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Société des Missions Africaines - Province d’Irlande

BELL Henry né le 22 novembre 1923 à Hollymount
dans l’archidiocèse de Tuam, Irlande
membre de la SMA le 1er juillet 1947
prêtre le 13 juin 1951
décédé le 12 novembre 2002

1951-1955 préfecture apostolique de Jos, Nigeria
1956-1980 archidiocèse de Kaduna, Nigeria
secrétaire de l’éducation catholique
1980-1982 archidiocèse de Kaduna, Nigeria
en paroisse
1983-2000 archidiocèse de Tuam, Irlande
2000-2002 Hollymount, Irlande, retiré

décédé à Castlebar, Irlande, le 12 novembre 2002
à l’âge de 78 ans


Father Henry Joseph BELL (1923 - 2002)

Henry Bell was born in Hollymount, Co Mayo, in the archdiocese of Tuam, on 22 November 1923. He died in the General Hospital, Castlebar, Co Mayo, on 12 November 2002.

Henry (Harry) was a son of Richard and Cecilia (nee Cunane) Bell who farmed near Hollymount. Baptised in the parish of Kilconnan-Robeen, Harry entered the world with illustrious connections to the Catholic Church. Bishop Kyne of Meath was a second cousin, while an aunt and several cousins were nuns and another a priest. Harry received his secondary education in the colleges of the Society. He studied in the Sacred Heart College, Ballinafad (1940-1942) and at St. Joseph’s College Wilton (1942-1945). During his last year in Wilton Harry attended First Arts lectures at University College, Cork. When he was promoted to the novitiate and house of philosophy, at Kilcolgan, Co Galway, in the autumn of 1945, he also attended lectures at University College Galway and completed his degree (philosophy and education) in 1947. Harry received his theological formation in the major seminary at Dromantine, Newry, Co Down. He was first admitted to membership of the Society on 1 July 1947. His ordination to priesthood by Bishop Eugene O'Doherty of Dromore diocese, took place in St. Catherine's church (the Dominican church), Newry, on 13 June 1951. Society ordinations were usually held in St. Colman's cathedral but were transferred to St. Catherine's on this occasion because of renovations. Harry was one of a group of ten ordained on that day.

After ordination Harry was appointed to the Prefecture of Jos, in Northern Nigeria. This jurisdiction had been erected in 1934 following a division of the Prefecture of Northern Nigeria. Harry arrived in Africa during December 1951. He served most of his first tour of duty – lasting four years - in Shendam, Northern Nigeria’s first station founded in 1907. His superior was Mick Harrison and together they built a ‘Combined Hospital’, part-funded by mission and government. In November 1955 Harry was invalided home with suspected tuberculosis. However the disease did not develop and, after a brief convalescence, he was able to return to Nigeria where in August 1956 he was appointed Catholic Education Advisor to the Northern Nigeria Regional Government. This was a newly created post, different from the traditional diocesan appointment of Education Secretary. It derived from the division of Nigeria into three Regions (East, West and North) each possessing local autonomy within a federation, a precursor of the post-colonial structure envisaged. Harry presented to the Northern Government the views of Northern Bishops and Catholic religious agencies on educational matters. The post was funded by government and a grant was provided to built a house – Fatima House in Kakuri (Kaduna) – where Harry went to live.

His position, as can easily be understood, required Harry to spend much of his time visiting bishops in the twelve jurisdictions and also the various leaders of the many religious congregations. It required him, too, to arrange meetings between bishops, politicians and government officials to discuss mainly educational issues, and occasionally the provision of medical facilities. In his work Harry demonstrated a good grasp of complex problems and a capacity for tact and diplomacy. Not only had he to balance the interests of the Catholic Church and the Government but he had to deal with the change from a colonial British administration to an indigenous Nigerian Government whose leaders were mainly Mahomedans. A tall, well-built, imposing specimen of a man, Harry was ‘to the manner born’. Graciousness and diplomacy were a natural part of his make-up and he carried out his assignment with flair and skill making friends with many of the leading politicians and officials.

Harry suffered hepatitis in 1972. From 1973, with the gradual government ‘take-over’ of Catholic schools, his task became increasingly difficult and finally in 1978 he retired from his post as Advisor. During the following four years his relations with the Society and the Archdiocese grew somewhat strained as he had no fixed appointment, was frequently at home in Ireland, and appeared to be uncooperative with regard to the disposal of Fatima House where he continued to reside. But others were at fault too and there was much misunderstanding, confusion and perhaps some jealousy about his earlier status. In the event cardiac problems aggravated by stress intervened and in May 1982 he was invalided home. After a period of convalescence Harry took up a post in Tuam Archdiocese as chaplain to the Sacred Heart Agricultural College (formally the SMA apostolic school) at Ballinafad. He remained there until 1990 when the college closed. During that time he represented ‘religious priests’ on the archdiocesan ‘council of priests’. Between 1990-1993 Harry assisted in Mayo Abbey parish. Then he returned to nearer his home, to Robeen parish, where he assisted (for a period he was ‘acting parish priest’) until July 2000. He then retired in his own house at Hollymount, Co Mayo, situated near a wide circle of relatives. In June 2002, no longer able to manage and unwilling to retire to Cork, he entered Queen of Peace Nursing Home, at Knock. Early in November his condition deteriorated and he was transferred to Castlebar hospital where he died. His funeral Mass took place in Roundfort church.

In a book written by Dagmar Kolata and published by Veritas in 1991, titled Priests – Telling it like it is, a chapter was devoted to Harry. In it Harry recounted how his family would have preferred him to become a diocesan priest because of the high mortality among missionaries. Of his work as Advisor he wrote: ‘I would submit all the plans of the bishops to the government, get permission to open schools, get finance for them. When the government wanted to convey messages, information and directions to the dioceses they passed them on through me. The missionary orders built the schools and colleges, appointed, paid and supervised the teachers, but the money was supplied by the government… I had to do a lot of negotiating, bargaining, requesting, cajoling and persuading’. A colleague who worked in Northern Nigeria wrote of Harry’s Advisorship in the following terms: ‘Harry was the virtual Catholic “Ambassador” to the government of Northern Nigeria, moving far outside educational policies and handling a steadily growing Islamic government with great discretion. His departure at the time of the take-over of church schools by the State was keenly felt by the Church in Northern Nigeria.’

A confrere who worked closely with Harry wrote: ‘He was a man of ability and charm who worked very successfully with government education officials at the highest level, and was able to adapt to a new administration on Nigerian Independence and to the breaking of the North into States soon after. He never really came to terms with the changing circumstances of his own position and his effective loss of influence in education matters when most Catholic schools were taken over by government in 1971 and the arrival of indigenous bishops with their own contacts with State governments. Over the final ten years after the school take-over, Harry was lees and less involved in education or pastoral activities in Kaduna. Whether it was his own decision to remain in a diminishing role in Kaduna or the Society’s inability to create a new role for him, a considerable talent remained unused.’

Harry had a reputation for being possessive and stubborn and there was a certain truth in this. He was also criticised for having kept his distance from the Society in later years. Yet during the last eighteen years of his life he regularly sent personal donations – or channelled funds which he had solicited for the missions – to the Society. Moreover the rather fraught atmosphere during his last years in Nigeria during which relations with some Society leaders were soured produced a caution in him which is understandable. And if Harry did not come regularly to Cork, members of the various Provincial Administrations visited him in the West of Ireland and assured themselves that he was content with life. The presence of family members near his places of ministry was a particular blessing for him. What is certain is that he made an important contribution to the building up of the Church wherever he worked and particularly in Northern Nigeria.

He is buried in the church grounds of Roundfort parish, Co Mayo.