We were always led to believe, at least we were until a few short decades ago, that it was the wish of every Irish parent to have a son ordained as a priest for the Catholic Church. In recent years, the wish, if it ever existed, went largely unfulfilled as fewer and fewer Irish students entered the cavenerous like seminaries which had been built during the 19th century to cater for the needs of the Irish Church. The hallowed seminary halls which once resounded to the muffled tones of ecclesiastical chitchat are today more likely to re-echoe to the hollowed sound of empty space. Even in the heyday of Irish seminaries Athy was not the most fruitful source of candidates for the priesthood. I can recall within my time only a few young men ordained for the priesthood from our town, starting with Tommy Touhy and Leopold Kelly, both of Offaly Street. A considerable period of time elapsed before John Troute of McDonnell Drive was next ordained, and since then one further name has been added to the list of Athy clerics.
I was in St. Michael’s Parish Church a few Sunday’s ago to join in a lovely celebration when the latest priest from the town said Mass for the first time in his home parish. Just a few weeks earlier Con Foley, a former pupil of Athy Christian Brother’s School, had been ordained by the Bishop of Arundel and Brighton in a ceremony held in St. Joseph’s Church, Guildford, Surrey. The young man, who in his lay life had been an accountant, lay prostrate in front of the Church altar during his ordination ceremony in full view of his family and friends who had travelled from Ireland for the occasion. Apart from the members of his immediate and extended Foley families there were colleagues from his accountancy days and school friends from his alma mater in Athy. Our own Parish Priest, Fr. Dennehy, was one of the priests assisting Bishop Conry during the ordination ceremony and no doubt as he looked at the prostrated figure before the altar his thoughts and those of his fellow priests must have turned to the occasions of their own ordinations.
Fr. Con Foley comes of an old Athy family with links to the town extending back over many generations. His grand-father Jack Foley achieved sporting success in 1931 when he won the All-Ireland Junior Handball singles title. His sons, John, Paddy, Dan, Tom and Noel were all footballers who at one time or another played for Rheban. Paddy, otherwise ‘Skinner’ Foley, is particularly well remembered by me as an exceptionally wily and skillful footballer and hurler who outplayed and outfoxed me on many occasions in Geraldine Park. Con with his four brothers and four sisters lived for many years with their parents John and Mary in Townspark until the family moved to Kilberry in 1991. Sadly John Foley died in October 1993, just two months before his own brother Paddy ‘Skinner’ passed away.
I knew Con as a school friend of my eldest son Seamus and one of a group, also comprising Sean Swain, Des Noonan and Stephen Murphy who have maintained contact with each other since they left Scoil Eoin nearly 14 years ago. Indeed the four school pals all travelled to Surrey to share in the joy of the ordination ceremony with their friend Con some weeks ago.
Like myself Con served as an altar boy in the Parish Church for many years. He was a quiet young fellow who like his late father played football for Rheban Gaelic Football Club and if memory serves me right, won a Junior B Championship medal with the club. He trained as an accountant after leaving the Christian Brothers School and on qualifying worked initially in Portlaoise before taking the emigrant boat to England where he held a number of positions with different firms, including Virgin Atlantic and British Airways.
Con recognised sometime ago that the commercial world held little attraction for him and nurtured the growing aspiration to spend his life as a Catholic Priest in the Foreign Missions. However, an extraordinary lengthy train journey which brought Con and his friends through Prague, terminating in Hong Kong, confirmed that missionary work in foreign parts required a tougher constitution than he could bring to the task. Fulfillment would be achieved through the more prosaic role of a secular priest involved in parish work. Having made the decision, Con entered St. Joseph’s Seminary in Guilford, Surrey in September 1994 as a member of a class of eight, four of whom would in time be ordained for the priesthood.
After five years in the Seminary and a further year involved in parish work, Con Foley was ordained in St. Joseph’s Church, Gilford on 8th September last. He is now a curate in the parish of Bexhill-on-Sea, sharing a presbytery with his Parish Priest. They are the only priests in a parish of approximately 1,500 Catholics, with three churches amongst a population of approximately 30,000 persons. In English Catholic parishes such as Bexhill-on-Sea the Catholic Church is heavily involved in community activities. There are far more church groups in the English parishes than one is accustomed to find in Ireland which gives the young Athy-born curate and his Parish Priest plenty of opportunity for community interaction.
When he said Mass in his native parish Fr. Con Foley gave a short well-structured homily which was well received. At the end of the Mass applause broke out for the latest young Athy priest to grace the altar of St. Michael’s Church. It was an emotional morning for the members of the Foley family and especially so for the young priest’s mother Mrs. Mary Foley who sat surrounded by her children in the church where she had attended Mass with her late husband John for many years.