Fr Willie Cleary died after a short illness at Tullamore hospital on Sunday 19 July 2015 aged 80. He had been parish priest of Tullamore from December 1989 until his retirement from that post in September 2004. He was then transferred to Laytown as a curate and was serving there at the time of his death. His last days in Tullamore hospital were entirely appropriate in that while he loved his work and the people of Laytown it did seem to some that his heart was still in Tullamore and he liked nothing more than to meet friends from the parochial house ‘team’ both current and in the 1990s and call on some of the parishioners of his old parish that he knew well. Fr Willie was appointed parish priest of Tullamore of Tullamore in December 1989 in succession to Fr Pat Fallon who had carried the burden of building the new church following the fire in 1983. Fr Willie was a native of Rathwire/ Killucan and was ordained in Maynooth in 1959. After a short time on loan to Ossory diocese he spent 21 years in Mullingar of which 7 years was as parish administrator in what is the bishop’s parish. His work in Mullingar has been recently recalled in that town.
Fifteen eventul years in Tullamore
The fifteen years which the late Father Willie Cleary spent in Tullamore (1989-2004) were very eventful ones in the life of the parish. Those of us who had close dealings with him recall him as kind and gentle, and a man with a strong vision of the role of the laity as central to parish life. This was epitomised in the development of the Parish Pastoral Council (PPC) and his belief that it should take the final decisions on all parish matters. At times he was outvoted and accepted the democratic decision.
Indeed, the Tullamore parish’s championing of lay involvement attracted national headlines, being featured in The Irish Times as an example in this regard.
Father Willie, as he was universally known, was a strong believer in bringing the Church to the people and this proved of great significance at a time when church attendance nationally was falling steeply – the fall from 77% in 1994 to 60% in 1998, to quote episcopal figures, reflected the beginnings of the revelations of clerical sexual abuse and other scandals.
Since then, of course, with further revelations, and with the generation who fell away in the nineties having their own families, weekly attendance by Catholics in the Republic has fallen to around one-third or so. While there are no figures to compare Tullamore with other parishes, it was understood, anecdotally, that the fall in the nineties was less than in some other parishes in the diocese, and this is likely to be linked to the style of pastoral outreach which Father Willie and his curates developed.
Lucky with his team of curates
For the greater part of that decade, he was lucky to have the same three curates – Fathers Gerry Boyle, Jim Lynch and Oliver Skelly. Each had their own forte – Father Gerry was particularly known for youth work and chaplaincy to post-primary schools, Father Jim for his work with Travellers and the disadvantaged in general, Father Oliver for ecumenism and building links across the border in Northern Ireland.
Towards the end of the decade, after Father Jim became PP of Ashbourne, the work was continued by Father John Nally.
The priests formed a formidable team and it was clear that the curates had a very cordial relationship with their PP.
Father Willie made a good impression on local people by coming out clearly at Mass and apologising for the actions of clerical colleagues who had abused children or in some cases adults. He was also to the fore on a number of local issues – one thinks particularly of his interest in the Durrow High Cross and Holy Well and his struggle to ensure it was preserved and open to the public.
Following the 1996 disappearance of local hairdresser Fiona Pender, when she was seven months’ pregnant, he made sure to lead local parishioners in prayer for her and her unborn baby. The following year, the first anniversary of the Connolly Park woman’s disappearance was marked with Mass, and Father Willie stressed it should never be seen as God’s will.
The weekly reminder of prayers for Fiona continues to this day in the parish bulletin. Her mother Josephine became greatly involved in parish life, including bereavement counselling, having also experienced the loss of her son Mark and husband Sean.
Father Willie will also be remembered for his interest in the welfare of Travellers and the homeless, and his role in welcoming the first asylum seekers to come to the town at the turn of the century.
His ecumenical spirit was reflected in close relationships with successive clergy of the Church of Ireland – Canon AT Waterstone, Canon Alistair Grimason and Rev (later Canon) Gerald Field – as well as with Revs Girvan McKay and Stephen Simpson of the Presbyterian Church and Methodist clergy such as Revs John Parkin and Colin Gracie.
On one occasion, when he was present at the official opening of Tara Crescent, he declined to bless the houses on the grounds that the clergy of other churches had not been invited (not, I should stress, due to any religious prejudice, but simply to an oversight) and this reflected his wish that other churches should be included at all times.
Indeed, this sense of being inclusive went beyond the frontiers of the Christian churches – in 2003, when Tullamore was a training ground for the Moroccan Special Olympics team, he made the Day Chapel of the Church of the Assumption available for Muslim prayers.
Father Willie was also a strong supporter of lay church workers like Martin Kennedy and Shay Claffey, and the various lay missionaries sent by the Columbans from the Philippines (such as Roberto and Kris Mina) and Fiji (Malinda Tugaga and Kelemete Rausavanua).
He was, of course, the first parish priest of Tullamore who did not die during his time in office, and in 2004 asked Bishop Michael Smith to send him to another parish. When I interviewed him for the Offaly Express, he was very keen to stress he was not retiring, he just felt his term was long enough, and so he moved to Mornington, where he spent the rest of his life.
He was warmly remembered by parishioners for his friendly demeanour and his kindness in times of trouble.