It’s probably fair to suggest not too many of us were on the edge our seats during the closing stages of the London Olympics’ 400 metre final.
Everyone bar Clondra missionary priest Fr Jimmy McDonnell that is. The 63-year-old cleric had more than a passing interest in its outcome and eventual winner-Grenadian sprinter Kirani James.
Nineteen years ago, he had the unique honour of baptising the world and newly crowned Olympic champion at a ceremony in the western fishing province of Gouyave on the Carribbean island of Grenada.
It was an undertaking that Fr Jimmy offers an immediate smile to as he reflected on his 36-year association with the Commonwealth realm earlier this week.
“I was parish priest at the time and I had known Kirani’s mother, Annie who had actually visited Clondra NS in 1981 when she performed with a group called ‘Spice Isle Youthquake’. But it was only after when I moved to another parish in Grenada that I started hearing about this outstanding athlete,” he said, during his customary annual trip home.
Despite not having clapped eyes on Grenada’s first Olympic gold medallist since, Fr Jimmy is hoping to break that interlude later this year.
“He is such a big name that they have even named a street after him,” he added with an overriding sense of pride in his voice. “Though Kirani hasn’t been home yet, I plan on meeting up with him around Christmas.”
Before then however, the Blackrock College graduate plans on making the most of his two-month break back home by visiting friends and family as well as catching up with old acquaintances at his former stomping ground at the Kiltegan Missionary Society in Co Wicklow.
Having departed these shores in 1976, Fr Jimmy has lived through a bloodless coup, US invasion, bitter in-fighting and, six years ago, one of the most devastating hurricanes in its history.
It’s an unhealthy mix that for many, would have prompted an immediate return home. But there’s an appealing resolve about Fr Jimmy, a quenchless desire almost to finish a job which first started almost four decades earlier.
“Going and staying in Grenada wasn’t really a problem. I would say that growing up in a family setting, going to college and then finding yourself in a strange country having to play a leadership role, that was challenging,” he admitted. “But the people of Grenada have been very supportive and accommodating.”
The feeling appears more than mutual with Fr Jimmy being personally responsible for the erection of four churches. All the while however, he remains intently grateful to the unsung fundraising efforts of those back home.
“We would often hold a special mountain climb which the people of Clondra, Killashee, Newtowncashel and Tarmon (barry) would always come out and support. So yes, that did help a lot, though I would say building a church is fine, building a community is an altogther different thing.”
Part of that community Fr Jimmy McDonnell speaks so fondly of remains vastly different to the day to day and ecclesisatical rituals of his birthplace.
“There are a number of islands in Grenada and for many years my parish covered two islands, Carriacou and Petite Martinique. That means having to cross to the other island to lead Sunday Mass and because the Grenadian’s have a great sense of celebration a typical Mass could last up to an hour and a half.”
Apart from the baking hot conditions and the occasional craving for a hearty Irish meal, you get the impression this is one devout clergyman who is very much content with his lot.
“Ah, I would hope there is a few more years left in me yet,” he added.
And so say all of us.
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