A CATHOLIC priest has surprised his congregation in a quiet rural community by suddenly quitting the priesthood for "totally personal reasons".
Father Ian Kennedy has moved out of the parochial house in the tiny village of Ballinafad, Co Sligo, the Irish Independent has learned.
He moved the last of his belongings from the home beside the Church of the Immaculate Conception on Sunday evening after telling parishioners the previous week that he was resigning from his ministry -- a move that was greeted with tears from some.
Fr Kennedy, who is in his 40s, had been acting parish priest of Aughanagh.
Boyle parish priest Canon Gerard Hanley, who celebrated Mass in Fr Kennedy's place, admitted that the cleric's decision to leave the priesthood had come as a "shock".
"I understand it is something that he has thought about on and off for some time and he spoke to the Bishop recently and came to this agreement. There is nothing sinister whatsoever in the decision," said Canon Hanley.
Fr Kennedy was not available for comment. However, Christopher Jones, Bishop of Elphin, confirmed the departure to the Irish Independent.
"Fr Ian Kennedy announced on January 15 at Mass in Ballinafad that for personal reasons he was resigning as administrator of the parish and leaving the priesthood," Bishop Jones said. "He had already informed me.
"He will be very much missed by me, his priest colleagues and the people he served, most recently the parish of Aughanagh.
"We are all very grateful for Father Ian's contribution to people and the diocese of Elphin.
"Our prayers and good wishes go with him."
A member of the congregation told the Irish Independent yesterday that she was left "stunned" by the news.
"He was a great priest. He hadn't been his usual chirpy self since just before Christmas but this (announcement) came as a complete shock," she said.
"He stood on the altar and thanked everyone in the parish who had worked with him since 2005 and said he had decided to leave the priesthood. Some people cried."
Yesterday, outside a community centre in Ballinafad -- which is famous for being home to Ireland's shortest St Patrick's Day parade -- one parishioner said it would take "some time to get over this." He added: "It's not every day that someone resigns from the priesthood.
"Father Ian was well-liked and had organised the parish so well. People are stunned."
A friend added: "Whatever the reasons for leaving, we wish him all the best for the future. He is a good man."