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The Pioneers

Fr Neil Collins on the pioneers of the society.

There’s a picture in my room entitled Ordo presbyterorum societatis ab eius inceptione usque ad finem anni 1923. It has photos of the faces of 83 priests, 9 rows of 9, with two additional portraits at the bottom, those of James O’Connell and Charles Cullen, the first Columbans to die.

Today I want to reflect on the first seven, the pioneers of the society. The order is interesting: Edward J. Galvin, the founder; Pat O’Reilly, one of the two who joined Galvin in China in 1915; John Henaghan, first editor of The Far East; John Blowick, first superior of the society; Joe O’Leary, the other priest who answered Galvin’s call in 1915; Edward J. McCarthy, first director of the US region and founder of SCA in Manila; and James Conway.


While I was thinking of them, and wondering what they have to say to us today I met a couple of questions. A lady asked me about the 10,000 people who were in Knock on 1st November. She felt that there was a great sense of gloom and desperation in the country. Then I listened to Marian Finucane and her guests discussing the alarming number of suicides: Why? What can be done about it? I wondered what Galvin and our pioneers have to say about hope and despair?

Galvin hoped to convert many Chinese. He got a reality check in 1927 when left wing armies took over the Hanyang area and threatened to wipe the mission out. He was made bishop in November that year and chose ‘Fiat Voluntas Tua’ for his motto. He explained, ‘I hope that that might constantly remind us here in China that we are not here to convert China but to do God’s will, and we don’t know 24 hours ahead what that is.’ Japanese armies occupied most of the diocese from October 1938 to October 1945 paralyzing missionary work. The communists took over the area in May 1949, and Galvin was expelled in September 1952. He died of leukaemia in February 1956.

In second place, where you might expect John Blowick, is Pat O’Reilly, curate in Tang, Co. Westmeath, before he went to Hangzhou in 1915. He was often a rebel, beginning with some republican involvement. Bishop Smith tells how the bishop of the day, Laurence Gaughran, got into his horse and carriage in Mullingar and drove down to Tang, to offer him a choice between China and Kilmainham. He chose China, and was soon in trouble with the French Vincentians, for stirring up the Chinese priests. On his way back from China to do mission appeals in the US he gave out some very strong Bolshevik [communist] doctrines. A detective followed him all the way to Omaha where E. J. McCarthy assured him that Pat was harmless. When he returned to China he backed young priests against the bursar or the house superior in Hanyang. As the older man he was able to advise his superior, Blowick, about depression, ‘There is a danger of getting too depressed if we look solely at all the agencies with their immense wealth who are fighting against us. But a prayer before the Blessed Sacrament even though you feel you cannot pray will more than balance any natural means that are used against us’.

John Henaghan is next. Curate in Tuam before joining Galvin and Blowick in 1916. His editorials and his role as dean of discipline are given much of the credit for the honour system in the old Dalgan. He wrote beautifully about prayer and excelled as a spiritual director and retreat giver. One priest said that he was ‘the man who used to tear the heart out of me every time his spoke of Our Lord’. Yet for most of his life he suffered a ‘cloud of interior darkness’. Assigned to Manila in 1931 he wrote to a friend, ‘You do not know how dry, how wooden, how commonplace, how poor my soul really is’. Towards the end of his life he told a friend, ‘I have had only one spiritual consolation in all the days of my priesthood and that was in the first year. Since then I have been following a dark light’. The Japanese arrested him, along with Pat Kelly, John Lalor, and Joe Monaghan on Christmas Eve 1944. They were brutally beaten and questioned for four days before being released. Then, on 10 February 1945, Henaghan, Kelly, Monaghan and Peter Fallon were taken away by Japanese marines. Their bodies have never been recovered.

John Blowick is only fourth on the list. Perhaps he designed it. He suffered from nerves and depression for most of his life. As early as July 1921 E. J. McCarthy was writing, trying to persuade him not to resign as superior. His name frequently disappears from the minutes of the superior general’s council, and for long periods, while he rested in Greystones. He and Galvin disagreed about many things. Blowick insisted on adequate training for the Columban sisters, while Galvin would have been satisfied with elementary school education. When Galvin ridiculed sending Larry Forristal to Rome to study scripture Blowick told McCarthy, ‘Caw [Galvin] wants him in China and has sneered somewhat at the idea of a man going to Rome for degrees for the purpose of doing Higher criticism in China. But I shall indulge myself in the luxury of having my own way for once’. Their greatest differences were about money, Galvin objecting to spending it on seminaries at home instead of in China. Galvin came home for the general chapter of 1924 determined to get rid of Blowick as SG. Later he confessed that it was a terrible mistake. Blowick stayed on as vicar general and as superior of the Irish region. He acted for the SG to buy the Dowdstown estate for £15,250 in 1926 and spent the next ten years gathering the funds to build a college. The students moved in here in 1941.

My favourite among the pioneers is Joe O’Leary. He had ideas about dialogue with Chinese culture and religion. However, he was transferred to the US region in 1918, and in the congress of 1919 was elected to the superior general’s council and served as manager of The Far East. He was in Hanyang 1924-26, before being moved to Omaha, as manager of the American Far East. In 1931 he got the additional tasks of bursar for the US region and the seminary in Omaha. When the financial crisis following the Wall Street Crash began to hit the society in 1933 he was told to resign as bursar. Five years later he asked permission to leave the society for health reasons and moved to the diocese of San Diego. His friend Galvin wrote as soon as he heard the news, ‘I beg you on my knees not to leave the Society. In sickness and in health she is yours. If you had not come to China just when you did, I doubt if she would ever have been in existence’. Later Galvin told McCarthy, ‘Joe plays a key part in the whole story. It is due to him that I came home; he directed me to Tommy [Ronayne] through whom I met Blowick, and he made the first step possible through the Bishop’s [of Cork] friendship’. O’Leary served the Mexican Americans in San Diego until he retired in 1964, and came to live in Bray. In his will he left everything to the Society and asked to be buried in Dalgan. ‘In my heart I never left the Society’. He lies down there near Galvin.

After their ordination in 1915 O’Leary’s classmate, Edward J. McCarthy, was sent to the Dunboyne Establishment for further studies. Early in 1916 he got permission from his bishop to go to China. When the society was erected on 29th June 1918, the Council of Directors comprised Blowick, Galvin, Henaghan, McCarthy, and James Conway. McCarthy was director of the US region from 1919 until 1934, when he was asked to resign over the financial crisis in the region. Many years later, in 1945, the superior general wrote to him, ‘If we had only listened to you in 1934 no Columban would have had to go on the road in America ever again’. He was transferred to the Philippines where he set up Student Catholic Action in Manila. Archbishop Michael O’Doherty inaugurated SCA on 21 November 1936 before a student gathering of 10,000. Yet McCarthy said, ‘I had nothing in my soul but an almost overpowering sense of frustration and failure’. He was in Burma, doing visitation for the superior of the Region of Asia, when the Japanese invaded. Pat Usher advised him to get out to India, but he felt that he should stay with the young Columbans and was interned along with them in Mandalay. Despite extremely bad health he researched and wrote a history of the church in Burma. It’s invaluable since the documents on which it was based were destroyed in the fighting. After the war he lived in the Columban house in Los Angeles. One day he went out to post a letter. Two cars collided and one mounted the pavement striking the mail box. McCarthy was badly injured and died two weeks later on 14 September 1957.


The final member of the pioneering group, James Conway, was a priest of Kildare and Leighlin ordained in 1916. Like McCarthy he was a high flyer, sent to the Dunboyne Establishment for further studies. He was a member of the first council of directors, but was not re-elected in 1919. After studying Spanish he went to Argentina expecting to set up a home region of the society there. The Argentine Far East ran from September 1920 to June 1921. It’s the twin of the Irish edition except for the page of donors, where there are names like Jose Maria Kelly and Mary Kean de McLoughlin. But there was to be no Argentine region and he was transferred to China. By then he was thoroughly disenchanted with the society, and returned to his home diocese. He was appointed to the staff of St. Pat’s, Carlow and later was its president. One of his students remembered him as ‘flamboyant, eloquent, colourful. His church history class furnished images from the past painted in bold colours, adorned with rhetorical flourishes’. In 1947 he became parish priest of Bagenalstown and Vicar General of the diocese.

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