Thursday, July 24, 2003

Fr. Frank Caffrey



Fr. Caffrey who has served in the Athy Parish since October 1996 transferred to Bayside Parish in Dublin last week.  It will be a homecoming for the Dublin born Holy Ghost Father who was ordained in 1963. 

It was sometime ago while listening to a Sunday morning sermon by Fr. Caffrey that I became aware of his previous missionary work in Africa and particularly how he was caught up in the Biafran War.  He was ordained as a member of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit commonly referred to as Holy Ghost Fathers.  Founded in the early part of the 18th century by a French man, Claude Francois, the Order for many years was centered on the French mainland.  Indeed it wasn’t until ten years after the Great Famine in Ireland that a number of Holy Ghost priests came to this country to encourage Irish deacons awaiting ordination to join their Order and participate in overseas missionary work.

The Holy Ghost Fathers became involved in education in Ireland after establishing a French college in what is now Blackrock College and later still another college at Rockwell, Co. Tipperary.  Education was also the means employed by the Holy Ghost Fathers in evangalising Nigeria and other African states where their order established overseas missions.  It was as a science and maths teacher that Fr. Caffrey joined the Holy Ghost Mission in Nigeria in 1964.  Nigeria was comprised of three main ethnic groups, the Ibo’s, the Hausa’s and the Yaruba’s, who were not always on the best of terms with each other.  On 16th January 1966 a group of Nigerian Army Officers overthrew the Nigerian Government.  This led to much bloodshed and turmoil in the country in which the young Father Caffrey was then engaged in teaching and missionary work.  The following August a counter coup took place and within months a pogrom against the Ibo’s had started.  Moving back into their traditional homelands in Eastern Nigeria, the Ibo’s, encouraged by the French, seceded from Nigeria and named their territory Biafra.  This led to a bitter civil war which was fought out over most of the following three years.  If those of us who live in the West know little of the Civil War in Biafra, at least we know something of its consequences for it resulted in one of the world’s worst human disasters in recent years - famine in Biafra. 

On 7th July 1967 Nigerian troops invaded Biafra where there was a higher concentration of Holy Ghost Fathers than anywhere else in Nigeria.  Amongst them was Fr. Caffrey who was then serving in Obube.  The outbreak of violence interrupted the usual work of the local people so that the planting season passed without crops being sown.  Inevitably starvation followed and Fr. Caffrey with his helpers tried as best they could to feed up to 6,000 children twice a week and another 1,000 or so children four times a week in a desperate attempt to keep them alive.  Children were given priority but arrangements were also put in place to feed widows and the elderly, both of which groups were also extremely vulnerable in the war torn territory of Biafra.

All of this relief work went on while the Civil War was in progress.  Nigerian fighter planes constantly flew over the area firing indiscriminately, killing and maiming men, women and children.  Fr. Caffrey had to take evasive action on several occasions to avoid the menacing attention of Nigerian airforce planes.  An Irish colleague, Sr. Cecilia of the Presentation Nuns, was a martyr of the Biafran War, shot and killed when a car in which she was travelling was attacked by a Nigerian fighter plane. 

Enugu, the Biafran capital, was taken by Nigerian troops and in May 1968 Port Harcourt was seized, cutting off Biafra’s only outlet to the sea.  Thereafter aid from abroad could only come in through a local Biafran airport and 29 pilots were killed during the war while attempting to bring food relief to the starving people.  In January 1970 the Biafran Army resistance collapsed and the Nigerian Army took control of the Eastern part of the country.

Missionaries living or working in Biafra were arrested and confined under house arrest.  These included Fr. Caffrey who was detained with 28 fellow Missionaries including nine nuns and Bishop Joseph Whelan of Owerri.  All were charged with illegal entry into Nigeria and working in that country without permits.  Fines were imposed but although the fines were paid the Missionaries were kept in detention.  Police vans arrived to where they were under house arrest in Port Harcourt to take them to prison.  The Missionaries, priests and nuns alike, staged a sit down in the street demanding to be released as the fines imposed on them had been paid.

The local police and the military authorities could not agree as to what to do with the recalcitrant Missionaries but eventually the impasse was resolved and they were all lodged in a local prison. Cell blocks originally built to accommodate two prisoners were for the next six or seven days home to groups of ten Irish clerics.  Fr. Caffrey and his colleagues were eventually taken from the prison and brought to the local airport where on the instructions of the Police Inspector General they were flown to Lagos from where they were deported from Nigeria.  The fate of the Irish Missionaries who had been the backbone of the Biafran relief effort was later reported in the Evening Herald of 16th February 1970 under the headline, “Jail Protest - Nuns and Priests sit in street”.

Fr. Caffrey spent some time in Ireland and Paris before going again on mission work, this time to Kenya.  Based in Mombasa he taught in the Institute of Mechanical Engineering, while also carrying out what he refers to as “African style parish work”.  He tended to the spiritual needs of nine or so outstations where Mass was celebrated in local halls.  Fr. Caffrey spent the last 13 years of his overseas mission in Kenyan’s capital of Nairobi where he taught in St. Mary’s High School, eventually returning to Ireland in 1995. 

Fr. Caffrey was assigned to St. Michael’s Parish, Athy in October 1996, having spent a short period helping out in Francis Street Parish in Dublin following his return home from Kenya.  In the seven years he spent in Athy he endeared himself to the local people.  A quiet, good natured man with an obvious abundance of courage which showed itself during his years in Biafra, Fr. Frank Caffrey is one of three brothers who ordained to the Priesthood.  His sister Rita is married to Dermot McCarthy, formerly of St. Patrick’s Avenue, whose late father Tim was a forester in this area for many decades.  Fr. Caffrey transferred to Bayside Parish in North Dublin which incorporates Sutton Park as well as Bayside, Sutton.  I know the area very well, having lived in Sutton Park for over 10 years before I returned to Athy.  I wish him well in his new Parish.

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