Wednesday 16 October 2019

Grief as Fr Sweetman laid to rest



THE town of Enniscorthy was left heartbroken at the passing last week of Fr John Sweetman (58), who died tragically last Tuesday. He was laid to rest last Friday in his native Carrig-on-bannow.

Mourners from Riverchapel, where he was parish priest at Star of the Sea Church from 2006 until last year, from Enniscorthy, where he served in St Aidan's Cathedral for 14 years and Wexford town joined Fr Sweetman's family and friends for his funeral in the south Wexford village.

In his homily, Bishop Denis Brennan said: 'Everyone tried to help John, to reach him in the dark place he found himself in. Sadly that help was not enough. Fr John left us suddenly. No words can begin to describe the heartbreak his mother and family must be feeling at this time.' A GLOOMY cloud hung over beautiful Bannow Bay as mourners gathered for the funeral of Fr. John Sweetman (58) who was buried in his native village last Friday.

'Something here in Bannow, something in the people here called John to priesthood,' the Bishop of Ferns Dr. Denis Brennan said in his Homily during funeral Mass in Carrig-on-bannow.

The local church could not accommodate the number of people who turned up to pay their last respects to a popular priest who served parishioners in the Diocese of Ferns for more than 30 years.

Fields were opened up around the village to facilitate the funeral traffic.

Many people stood outside in the rain, huddling under umbrellas, listening to the funeral Mass on a public address system.

Fr. Sweetman died tragically last Tuesday, 10 months after he stepped down as parish priest in Riverchapel after a sexual assault allegation dating back to the 1980s was made against him by a female.

Before leaving the parish, he addressed his congregation and informed them about the accusation, which he said was completely unfounded.

He said he was obliged to step down from clerical duties until the necessary investigation was complete.

Fr. Sweetman's subsequent death has caused widespread shock and sadness, not least in Carrig-on-bannow, where he grew up and attended Danescastle national school as a young boy.

People travelled from near and far to attend his funeral in the church where he was ordained 34 years ago in a ceremony that was a proud occasion for his family and the local community.

Following his unexpected death, this same close-knit community rallied to support the Sweetman family who are highly thought of in the area.

After his ordination, the 24-year old priest went to Australia and returned three years later as a fully-qualified counsellor.

During his 30-year clerical career, he served as curate in Wexford town, as well as director of Family Life Services and chaplain in Ely Hospital.

He spent 14 years ministering in St. Aidan's parish in Enniscorthy and was eventually appointed parish administrator to succeed Fr. Robert Nolan.

He became parish priest in Riverchapel in 2006 and was one of four Vicars Forane in the diocese.

Over 80 priests attended his funeral Mass with a large number of them assisting Bishop Brennan on the altar.

They received the coffin of their clerical brother after it was carried shoulder high into the church by his nephews through a guard of honour provided by Bannow Ballymitty GAA Club.

Fr. Sweetman, who is survived by his elderly mother Mai and his siblings, reposed at the family home in Carrig-on Bannow on Thursday before the funeral.

It was a final homecoming for the priest who returned often to the village where he regularly attended many local functions and officiated at the annual Patron Mass.

It was here that the priest who ministered to countless others during difficult times, sought solace and support after he stepped down as parish priest in Riverchapel.

In his Homily, Bishop Brennan said 'everyone tried to help John, to reach him in the dark place he found himself in. Sadly that help was not enough.'

He said that on a human level, there is great sadness at a time like this, sadness that a precious life has been lost.

Bishop Brennan quoted the American actor Rod Steiger who reflected on the mystery of life and death with the words: 'we come, we go, and in between we try to understand'.

'That's where we are now, trying to understand, trying to make sense of what has happened,' said the Bishop.

'Many families, many communities in our diocese have had to wrestle with this situation in recent times. Now it's our turn to walk that road, the road of tears and questions, the road of having more questions than answers.

'The end of a human life is a sacred moment. It cries out to be celebrated. Sometimes it comes with cruel suddenness, like a thief in the night, changing everything in a heartbeat.

'Sometimes it comes dropping slow, casting a long shadow before it finally arrives.

'Fr. John left us suddenly. No words can begin to describe the heartbreak his mother and family must be feeling at this time. And yet words have to be spoken. We must name the pain and search for hope,' said Bishop Brennan.

'We must mourn John. We must be with the family and share their pain. This cross is theirs in a special way. We can't carry it for them but we can put our hand to it.

'Our presence here today is in the long Christian tradition of standing with those who mourn, of putting our hand to their cross, of making real the second beatitude: ' blessed are those who mourn, they shall be comforted'.

Bishop Brennan said that over the years John touched the lives of many people in a gentle, caring way.

'We thank God for that today,' he said.

'No one moment is the measure of a person's life. All the moments have to be in the scales and we leave the final reckoning to God alone who knows our innermost thoughts.'

He said John's earthly struggle is now over and if he forgot for a

moment how much he was loved, it was only for a moment, and there are many other moments.

'Our prayer and hope in this funeral Mass is that John has gone to a place where broken things are mended and lost things are found. Our prayer is that he has found peace, a peace which sadly eluded him here.'

'Finally, we pray God's peace on Fr. John's mother and family. These are bleak days for them but I know that the community here in Bannow will be there for them and help them bear this heavy cross,' said the Bishop.

Music and singing featured strongly in the funeral Mass with talented soloist Roisin Dempsey singing hymns to the accompaniment of Eanna Mckenna on the organ.

The instrumentalists included Anita Cullen and Colm O Tiarniagh along with two of Fr. Sweetman's nieces.

Local publican and award-winning harmonica player John Murphy, who knew Fr. Sweetman from their schooldays, played a beautiful rendition of the haunting Irish air 'The Coolin' which seemed to encapsulate all the sadness of the occasion.

Before his coffin was carried to the adjoining cemetery for burial, Fr. Sweetman's sister Margaret addressed the congregation of mourners and thanked everyone for coming. She remarked that each member of a family has a different role and John was the 'carer and giver'. Everyone went to him for advice. He was on the doorstep in good times and bad and for every family occasion.

She thanked Bishop Brennan and the clergy of the Diocese for their support and neighbours and friends in the community of Carrig-on-bannow for their kindness and assistance following John's death.

A colourful sea of umbrellas moved behind the funeral cortege as it made its way slowly in the rain to the back of the church for burial.

A line of priests in gold and white vestments stood by the graveside as Bishop Brennan led the burial prayers.

Fr. Sweetman, who stood beside many gravesides supporting other families through the deaths of loved ones, was laid to rest in the cemetery where his father Arthur was interred some years ago.

A special Mass in memory of Fr. Sweetman will be held in St. Aidan's Cathedral, at the request of parishioners, this Friday night at 8 p.m.