By Sarah Mac Donald - 04 January, 2017
The funeral of the last Spiritan from the Irish province to serve in Nigeria takes place tomorrow, Thursday 5 January in Dublin. Ninety-year-old missionary Fr Paddy Foley returned to Kimmage Manor in 2014 where he passed away earlier this week. He will be buried in Blessington, Co Wicklow where he grew up after the family had moved from Dunlavin.
Paddy Foley joined the Spiritans when he was 19 years old and took up his appointment in the Archdiocese of Onitsha in 1955, a year after his ordination.
Apart from a short time in pastoral work in New York during the Nigerian Civil (Biafran) War and a subsequent period of studies in Nova Scotia in the 1970s, he spent almost all his 60 years of priesthood in Nigeria.
Initially assigned to a teaching role in the Archdiocese of Onitsha, he was later appointed principal of the new St Patrick’s Secondary School in Obollo Eke.
Fr Paddy later did pastoral work in the Diocese of Enugu. When he moved to the Diocese of Makurdi, he took on the role of co-ordinator for Justice and Peace. He was based in Abwa Rural Training Centre for more than 40 years. His brother Fr Gerry Foley, also a Spiritan, has served in Uganda in East Africa since 1957.
The Spiritan mission to Nigeria developed in modern times from the efforts of missionaries from the area of Alsace in France in 1885, led by Fr Joseph Lutz. From the early 1900s, Irish Spiritans expanded this mission under the direction of Bishop Joseph Shanahan.
The foundation of what became the Province of Nigeria was laid with the establishment of the Holy Ghost Juniorate Ihiala in 1952. The Holy Ghost Novitiate Awomama was erected in 1958.
However, most Irish missionaries departed at the end of the civil war in 1970 and their work was continued by Nigerian Spiritans as the Province of Nigeria-East was formally established from 1976.
It was Irish Spiritan Fr Tony Byrne who initiated the Joint Church Aid (JCA) airlift during the Biafran war. From 1967 until 1970, JCA kept millions of people in the small breakaway West African state alive, refusing to allow starvation to be used as a weapon of war.
JCA flew 5,314 extremely dangerous missions, carrying 60,000 tons of humanitarian aid and saving millions of lives. The starting point for their flights was the former Portuguese colony Sao Tomé, which was less than an hour from the destination. The JCA airlift lost 25 pilots and crew to the guns and bombs of the Nigerian forces who were intent on enforcing the Biafran blockade.
The Nigerian military government of the day refused steadfastly to allow relief flights or any other form of humanitarian aid into Biafra. Thirteen of the amateur pilots – many of them priests – lost their lives during a mission that was officially illegal, but had the blessings of the Pope. But despite JCA’s best efforts, it is estimated some two million Biafrans starved to death.