‘Whatever I gave, I gained 10 times in return’ – Fr Joe

By Maurice Garvey

THE Ballyfermot parish of St Matthew’s paid tribute this week to Fr Joe McDonald – the ‘big fella’ – who has left the district following his appointment to Celbridge parish.

A parish priest at St Matthew’s for the last seven years, Fr Joe is a rare breed with the ability to connect to young and old, and with people of different faiths, or none at all.

Fr Joe farewell Mass 2 compressor

At a farewell mass for Fr Joe in St Matthew’s church

His progressive views on church reform often saw him appear on national radio and television, including an appearance on the Late Late Show in 2017, to discuss the launch of his controversial book ‘Why the Irish Church Deserves to Die.’

However, it was his down-to-earth delivery on the altar that endeared him to parishioners in Bally-fermot upper.

Over the years, many a resident who met him was effusive in their praise of how he handled a funeral, and quite often Fr Joe would quip back “did I not also do a lovely wedding?”

Originally from the Falls Road in Belfast, Fr Joe enjoyed his time in Ballyfermot, but such is the life of a priest, he was not able to stay for longer than he would have liked.

“It is very sad, the seven years went by so fast,” he told The Echo.

Residents who read the weekly ‘Fr Joe Rumblings’ on the St Matthew’s website, would have noticed the theme of goodbyes in recent posts.

“I knew it was coming, thought perhaps another year after Easter. Now I’m in a big house in Celbridge surrounded by cardboard boxes.”

While he made a significant impact on the parish, it is fair to say the parish also made an impact on him.

“Whatever I gave to St Matthew’s, I gained 10 times in return,” he said.

“My mother, shortly before she died, said to my sister Maria at home, the phrase she used was ‘I don’t know when I saw the big fella so happy.’ That was totally unsolicited, but a good tribute on the people of Ballyfermot.”

On August 29, when the community held a concelebration Mass at St Matthew’s for Fr Joe, a big crowd turned out to say their farewells.

“It all happened so fast, I was in Lourdes when Moya (Parish Secretary) told me that there were 12 priests coming to the Mass. I never got so many kisses in my life.”

Fr Joe has no official curate in Celbridge, but is hopeful that the Archdiocese will send newly ordained priests from Maynooth to assist his work there.

Sadly, he will not have time to return to Ballyfermot.

“You might say there is a lot of me to go around. Now you might say that, but the reality is I have a lot of work to do here, I have to find my bearings, and it is always very hard to go back.

“For St Matthew’s, I believe the Archdiocese is working on a new parish priest in the next two weeks. I would dread St Matthew’s not having a resident priest – some priests nowadays have to cover three or four parishes.

“There is a fantastic community in Ballyfermot. In my time I raised serious issues of drugs, suicides, and despite all that, there are dedicated parishioners, not just on Sundays. Surely to God, we can have a parish priest.”

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