Canon Hugh Starkey: 'Sagart aroon' served Down and Connor for 64 years
CANON Hugh Starkey was a marvellous preacher. He held the congregation spellbound. We hung on his every word.
Even to children, his homilies were intelligible and memorable.
“There is no detour around the hill of Calvary”, he often said – meaning that we should never shirk the Cross in our own lives – but always pointing to the One whose yoke is sweet and whose burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30), who has born our griefs and carried our sorrows (Isaiah 53:4).
His Holy Hours, on various Sundays of the year, also left a very deep impression. He would speak to the Lord in the Monstrance as a man would speak to his dearest friend.
Preaching once on the feast of Corpus Christi, he used Stevie Wonder's song I Just Called To Say I Love You to encourage us to make visits to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.
Ordained in 1953, Canon Starkey was parish priest of Whiteabbey from 1969 to 1982 and his ministry was during the some of the worst years of violence.
His parish was decimated by the intimidation of Catholic families from their homes in Monkstown, Fernagh, Rathfern and Cloughfern. Some parishioners were murdered.
On February 11 1974, he was celebrating the 8am Mass in the parish church when he was called to administer the Last Sacraments to Thomas Donaghy (16) and Margaret McErlean (18), who had been shot dead on their way to work at Abbey Meats.
During the Ulster Workers Council Strike in May 1974, he personally ensured that supplies of basic necessities like bread and milk reached Whiteabbey Village and where distributed to everyone in the community.
He was loved and respected not just by Catholics but by our friends and neighbours in the other Churches.
Canon Starkey was a true shepherd after the Lord's own heart (Jeremiah 3:15). A sagart aroon, beloved of the parishioners of Whitehouse, Whiteabbey, Sacred Heart, Belfast, Upper Mourne and, in his years of retirement, Dundrum and Ballykinlar.
Aisling Murphy, a teacher in St Joseph's PS, Ballykinlar, Co Down, shared her memory of him living next to the school.
"We all thought the world of him. He always said to the kids he'd been talking to God that morning and they just loved him coming in to talk to them.
"They'd ask him, what did God say? He always said I was telling God I was coming in to visit you all and God said to tell you he loves you all.
"We tried to prepare the kids for his passing, they were very sad, but one of the children in my class said... 'I'm sad, but Canon is going to be so, so happy being able to talk to God face to face'. What lovely memories we all have of him."
At the centre of Hugh's life was daily Mass and the hour he would spend in prayer before Jesus in the Tabernacle.
When you listened to him preaching and were present at Mass when he was celebrating, you knew that he loved, with all his heart, the One about Whom and to Whom he spoke; and Whom he held in his hands at the altar.
The Canon also had a great singing voice and Just a Song at Twilight was his ‘party piece'.
The last verse is apt as we give thanks for his long life: “Footsteps may falter, weary grow the way/ Still we can hear it at the close of day/ So till the end, when life's dim shadows fall/ Love will be found the sweetest song of all.”
Canon Hugh Starkey went home to God at the age of 92 on December 7. He had served God and His people as a priest of the diocese of Down and Connor for 64 years.
The Psalmist says: “I will sing forever of your love, O Lord." The "sweetest song of all” is the truth that we are loved by God with an everlasting and unconditional love.
This was the constant theme of Hugh's preaching and ministry throughout his life as a true priest of Jesus Christ. Thank you, Hugh. We will be forever grateful. Until we see you again, pray for us.
Fr Patrick McCafferty