By Simone Delochan, firstname.lastname@example.org
Fr Oliver Leavy while in Trinidad paid a visit to his longstanding friend Fr Michael Makhan on January 10 and it is here that the Catholic News met up with him.
Originally from Ireland, to which he returned when called back, he served in Grenada during its most turbulent years.
His story begins on a farm where he grew up within a Catholic household and attended Catholic schools. At 12, with the passing of his father, there were great expectations that he would stay home to help with the farm work.
“After many years at secondary school, I told my mother I wanted to stay at home. I loved farming. And she said okay but I had to go to a college, but when I went to the college, they said I was too young. So, I went back to the secondary school and when I thought about it, I realised there were just more important things than agriculture.”
What he saw in missionary magazines also intrigued him: “I just felt God was calling to me to something else, and kept calling. I have no regrets.”
But how did this Irish farm boy cross the Atlantic to an island he barely knew about?
He belongs to the religious congregation, St Patrick’s Missionary Society (SPMS) better known as the Kiltegan Fathers because of the location of its headquarters in Kiltegan, 45 miles southwest of Dublin.
The congregation began approximately 100 years ago when there was impetus to evangelise Africa, with special focus on Nigeria. The Holy Ghost Fathers (Spiritans) was the predominant congregation in Africa at the time but their numbers were inadequate. Bishop Joseph Shanahan, head of the SPMS in Africa, then came to Ireland where he recruited more priests for the mission.
“So they asked, and a few came and then a few more, from 1920 to 1932. They knew that this mission was important, and going very well—one priest might have had 200 different stations to go to.”
At the time, SPMS was not headquartered anywhere until a fortuitous meeting with a tea merchant who, upon hearing of the need, offered a farm in County Wicklow, South of Dublin and the seminary was constructed. At present, the farm is an ecological farm where power is generated from “the chipping of the trees” and a wind turbine for electricity.
Throughout the last century, and especially in the 50s and 60s, there were many young men who were willing to become missionaries. Fr Leavy himself was ordained in 1965 and began his vocation not as a missionary in Africa but teaching in a school started by the Archbishop of Edinburgh for young men who did not have the opportunity for completing secondary school in Scotland.
In 1969, he returned to Ireland to work on a formation programme. “It was necessary work and I was happy enough at it.” Fr Leavy was assistant to the priest in charge of the first-year students from 1969–1972.
Then came, finally, the call to go overseas, not unfortunately to Africa which was what he hankered after, but a small Caribbean island. “To my great surprise, I had to go to a place called Grenada. All my friends had gone to Africa. I just knew there was a place called Grenada. The bishop then was looking for priests, and we had priests. The Biafran War (Nigerian Civil War 1967–1970) was on in Nigeria, and quite a number of our priests were displaced.”
The Grenada Years
His appointment to Grenada lasted 20 years, 1976–1996, and it was during this period he met Fr Makhan. The local Church, on the heels of Vatican II, was in the throes of change, and so was Grenada. Fr Leavy was fortunate to be present for both integral points of Caribbean Church, and Grenadian political history.
“I got very interested in the Church in the Caribbean….I was very close to (Fr) Michel de Verteuil (CSSp), and Clyde Harvey, now bishop, and (Fr) Rochard and these people were running the [liturgy] school and I thought it was a fantastic thing. It was business as usual in Grenada, but here the focus was on re-evangelisation. I appreciated people like (Br) Paschal Jordan (OSB) …That’s how I became interested in Trinidad.”
Every year he brought Grenadians across to Trinidad to the school until one was established in Grenada. He worked in three parishes in Grenada: Sauteurs in the north, Gouyave in the middle, and in the capital St George’s, for five years.
With regard to the Grenada Revolution, Fr Leavy describes it in mixed terms: both a “painful time” and “a time of hope, too”.
Grenada, he says, was quite stagnant, and the youth “disenchanted”. It was with the latter group that the revolution of March 13, 1979 took root. His parishioners were either supporters of the revolution, or dissenters.
He credits a “sensible” Bishop Sydney Charles (deceased) for maintaining sanity and balance: “He would tell little jokes…I think overall when history is written, he did very well considering the difficulties….The Church had to be careful.”
He remembers the Church running afoul of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop: “He hit the Church very hard on at least one occasion. He lambasted the Church for questioning in any way, and little incidents were blown up. It confused people because they could see the Church was doing good things but they heard the Church wanted to destroy the revolution. There was a lot of confusion.”
Fr Leavy narrates the dissolution of the revolution and the chaos which followed when the leaders of the left-wing government, Bishop and Bernard Coard clashed: “They had the Prime Minister technically under house arrest….You saw a big shoot out. You saw people running and being shot. It was traumatising. And then the Americans came in…. America was not going to allow a left-wing government. There were similar things going on in Central America right down to Chile. It was inevitable it would have come to an end.”
Overall, his view of the revolution and its effects on Grenada is very balanced. Many professionals were trained in Cuba and young people were enthusiastic about actively participating in the shaping of their homeland but “eventually, I think, you can’t suppress people’s freedom”.
Fr Leavy visits Grenada frequently since his departure in 1996, and has seen both the infrastructural and economics leaps: “Compared to the Grenada I met in 1976, there has been movement forward. As an interested visitor, it’s doing well.”