Northern Ireland news

'Operation Santa' charity worker dies just 10 days after daughter

Maria Mercer with her father Reggie Donnelly pictured just three month ago at Christmas. Maria was diagnosed with cancer weeks later.

A HIGH-PROFILE charity worker who helped ship thousands of toys to Bosnian children every Christmas as part of an "Operation Santa" appeal has died - just 10 days after losing his daughter to cancer.

Reggie Donnelly (78) who was originally from west Belfast but lived with his family in Dunmurry, passed away on Easter Saturday in hospital after a long illness.

His eldest daughter Maria Mercer (51) was buried exactly a week earlier, just three months after being diagnosed with cancer.

The father-of-six, who began his working life as a milkman and baker, was a deeply religious man and began organising trips to Medjugorje in the 1980s.

Such was the demand for the 'Our Lady Queen of Peace' pilgrimages - which were attended by 1,200 people a year from across Ireland - that Mr Donnelly was booking a packed plane each month to fly to the Bosnia town where an apparition of Our Lady is said to have appeared.

In a BBC programme made almost a decade ago, Mr Donnelly said he had been visiting the site for 27 years.

On his first visit he said he saw the words 'mir' - Croatian for peace - appear in the sky.

"That was the beginning of my devotion," Mr Donnelly said.

But it was for his unstinting charity appeals that he was lauded, with lorry loads of toys and clothes shipped to disadvantaged children from the Balkans every year through his work as director of the Good Shepherd Foundation for Needy Children.

In 2000, he also helped organise a journey in which eight children from Bosnia and Albania in need of urgent medical treatment due to horrific landmine-related injuries travelled to Northern Ireland.

The charity worker persuaded doctors in Galway to donate their services for free.

Mr Donnelly's son Martin said his father had great faith and was a life-long pioneer who didn't drink or smoke.

"But I'll always remember him as someone who was very funny and loved telling stories...he lived for his grandchildren."

Martin Donnelly said his sister's passing had come as a "huge shock" as she had been so fit and healthy and became ill after suddenly developing a pain in her side in January.

"My daddy had been in hospital and he knew that something was wrong as he hadn't seen Maria in a while as we hadn't said to him. But he got to say goodbye to her."

Mr Donnelly is survived by his five children, John, Una, Martin, Gerard and Ciara. His funeral arrangements are to be confirmed.

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