“I’M not going to Timbuktu, I’m going 45 miles down the road,” laughs Clonard Rector Fr Noel Kehoe, who is preparing to leave the West Belfast church for the latest chapter of his vocation in the parish of Dundalk.
A familiar and popular face to the Clonard faithful – as well as to the tens of thousands who attend the annual Clonard Novena – Fr Kehoe has been Rector these past four years.
“In our life as Redemptorists we help with the needs of the province,” he said. “I’ve never been based in Dundalk but it’s a church that I got to know growing up. Just as people come to the Clonard Novena, my family would have gone to the St Majella Novena every year over the generations, it’s a church that I know very well and love.”
Fr Kehoe spoke of how there is great goodness in people “wherever you go” and how much he will miss the people he has got to know since first arriving at 1 Clonard Gardens in 2015.
“Clonard is very much inserted in this community, their pride and love for it is something I haven’t experienced anywhere else.
“People have the same struggles and difficulties. I will really miss Clonard, miss the people I got to know here. When the changes were published they were a bit of a shock.
“Clonard is a church and faith community like no other. The people of Clonard are amazing, they are the most generous people I’ve ever met, they would literally go out of their way to help you in anyway they could.
“I spent seven years in Cork learning to say things without actually saying them, when I came to Clonard there were no back doors. It was lovely to work with that, you knew where you stood with people.”
While the sterling work of Fr Kehoe at Clonard is well appreciated by the local people, he is keen to point out that it takes a considerable team effort for Clonard to work.
“I’m not sure people really understand just how big it is. There are over 300 people involved in Clonard, from our ministries, readers, Eucharist Ministers. Clonard has become a very significant place for music and our director Cathal Murphy has really pushed that with our choirs and opening up Clonard as a venue for concerts.
“Clonard’s name is out there, when you have such a beautiful and sacred place at your disposal there are people coming to Clonard for music that may have never been before.”
With preparations gathering pace for next month’s eagerly-awaited Novena, Fr Kehoe says he will take with him forever the “phenomenon” that the annual June festival of prayer has become.
“You have 10-15,000 people a day coming into the area. People are coming with huge burdens, you can see by the end that they are leaving feeling healed, supported and feeling that God is very close to them in their lives. I think at some stage all of us need that.
Paying tribute to the faith of the people of Clonard, Fr Kehoe says he was amazed to find when he arrived at Clonard that there were three Christmas Vigil Masses.
“I remember saying, ‘You can’t do that’ but it was a case of wait and see. Seeing the church packed with young families, seeing that sense of pure joy in the church, well, I will take that with me everywhere.
“I have a real deep feeling of gratitude for the way people have welcomed me, the faith of West Belfast Catholics is second to none and I want to thank them for all their love and support.”