Denis O’Donovan, class '59
1940 - 1995
Omnia bona ad finem procedunt (all good things come to an end)
These were the words with which I once heard Fr. Denis O'Donovan, in his capacity as dean, urge a reluctant Sixth Year, still slumbering in his bed at 7.55 am, to face a new day. Of course, the Sixth Year in question would not have understood him; by that time Latin was no longer on the College curriculum. This incident sums up much about Denis. He loved Latin and Greek and, though he greatly loved French as well, he once told me that I had done the right thing in pursuing the classics over modern continental languages. Denis had a deep appreciation of tradition and of the past. It showed itself in all kinds of ways. Transport, for instance, was a passion with him. He lamented the passing of the trams. He had a detailed knowledge of the Irish railway system in the age of steam. He helped to restore the Royal Canal. And on one of the last occasions I spoke with him he told me he was hoping to do a bit of horse-riding and perhaps even go hunting.
Denis was a man who valued the lessons and achievements of tradition; but he was no refugee in the past, afraid of the challenges of the present. He loved working with young people. The young are perhaps the most difficult of constituencies to work with: they see through pretence at once. Denis O'Donovan loved working at Castleknock and in him the boys sensed the presence of two wonderful qualities, integrity and kindness. Some people who did not know Denis or the scope of his work at Castleknock were taken aback when six hundred mourners, most of them younger pastmen, attended his funeral at the College. I was not at all surprised but I was no less moved. Denis had taught boys, some of whom are now men in their forties while others are still in their teens. He was dean of the Junior and Senior Schools for sixteen of his twenty-five years at Castleknock. When my own year had a reunion several years ago there was widespread disappointment that Denis could not he present and an equally widespread recognition that he had been the most significant influence on the year. To the best of my knowledge all of year groups with which he had dealings were substantially represented at his funeral: some by a quarter of their number. It was the largest gathering of pastmen in the College for many decades: an extraordinary attendance, more especially when one considers that some class reunions, planned months in advance, attract only half of those eligible to come and that younger people are not given to scanning death-notices in papers on a regular basis. Some very young pastmen, who could ill afford it, even travelled from abroad to be present.
Denis O'Donovan was devoted to the Vincentians and devoted to Castleknock. It pained him greatly that some people could not understand the absolute compatibility of the two. The office of dean was traditionally designed to be held for a period of two to three years by a vigorous young Vincentian in his late twenties. In the Castleknock Centenary Record, great play was made of the fact that Fr. Malachy O'Callaghan, a nineteenth-century president of the College, had at one stage been dean for eleven years. It was thought to have been an impressive record, though of course in O'Callaghan's day there were only eighty to 100 boys in the College. Denis O'Donovan was dean of the old Junior School of 110 boys between 1970 and 1973 and again between 1974 and 1981. He was senior dean of 300 boys between 1981 and 1987. He remained as dean for so long out of a sense of duty: there was no Vincentian to replace him. His day would begin at 6.30 a.m., rising for morning prayer with the Vincentian Community. He would wake the boys at 7.30 am and from then until half past midnight there was one long round of supervising meals and recreation, teaching and preparing for class and taking tog-outs. He had a half day off each week. A year or so ago I heard two pastmen in their early twenties compare notes as management consultants. Like wild west cowboys who'd spent weeks in the saddle, they were quietly proud of their long hours on projects. I complimented them, ironically, on working almost as hard as Fr O'Donovan.
Why did he do it? How did he do it for so long? The answer is that Denis O'Donovan had a deep sense of vocation: he saw his work as teacher and dean as being part of the priestly work of Christ. In 1975 I was a prefect in the Junior School. One night I had occasion to go to the dean's office. Pausing at the door I listened long enough to hear that Denis was busy: he was speaking with a boy who was apparently in some sort of disciplinary trouble. I did not listen for long but it was long enough to hear something extraordinary. I cannot now recall the words. All I know is that they were not the words of a mere enforcer of rules: they were the words of a devoted priest.
All good things come to an end, but some of the best things come to an end much too soon. Adieu, Denis: TO GOD
My dear brothers and sisters, there is a line in the Psalms which says:
Their plans that day come to nothing
Whatever plans we had for today, none of us could have foreseen that we would be celebrating a funeral mass for Fr Denis. He always seemed so full of life that it is really hard to believe that he has gone from this world. The ways of God are not our ways. None of us could have guessed that the moment had come for God to say to Denis:
Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your Master
In Denis’ life anyone can see how he used his gifts and talents every day, how he valued his daily work for the Lord. His workshop for more than twenty-five years was St Vincent’s College, Castleknock, where he was engaged in what he called “the mission to youth”. He then spent the last two years of his life here in another St Vincent’s, but with the same dedication to the Lord’s work and, indeed, a particular interest in the welfare of young people, as he showed by taking up some chaplaincy work in Deerpark College and by teaching French to young people preparing for the Leaving Cert. The teaching of French was, of course, a labour of love. He loved France. He loved the French language, which he spoke so fluently and with such a perfect accent that I found him difficult to understand myself, more difficult than some of the French people with whom I converse when I go to France!
Intertwined with his love for things French was his enormous interest in, and knowledge of, the French origins of our little community, the Congregation of the Mission. We are immensely influenced by the big man himself, St Vincent de Paul. You can see various scenes from his life in the stained-glass window behind me. It was from this man that Denis took on a missionary approach to all his work, a sense of witnessing to the values of the Kingdom of God in all circumstances, values of kindness, integrity, honesty, and helping people out when they were in difficulties or trouble of any kind.
Denis loved our community, the Congregation of the Mission, and was very proud of the fact that the first Vincentians to come to Ireland came to his native county of Limerick. This was during the time of Oliver Cromwell and the Vincentian missionaries soon got caught up in the siege of Limerick, where they preached a mission during the siege itself. The they escaped on to the Clare side of the River Shannon, and the tradition is that they ministered out there for some time before being forced to go back to France. One of them, however, did not escape, a Limerickman, Brother Thady Lee, martyred for the faith by Cromwellian soldiers.
Denis knew a lot about this mission to Limerick, and he found a church dedicated to St Vincent de Paul in the part of Clare that the missionaries had escaped to. Mass has been celebrated on this site since the time of the Vincentian mission. Last Easter Denis brought a young Vincentian student to visit this area arid show him the church of St Vincent. This was his way of passing on a tradition that was very important to him, as a Vincentian and as a Limerickman. This was the missionary tradition that inspired him and by which he lived.
And what about Cork? Denis was no stranger to Cork as his grandfather was from west Cork, and he did a lot of work on the family tree from records there. What about Sunday’s Well? Fr Denis is so well remembered here that everyone has his or her own personal memories of a friendly, warm-hearted priest, always full of life and chat.
So many people will have got to know him from his visits to homes in the parish, from his preaching and celebrating mass and the sacraments, and from all the daily contacts that are part of parish life, as well as from his special interest in flowers, gardening, cooking, music, and many other things too numerous to mention. Really, the grief and tears of so many people as the news of his death came to us – these speak more volumes than I could express in this short homily. He was loved by very many people in Cork and will be sorely missed, as he will be missed by his own family, to whom he was very close and whom he visited in Limerick every week.
I have spoken of the two main missions in which Denis worked, but there is a third, and who knows whether in God’s eyes this one is even more important, even more filled with grace than the other two? Of course it was supposed to be for only two months and it lasted less than a day, but the important thing is that he obeyed the call to go on that mission.
Denis went to the mission in China because it was suggested to him by our Provincial, Fr Noonan. This mission is now being revived after the communist persecutions of Mao Tse Tung had caused the deaths, the imprisonments and the expulsions of the missionaries there. Denis could have made excuses that a younger man should go, or that someone on holidays from a college should go, etc. But that was not Denis. He was a missionary at heart, and St Vincent spoke of that very thing on many occasions. Here are some of his words to his missionaries:
Consider, brothers, what cause we have to tremble if we are “stay-at-homes”, if on grounds of age or under pretext of some weakness we grow slack or relax our fervour… You could plead that that means shortening our days! Oh, brothers, what if it does! Is it a misfortune for the exiled wife to be re united with her husband? Is it a misfortune for those who sail at sea to be coming into port? What? Be afraid when a thing we cannot long for enough, and which will always come too late, comes in the end?
And on another occasion St Vincent wrote to encourage a brother who was dying, telling him he was going to the mission of heaven, a mission of love that will last for ever. These are his words:
Well, my good brother, how do you feel now? So you think it is all to the good that our great general, the first of all missionaries, our Lord, wants to have you in the mission of heaven. You see, he wants us all to go there, each in his turn, and that is one of the principal rules and regulations he made on earth… Yes! What a consolation you must feel at being chosen as one of the first to go on a mission, on this eternal mission, all of whose exercises consist in loving God.
Similar sentiments are echoed in the Irish Poem Ag Críost an Síol:
O fhás go h-aois is ó aois go bás
Do dhá láimh a Chríost anall tharainn;
O bhás go críoch ní críoch ach athfhás,
I bPárathas na ngrás go rabhamaid.
From growth to age, and from age to death
Your two arms, O Christ, draw around us;
From death to our end, not an end but a new life,
May we come to the Paradise of Grace.
William Clarke, CM
DENIS O’DONOVAN CM
Born: Limerick, 14 December 1940.
Entered the CM: 7 September 1959.
Final vows: 8 September 1964.
Ordained a priest in Clonliffe College, Dublin, by Dr John Charles
McQuaid, archbishop of Dublin, 20 May 1967.
1967-1993 St Vincent’s, Castleknock.
1993-1995 St Vincent’s, Cork.
Died in Taipei, Taiwan, 6 June 1995.
The people of St Vincent’s Parish, Sunday’s Well, Cork, are trying to come to terms with the unexpected death of one of their beloved Vincentians, Fr Denis O’Donovan, who died suddenly in Taiwan. He left St Vincent’s on May 24, having been asked by the Provincial of the Irish Vincentian Province to go to Taiwan for two months, in support awareness of the Vincentian Mission.
Fr Denis was born in Limerick 54 years ago and joined the Vincentian Order after completing his schooling. He then went to Castleknock College where he spent 27 years. He is fondly remembered by all his students.
He came to St Vincent’s in Cork as a curate just over two years ago and immediately made an impact in the Parish. He was a shy man and with the true spirit of St Vincent de Paul he went out about the Parish visiting people – the old, the sick and the house-bound listening to them and giving them advice and help. He had a particular interest in young people and helped a great number of them in their studies, giving them grinds in French, of which he was a fluent speaker.
Fr Denis was full of life. No request for help was ever turned down. Since he came to the Parish a Parish Register was put on computer; the Weekly Bulletin took on a new look. He always had encouraging word and he was very positive about everything which might help the Parish into the next decade. He helped in no small way to make the Pastoral Council – which is in its infancy – the success that it is.
Fr O’Donovan loved music. He could be heard on a Sunday morning playing the organ in the church for his own pleasure. He was a very keen gardener and he loved to grow all kinds of herbs and then use them to make some of his great sauces. This kind and caring priest will be fondly remembered by all at St Vincent’s.
The Cork Examiner