Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Canon Owen Sweeney

With the death of Canon Owen Sweeney, former Parish Priest of St. Michael’s, the Irish Church has lost one of its most energetic clerics who during his time in Athy gave positive expression of the church’s concern and care for the people of the parish. He was born on 27th July 1927 and was ordained on 25th May 1952. From 1960 he worked in England as part of the Irish Emigrant Chaplaincy Scheme which evolved from a decision of the Episcopal Committee for Emigration established in 1953 by the Irish hierarchy. That early decision to send a Columban priest to England to develop the mission effort amongst Irish men working on the building of English motorways lead to the founding of the Irish Emigrant Chaplaincy Scheme and its extension to other job situations employing Irish emigrant labour. Fr. Sweeney was part of that chaplaincy scheme from 1960-1963 and again from 1964-1966. Incidentally another subsequent Parish Priest of St. Michael’s, Fr. Gerard Tanham, spent four years from 1973 as a member of the Irish Emigrant Chaplaincy Scheme. Fr. Sweeney was president of Clonliffe College Dublin from 1976-1980. Founded in 1854 as the seminary for the training of priests for the Archdiocese of Dublin, Clonliffe today holds the burial place of it’s founder, the Ballitore born and first Cardinal of the Irish church, Paul Cullen. It was following his presidency of Clonliffe that Fr. Sweeney came to Athy in 1980 as our Parish Priest. He was to remain here for five years, during which time he showed qualities which endeared him to the people of Athy and district. The 1980s perhaps marked the beginning of the withdrawal of centuries old commitment of the Irish to the Catholic Church. It was still a period marked by regular Mass attendance and commitment to devotions, sodalities and all the religious events which those of us of a certain age associate with our younger days. Canon Sweeney was an energetic friendly individual who oversaw the religious welfare of his parishioners, assisted by a full team of curates. However, his concern for the welfare of the parishioners of St. Michaels extended beyond their religious or spiritual needs. He took an active part in helping to develop a community centre for Athy and committed parish funds to help acquire the vacant Dreamland ballroom. The ballroom on the Kilkenny Road was opened on Friday, 14th July 1961 by the Reynolds brothers with the legendary Victor Sylvester orchestra on stage. That same night Paddens Murphy’s local band members provided support for Sylvester’s orchestra for what may have been the most important engagement of their musical careers. By the early 1980s the once flourishing showband dancing had collapsed and Dreamland ballroom, which for 20 years had been such a huge part of all our social lives, had fallen idle. Canon Sweeney on behalf of Athy Parish of St. Michaels in conjunction with Athy Lions Club purchased the ballroom for use as a community centre and ownership was vested in trustees nominated by the local Lions Club and St. Michael’s Parish. Today the centre, now renamed A.R.C.H., continues to provide community sports space as well as a club premises for Aontas Ogra members. Canon Sweeney’s active involvement in the acquisition and subsequent development of the A.R.C.H. Centre was but one of his many contributions to the welfare of the local community here in Athy during his period as Parish Priest. Since Canon Sweeney’s departure from Athy nearly 33 years ago the townspeople have helped celebrate the 750th anniversary of the arrival of the Dominican Order in Athy. Sadly, not too many years since then the Dominican mission in Athy came to a close and a proud chapter in our local history was completed. With the falloff in vocations to the priesthood the work of the priest has become more difficult. Here in Athy the priests of St. Michael’s Parish have to serve the needs of the congregations of six churches, five in rural areas as well as the town’s Parish church. It is a challenging responsibility in difficult times and prompts us to remember with gratitude the good work done in the past by men such as Canon Owen Sweeney whose passing at an advanced age is much regretted.

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