Fr Stephen Kearney: Cleric's natural warmth and empathy won love of parishioners across Derry, Donegal and native Tyrone
FR Stephen Kearney could be described as a builder, farmer, photographer, comic actor, naturalist, apiarist, counsellor, a lover of people.
But above all he was a dedicated priest who gave himself selflessly in 51 years of ministry.
Countless numbers have benefited from the sacraments and his prayers, as well from as his wit and wisdom and life-enhancing sense of humour. He will be sadly missed by all who knew him.
Stephen was eldest son of Patrick and Bernadette Kearney of Clougherney, Plumbridge, Co Tyrone, one of 12 siblings brought up on a small farm in the foothills of the Sperrins.
He was ordained in St Patrick’s Church, Killenagh in 1969 by Bishop Neil Farren.
Entering ministry shortly after the Second Vatican Council, he described himself as “a Deacon in the old Rite and a Priest in the New Rite”.
A few weeks after ordination he was asked to look after his home parish of Aughabrack following the sudden death of Fr Brian McKenna.
His first permanent appointment came shortly afterwards as curate in Glendermott in Derry, the role including chaplain to Altnagelvin and other hospitals.
Fr Kearney attended the sick and injured following the atrocities of Bloody Sunday and the shooting of five men in Annie’s Bar at the Top of The Hill in 1972.
His chaplaincy also included the Good Shepherd Convent, Ebrington army barracks and the US naval base, where he was the first priest to celebrate the Vigil Mass before it was permitted anywhere else in Ireland.
In 1980 he was appointed CC in Sessiaghoneill, Co Donegal, where he took on the task of renovating St Mary’s Church.
Fr Kearney’s superb knowledge of construction and engineering was evident throughout his clerical appointments, as were his culinary skills.
Indeed, on one occasion when he invited a few clerics to his parochial house for dinner they arrived to find the dining room table strewn with engine parts.
In 1991 he was appointed CC in Faughanvale, where eight people would be shot dead in the Rising Sun bar.
Fr Stephen was deeply involved in administering to the families of those who lost loved ones and the injured.
He said: "It was very true of Greysteel that those who suffered most were quickest to forgive, and to look for peace."
It was this ministry that led to his work for cross-community projects as a means of healing.
In 1995 he was appointed parish priest of Ardstraw East, Newtownstewart.
Despite being plagued by ill health, Fr Stephen oversaw the building of a beautiful new oratory and parochial house, as well as using his engineering skills to solve a flooding problem at St Eugene’s Church, Glenock.
His love of drama was reflected in his active role in the Backburners Drama Group.
He took roles in several plays, one of his favourite being Tomasheen Sean Rua in Sive, for which he dyed his hair red.
Fr Stephen was also president of Naomh Eoghan GAA in Newtownstewart and was an avid Tyrone supporter, easily recognised by his garb at football matches.
He suffered over many years from Myasthenia Gravis, a rare long-term condition. Yet he never let it define him. He never complained and just got on with life.
As his health deteriorated, he moved in 2013 to Cappagh, Omagh where he was very happy, blessed with supportive and caring colleagues.
In all his parishes, he identified totally with his people through his empathy, natural warmth and interest.
Parishioners responded and he won the love and loyalty of great numbers of people.
Fr Stephen was a valued member of the Marriage Encounter community, working as Ireland's leadership priest for eight years with Tom and Madeline McCully in Ireland, the US, England, Germany, Norway and Denmark.
He was also exceptional in his care for the sick, including those suffering from anxiety, depression or mental illness.
Time meant nothing to him if his presence could bring comfort to someone in distress.
But most remember Fr Stephen for his wit and sense of humour. He could be outrageous and get away with it and whether prince or pauper, prelate or lowly curate, he treated all the same way.
Underlying it all was an acute intelligence.
He saw what a parish needed or might benefit from, and got on with organising it. And he wasn’t content with commissioning a project and leaving it to the experts, he liked to be involved.
He had a great interest in people and where they came from, often translating the origin of place names. He was a fluent Irish speaker with a tremendous love of the language but he also extended his linguistic ability to teach himself, German, French and Italian.
Fr Stephen had a great love of the land and nature. He grew his own vegetables and herbs and could identify birds by their song.
He loved getting back to Clougherney to be with his family and get his hands dirty either farming or working with machinery.
Family meant everything to him. He was a devoted son, a much-loved brother to his siblings and was unfailingly interested in his nieces and nephews.
The family bonds were never stronger than in his last months and weeks when he was never without someone to care for him.
Fr Stephen Kearney died aged 76 on November 12.
We were privileged to have known him. We will not see his like again.
Go bhfanfaidh sé i suaimhneas.