Frank Corcoran were represented on this occasion.
With this second Mass of Thanksgiving, the pilgrimage shifted its locus from Roscommon in the center of Ireland to the southwest of the country to Father Noonan’s beloved County Limerick. In classic Irish banter, Father Noonan had pointed out to me, knowing that Father O’Brien would be my chauffer and guide for the first leg of the journey, that there is a lot more to Ireland than County Roscommon, the home turf of Father Mike.
As we had enjoyed the hospitality and home of Tom O’Brien, Father Mike’s brother in Roscommon, we were warmly welcomed into the home of Michael Noonan where we were lodged for the remainder of our time in Ireland.
On three consecutive mornings we had the pleasure of enjoying and the challenge of consuming the “Full Irish,” the smorgasbord breakfast for which Ireland is well known. These meals were provided graciously by five of Father Noonan’s nieces.
On Monday evening the family of Father Noonan and many of the parishioners of his home parish devoutly participated in the cherished Month’s Mind Mass on the Vigil of the Assumption. How fitting it was to celebrate the Blessed Mother’s entrance into eternal life through the merits of her Son’s death and resurrection while commending Father Noonan to God at the Eucharist that he celebrated for 54 years as a priest.
Afterwards, we gathered at the family farm where Father Noonan spent his formative years prior to his seminary formation and ordination. His younger brother, now in his 70s, and his sons continue the family’s tradition of dairy farming.
In conclusion, I recall the words at the end of the Gospel of Saint John when the Evangelist asserts that if he wrote down everything that Jesus said or did, there wouldn’t be enough books in the whole world to contain it all. Likewise, there was so much to see as we drove through the Irish countryside.
There were so many engaging conversations that rolled on into late night gatherings. Always, there was plenty to eat and plenty to drink. There were bog lands and stone, a pint of Guinness, and a drop of Jameson. There was men’s hurling, and women’s rugby, goats and cows, and, of course, an opportunity to golf. It was the “full Irish” of hospitality and graciousness at every turn along the country roads. Until we meet again, may God hold us in the palm of his hands.
By Bishop Joseph Kopacz