Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Prendergast - Fitzhenry letters (2)

Sorry for the delays between posts - but I'm aiming to have items for tonight, tomorrow and Christmas day. Then we'll back between Christmas and the New Year with "The Road Trip goes to Galway" series.

The next letter in the Prendergast collection was written by Father James Fitzhenry, a Roman Catholic priest originally from Monamolin who in March 1893 was residing in Grahamstown, Cape Colony, in the service of the Bishop of Cape Town. The letter was written to his cousin Mrs Kate Prendergast of "Graigue"; they were cousins through their O'Gorman connection. . It's a rather long letter (12 pages) and most of it is a description of the missionary work that James is doing.

James had been out in South Africa for several years working as a Catholic missionary. Although his brother Edward was also out in South Africa, they hadn't seen each other for five years. Edward worked on the farms in the interior of the country - it was 50 miles on horseback to the nearest of the new railway stations.

James bemoans the fact that South Africa is a very Protestant country - the few Catholics that there are are scattered so widely it is difficult to minister to them. The new colony isn't a desirable place for new priests. If he came home to see his family, then "a whole town would have to go without Mass for six months". His only excuse to get a pass home would be illness and he is in fine health apart from the trouble the sun is giving him with his eyes - "I have to wear those dark glasses in the open air".

James continues:
Striving to reach upon scattered families, to secure a religious training to so many families where one of the parents is not a Catholic, to lose no one.
In a colony, the loss to the Church of one person means in a generation, the loss of very many others: A young man, a labourer, not worth a penny may in a colony get on well, marry, give a good education to his sons.
You meet with these again, you can hardly believe they are the children of - Patrick Shaunassey – say, whom you knew years ago, rich & risen & educated, respected & influential, but if Patrick lost the Faith or did not attend to the School where his children got their training the whole of the Shaunassys become Protestants, married Protestants, and receive you – the priest – kindly – indeed but quite indifferent – Protestant in name no religion in reality.
Such is some of our sad experiences.
He is proud though of the opportunities for Catholic education in the Cape colony - schools for boys and girls and a Jesuit University College. He talks about a Father Kerr who was from Scottish descent, who used to be a captain of a Man-of-War but now runs the Jesuit mission to Mashonaland. Fathers O'Brien and Fanning are also from Wexford.
One feels he lives in the making of a new Country – in the day of small beginnings & Great Surprises : when every soul is a starting every foothold – the foundation of a Church – every day – full of work & promise. I have been the first in several small missions. Mass in a private house or a Magistrate’s Court, a few Catholics & now there is a Chapel Priest and land. Schools & the children saved.
I was for a year in a tent with our troops in the Basuto Kaffir Rebellion, saw some fighting, all is peace ever since & our missions there are flourishing.
I am with the Bishop now. I preach, write a good deal, we have a South African Catholic Magazine. I take part in most things of a Public character that goes on. The priest in this protestant land is much respected. Friendship everywhere : nothing of the bigotry of Ireland here.
Father James ends his letter by asking for news of Kate's brothers - one (Patrick O'Gorman) was newly qualified as a doctor and James says that there are plenty of opportunities for him in Cape Colony.

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