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Fr Leo Staples was a joyful person with a great sense of humour

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The late Fr Laurence ‘Leo’ Staples.

The late Fr Laurence ‘Leo’ Staples.

The late Fr Laurence ‘Leo’ Staples.

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ST Patrick’s Missionary Society based in Kiltegan have paid tribute to Fr Laurence ‘Leo’ Staples who passed away suddenly in the St Patrick’s Care Unit on Monday, August 22.

Leo was born on April 19, 1925 to Francis Staples and his wife Margaret Mary (née O’Dwyer) of Wygram Place, Wexford. Although christened Laurence he was called Leo from an early age.

Leo received his primary education in the local national school before moving to St Peter’s College, Wexford, for his secondary education.

After sitting the Leaving Certificate in June 1945 he applied for admission to St Patrick’s Missionary Society but was refused by the medical doctor who examined him. He was told he did not have the health for life in Africa as his mother had died at a relatively young age. He entered the philosophy wing of St Peter’s College and completed a two year course in philosophy in June 1947.

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Leo decided to seek admission once again to St Patrick’s Missionary Society and this time he was successful. He joined the Spiritual Year Class of 1947 and was part of the first group of students to live in the Nissen Huts at Kiltegan.

After completing the Spiritual Year he went directly to the theology programme in September 1948. After a four year course he was ordained priest in St Mary’s Church, Killamoat, on Easter Sunday of 1952 along with seven classmates. The ordaining prelate was Most Rev John W Heffernan DD CSSp, the retired Vicar Apostolic of Zanzibar.

After ordination Leo was appointed to the new mission in Kenya which had been entrusted to the Society the previous year. Originally it formed part of the Diocese of Kisumu and in 1953 it became the Prefecture of Eldoret under Msgr Joseph Houlihan SPS.

He ministered at Nerkwo and Tartar for short periods before being transferred to Ortum in West Pokot. This vast area would be his home for the following fifty years. His first task was to learn the Pokot language. He admitted that this was a great struggle initially and there were times when he wanted to give up. But after two years of immersion in the language he became very fluent in Pokot.

He was then ready to embark on a ministry which would be extraordinarily fruitful. Through his dedication, creativity and enthusiasm he evangelized thousands of people and helped set up thriving Christian communities all over West Pokot. One of his means of evangelization was the use of local dance. The Pokot people love to dance. He enticed the local people into the Christian community through dance and when he had their attention he preached the Word of God to them. It worked very well as a pastoral strategy.

Leo’s ministry involved long treks high up into the mountains around Ortum and Sigor. Some communities were almost 9,000 feet above sea level. No doubt all this physical exercise was a factor in keeping Leo fit and enabling him to have such a long and healthy life.

During his years in West Pokot he also set up Health Clinics in collaboration with the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary with whom he worked very closely. He also helped set up schools and educational projects. When Leo began his ministry in Sigor there were 13 Catholics in the area. Today there are 15 parishes with dozens of Religious Sisters and local clergy. One of his greatest joys was to see West Pokot native, Robert Psinon, being ordained for St Patrick’s Missionary Society in 2018.

In 2002 Leo left his beloved people of Sigor and went to work in Kipsaina Parish about 15km from Kitale. After a number of years in that parish he had to go to Ireland for medical treatment.

On his return to Kenya he was appointed to Holy Family Parish, Chepchoina, where he worked closely with the Servants of the Mother of God Sisters and with the Andersen family. In 2005 he opened a Centre near Tartar for people with special needs. It became known as The Bobleo Centre and still flourishes today. This project was very dear to Leo’s heart and was funded by family and friends. It was dedicated to his brother Fr Bob (Ferns Diocese) who was a very generous supporter of his missionary work.

Leo was the oldest member ever in the Society and he was the longest ordained. He will be remembered above all as the Apostle to the West Pokot people. He learned their language and their customs and immersed himself totally in their rich culture. In turn they took him to their hearts and even gave him a special name which was a real sign of their respect for him and their appreciation of his contribution to their lives. The name they gave him was ‘Lokomol’ which means “the bull with the brown spot”, “the leader of the herd”.

Leo had a great sense of humour and was an extremely joyful person. He was always ready for a joke and a laugh. He endeared himself to people by his great warmth, humanity and sincerity. His whole life was dedicated to the service of others. This attitude remained with him right up to the end of his life.

Leo’s health began to decline shortly after his 90th birthday but his fighting spirit never waned. He went to live at the Society House in Kibomet on the outskirts of Kitale. His movement became more restricted and his eyesight began to fail. In August 2020 he went to live at a retirement home run by the Daughters of Charity in Thigio outside Nairobi. He was very happy there.

He came to Kiltegan in late May 2022 for a holiday. It was to be a short visit as his heart was set on returning to Kenya in September. He participated fully in the Society Jubilee Celebrations on July 13 when he celebrated his Platinum Anniversary of priestly ordination. He died suddenly in the Care Unit at Kiltegan in the early hours of Monday, August 22.

Leo was predeceased by his sisters Sr Pauline (St Joseph of Cluny) and Eva (Hendrick), by his brothers Michael, Fr Frank and Fr Bob, by his sisters-in-law Nuala and by his brother-in-law Ted Hendrick. He is survived by his nieces, nephews and their families, and by the people of West Pokot.

His requiem mass was held in St Patrick’s Chapel, Kiltegan, at 12 noon on Sunday, August 28, followed by his burial in the Society Cemetery.


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