Société des Missions Africaines – Province d’Irlande

né le 4 juin 1900 à Ballynoe
dans le diocèse de Cork, Irlande
membre de la SMA le 15 juillet 1923
prêtre le 16 juin 1927
décédé le 12 mars 1972
décédé à Cork, Irlande, le 12 mars 1972,
à l’âge de 72 ans

Father Robert Finbarr O'LEARY (1900 - 1972)

Robert O'Leary was born at Ballynoe, Ballinhassig, Co Cork, on 4 June 1900. He died, in Lindville hospital, Blackrock Road, Cork, on 12 March 1972.

Robert (Bob) received his secondary education in Cork, first at the North Monastery school, then at Presentation college, Western Road and finally at St. Joseph's college, Wilton, which he entered in 1919. He joined the S.M.A. novitiate and house of philosophy at Kilcolgan, Co Galway, in 1921. He studied theology first at St. Joseph's seminary, Blackrock Road (1923 1926) and, later, following the transfer of the seminary to the north of Ireland, at Dromantine, Co Down (1926 27). Bob became a member of the Society on 15 July 1923 and was ordained a priest by Bishop Edward Mulhern of Dromore diocese, at St. Colman's cathedral, Newry, on 16 June 1927. He was one of a group of eleven ordained on that day.

After ordination Bob was appointed to the prefecture of Liberia, in West Africa. Bob was to become one of the longest-serving missionaries in Liberia, remaining there for almost 30 years. He arrived at a time when Jean Ogé, the prefect apostolic, was attempting to build up the Church in the Monrovia region where the seat of government was located. Earlier efforts to make progress in this region had been largely unsuccessful, due to the hostility of Liberia's ruling class, the descendants of freed slaves from the U.S.A. who were frequently members of virulently anti-Catholic Protestant denominations. In fact it was among the indigenous people of the Kru Coast, some 150 miles west of the capital, that the first solid progress had been made early in the second decade of the century when, by their actions in defending the Krus from government oppression, the missionaries won their respect and allegiance.

Bob ministered mainly in the Monrovia region, serving for most of his missionary career under Bishop John Collins who succeeded Mgr. Ogé in 1932. Bob was to be one of the mainstays of the mission during Bishop Collins' tenure and especially during the difficult days of the thirties and forties. On arrival, in October 1928, Bob was posted to Sasstown, on the Kru Coast, where John Collins was then 'visitor' of the confrères, responsible for their spiritual and temporal welfare before the Irish Provincial. After five months, during which he was introduced to life on the missions, Bob was appointed to assist Michael McEniry in establishing a new mission district at Bassa, a coastal region some 70 miles east of Monrovia. Early in 1931 Bob was appointed superior of Monrovia district, with P.J. Kelly and John Coleman as assistants.

The mission in Monrovia was still in its infancy. Re-opened in 1921, after four previous 'openings' in the 19th and early 20th century, there were now some 450 Catholics (mostly Kru immigrants) and some 84 catechumens. Bob and his fellow-missionaries worked energetically to develop the district, ministering not only to the faithful but visiting the government prisons and army barracks, and in particular seeking out locations for secondary stations (such as Krootown, Basstown, Firestone plantation, Kakata, and White Plains). In January 1933 Bob was able to establish Monrovia's first two outstations, Kekru (originally a residential station but closed for over 20 years) and Kakatown (another station which had been closed for many years).

Bob went to Ireland on his first home leave in May 1933. On his return to Liberia a year later, he resumed his superiorship of Monrovia district. In 1935 he was appointed superior of the districts of Sannequellie and Gbarnga, both situated in the interior, north-east of Monrovia. Together with Pat McGirr, his assistant, with whom he lived at Sannequellie, Bob looked after the two central stations and their 16 secondary stations. This was a mission also very much in its infancy. Founded in 1932 it had a meagre 30 Catholic members, but the number of catechumens, some 300, gave hope for the future. In 1936 Bishop Collins decided to make Gbarnga a residential station, appointing Pat McGirr and Alex Matthews as first residents. Bob remained on at Sanequellie, with a new assistant, Tom O'Shaughnessy, until he next went on home leave in April 1940. Bob found it extremely difficult to get a sea passage back to Liberia because of the world war and it was March 1943 before he was able to reach his mission. He spent the next seven years ministering mainly in the Monrovia region, its hinterland, and the interior. Gradually his work and that of his colleagues began to yield fruit and it must have been a great source of joy to him when Propaganda Fide sanctioned the division of the vicariate and the detachment of the Cape Palmas region on the Kru Coast as a separate prefecture in February 1950. Bob was assigned to the staff of the 'old vicariate', now renamed the vicariate of Monrovia.

Two years later, however, the strain of working so long in such a difficult environment began to show and Bob was invalided home to Cork in August. While convalescing he ministered briefly as a chaplain to the St. John of God Brothers novitiate, Wexford. In August 1955 he courageously returned to Liberia, sailing on the M.V. Owerri from Liverpool on 28 September. On arrival he was appointed to his old mission at Sannequellie, where Kevin McKeown was superior. He found more than 100 Catholic members to greet him and a fine boys elementary school with 150 pupils. Within a matter of months, however, he was laid low with a serious skin disorder. Nonetheless, despite the urgings of his superiors that he should return home, Bob remained at his post. In October 1957, worn out yet still in good spirits, Bob was transferred to Kakata mission, where Tom Higgins, the 'regional superior', looked after him. Eventually in November 1958 Bob was persuaded to return home. From this time on he suffered chronic ill health, alternating between his home, hospital, and Blackrock Road. He died rather unexpectedly.

He is buried in Wilton cemetery.