Monday 27 May 2019

Nenagh and Dromineers fond farewell to beloved Archbishop

Army personnel carry Archbishop Courtney’s remains from the church to the hearse. Pic. John Long.By Gerry Slevin
Army personnel carry Archbishop Courtney’s remains from the church to the hearse. Pic. John Long.By Gerry Slevin

The terribly tragic event of the previous Monday when Archbishop Michael Courtney was fatally wounded near the Burundian capital of Bujumbura, while returning from the funeral of a Burundian priest, was brought home to the people of his native Nenagh, graphically, at the week-end. His remains arrived for burial on Friday night, his own request being that the graveyard in Dromineer, the lakeside village where he spent so much time in his youth and later life, should be his final resting place. Archbishop Michaels death is mourned throughout the Christian world. He was about to complete his term as Papal Nuncio to Burundi having been involved in talks there aimed at bringing lasting peace to that war-torn African land. His cruel death at the hands of rebel forces, was a severe blow to the church because the 58 year old Nenagh man was confidently expected to pla

For the Courtney family, the Archbishop‘s brothers William, Louis and Jim, sisters Eileen (Frewen), Kathleen (Vandenberghe) and Mary (Spreng) as well as his nephews and nieces and many friends, it was a long and harrowing week. The remains reached Dublin Airport on Thursday night and Cardinal Desmond Connell (a former teacher of the late Archbishop) conducted a brief service at the airport mortuary where the attendance included Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

Prior to becoming a member of the Vatican Diplomatic Service, Archbishop Michael was a priest in the diocese of Clonfert in Galway so it was appropriate that, before the remains were conveyed to Nenagh, the people of Loughrea, the cathedral town, and the diocese generally, should have the opportunity of paying their tribute to him.

So, on Friday the cortege moved west, and a special Mass was celebrated in St Brendan’s Cathedral, Loughrea, by Bishop John Kirby, who (with Bishop Willie Walsh, Killaloe) had visited Archbishop Michael in Burundi only five weeks earlier.

It was then on to Nenagh.

Rain was falling heavily on Friday evening, when shortly before 8pm, the remains with a Garda motor cycle escort entered the town. A Papal flag hung limply from an upstairs window at 23 Summerhill, the Courtney home. The cortege halted there briefly, members of the Order of Malta taking up positions forming a Guard of Honour, and following the recital of a decade of the Rosary, the funeral procession moved off slowly on the remainder of the short journey to St Mary of the Rosary Church, with members of the Courtney family walking behind the hearse.

Bishops Walsh and Kirby received the remains which were carried into the Church from the side entrance by army personnel, the Irish army’s First Southern Brigade, based at Collins’ Barracks in Cork.


Bishop Walsh in extending sympathy to the Courtney family, told a large congregation that the long journey from Burundi had ended as they welcomed back Archbishop Michael’s body to where his initiation into the church began, some fifty eight years ago with his baptism.

“Just three short years ago we sent him out joyfully from this Church as Archbishop and Papal Nuncio to Burundi. We welcome him back this evening with deep sadness. During those three short years he worked continuously for peace. That he should meet his death in such a violent fashion when working for peace, is almost beyond our understanding. We can only pray that his untimely and tragic death may inspire others to continue his tireless work for peace. His life and especially his death can be an inspiration and a challenge to all of us to work, for justice and for peace in our world’ said Bishop Walsh.

Fr Eamonn Gilmartin, Portroe then read a Lesson, The Gospel acclamation was sung by Betty Keith and the choir members, with Church of Ireland rector, Rev Sidney Mourant reading the Prayers of the Faithful.

The short ceremony ended with Fr Tom Seymour leading the congregation in a decade of the Rosary.

At the rear of the Church, a Book of Condolences was made available for signing by Nenagh Town Council.

Just as four years ago, when for the ordination ceremony of Archbishop Michael, the splendour of the Church was greatly enhanced by the attention of sacristan Chris Hoctor and an excellent staff, so too at the week-end for the Archbishop’s last visit there.

The local clergy led by Fr Seymour (for whom the week was a particularly traumatic one, his brother Jim having been laid to rest on New Year’s Eve) made light of the extra demands which such an occasion placed on them and on the church.

Saturday’s ceremony began at noon, the Church packed to capacity and beyond, long before the entry procession of the Mass con-celebrants. They were led by Cardinal Arinze, President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue in Rome (who was the ordaining prelate at the 2000 ceremony), Cardinal Desmond Connell, Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto, the Papal Nuncio to Ireland; Bishops Willie Walsh and John Kirby. Also con-celebrating were almost twenty members of the Irish Hierarchy, in office and retired, while priests from both the Killaloe and Clonfert dioceses were also present in big numbers.


Diocesan Vicar General, Fr Seamus Gardiner, PP Portroe in welcoming everybody said that having gathered only three years ago for the ordination of Archbishop Michael, little did they think that they would assemble again so soon, this time in deep sadness at his tragic death.

On behalf of Bishop Walsh and the church in Killaloe diocese, Fr Gardiner tendered heartfelt sympathy to the Courtney family, the extended family, huge circle of friends, his colleagues at the Secretariat of State and all his colleagues from overseas.

Welcomed too was Bishop John Kirby, of whose Clonfert diocese Michael had been a priest, also representatives of Eanach Duin, of which Michael was titular archbishop.

Fr Gardiner also formally welcomed Captain Mick Treacy who was representing President Mary McAleese; Commdt. Michael Murray representing An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern; Cardinal Arinze; Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano from the Secretariat also; Cardinal Desmond Connell; Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto, the Papal Nuncio to Ireland; Archbishop Sean Brady and all his Episcopal colleagues and the representatives of the different congregations of religious Sisters and Brothers.

There was a welcome too for Rev Sidney Mourant, representing the Church of Ireland Bishop of Killaloe, Clonfert and Limerick.

Defence Minister Michael Smith TD represented the Government. He too was welcomed, as were members of the Dail, Seanad, Mayors (Cllrs Tommy Morgan and Sean Mulrooney) and members of Nenagh Town Council and North Tipperary County Council. Brigadier General Pat Nash and Deputy Commissioner Fachnta Murphy, representing the Defence Forces and the Garda Commissioner respectively were welcomed.

“We warmly welcome among us today, His Excellency Athanase Gahungu, Minister of Finance in Burundi and His Excellency, the Burundian Ambassador to Belgium, Ferdinand Nyabenda. We appreciate your country’s expression of sympathy at the death of Archbishop Michael and we know that the circumstances of his death are as hateful to you as they are to us. We pray that his tragic death may in some way contribute to bring peace to the people of Burundi, that peace for which Archbishop Michael had been working so tirelessly. May his life and death be an inspiration to all of us. Ar dheis De go raibh se”, Fr Gardiner concluded.


Civic dignitaries present too in private capacities included Gerry Collins MEP, Dana (Rosemary Scallon) MEP, Liam Hyland MEP, Maura Hoctor TD, Michael D. Higgins TD, Senator Kathleen O’Meara, Senator Noel Coonan, former Fianna Fail Minister Michael O’Kennedy, Harry Whelahan former Attorney General, ex-Senator Des Hanafin.

The lessons at the Mass were read by Conor Spreng (nephew of the deceased) and Hilary Vandenberghe (niece) while Bishop Walsh read the Gospel.

The choir, under the direction of Paul Collins organist, rendered several appropriate items incorporating Plain Chant, Taize, and pieces composed by Liam Lawton.

Soprano, Edel Shannon whose mother Lilian Courtney from Summerhill is a cousin of Archbishop Michael, sang the ‘Panis Angelicus’, Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’ and Faure’s ‘Pie Jesu’ during the ninety minutes ceremony.

In his homily Cardinal Arinze said they had come together for the final funeral rites of the great witness of Christ, archbishop Michael Aidan Courtney. He recalled how recent it was that he had been the ordaining prelate in the very same church when Michael Aidan was raised to Archbishop and took up his appointment as Papal Nuncio to Burundi. He said Michael knew then what a delicate mission he was taking up and how difficult and dangerous it would be at times.

Sadly, what he felt had been realised when Michael’s soul left his body on the operating theatre on the previous Monday. He had been shot in the country he was serving as a witness of the love of Christ, while returning to Bujumbura from a Mass celebrated for the death of a Burundian priest


The Cardinal condemned what he described as the heinous act of a few tragically misguided people, which, he added, should not be allowed to give a negative image to the people of Burundi.

Prayers of the Faithful were recited by Courtney family members Mary and Ciara Spreng, William, Danielle Courtney, also James Hanly and Harry Whelahan while the late Archbishop’s sister Kathleen read sections from two poems written by their mother and which were particularly loved by Michael.

At the Offertory procession, Sister Patricia Greene commentated on the significance of the various gifts presented by family members and friends. They included a photograph of St Mary’s Church where the late Archbishop had been baptized, received his First Communion, was confirmed and where he was ordained Archbishop three years ago.


A picture of St Brendan the Navigator was also carried. St Brendan is patron saint of Clonfert diocese, where Michael spent his early priesthood years.

“Michael was to navigate through rough waters in his missionary journey on behalf of the Vatican in Egypt, South Africa, Cuba and finally Burundi. Michael the Navigator for Peace has come home”.

A piece of African craft work, sculpted in Burundi was also presented, This symbol of friendship and solidarity was given by Michael to a deputation from the Irish hierarchy whom he met only five weeks ago.

Michael’s link with Dromineer was reflected in the presentation of a photograph of him taken there, Dromineer being his bit of ‘heaven on earth’ and the place chosen by him as his last resting place.

At the conclusion of the Mass, the final prayers and blessing of the coffin were recited by Archbishop Brady.

Archbishop Michael’s remains were then borne from St Mary of the Rosary Church, again by army personnel, to begin their final journey out to Dromineer cemetery.