Lives Remembered

Noel Dunne: Columban missionary risked life to help poor and persecuted in Chile

Noel Dunne pictured in southern Chile in 1970

THE Church’s influence has faded in Ireland and rightly. The various scandals have ruptured a disastrous caste system that created a division between priest and people.

These events have temporarily eclipsed prophetic sparks of individual priests.

Take Noel Dunne: a Columban missionary whose work in Chile started in the 1960s when the promising Christian Democrats took office and was abruptly ended with the emergence of the Pinochet regime.

Noel forged strong links with the poor and became influential among political groups (without becoming a member) during the Allende years.

After the coup in September 1973 he assumed responsibility for organizing the extraction of persecuted opponents into embassies in Santiago.

Noel was captured on two occasions. On the first he was caught giving an activist help to climb an embassy wall. He was thrown in a cell and interrogated for hours.

Luckily, he escaped torture, prison or worse because his captors thought they had caught the wrong man: it wasn’t “Padre Felipe” (his first name by birth) they were after, it was “Padre Noel”.

He was captured a second time and bunged onto the back of a secret police truck on top of other prisoners.

Handcuffed and blindfolded, he recounted how the truck started shaking without moving - caused by the rattling raw nerves of his fellow captives as they were taken to the stadium in Santiago for certain execution.

On this occasion Noel was rescued by a priest from an order with US connections and which had influence with the regime.

He eventually escaped the country and helped organise the transport of many Chileans to Shannon, where housing and work was arranged.

They were not the first settlement of refugees in the new town; people fleeing the conflict in the north were already settling in.

Noel had also spent time there in 1972 during a sabbatical from an exhausting mission in Chile.

After three months in Downpatrick, he was based in St Malachy's parish in Belfast city centre during some of the bloodiest months of the Troubles and was praised by Bishop William Philbin for his service during those turbulent times.

I remember him when he was parish priest of a shanty town near Santiago’s international airport where he had set up a cooperative whose members earned a living knitting and selling jumpers.

He became a trusted source for those trying to bring about equality and change. He undertook his ministry with courage as did other Columban priests.

Peru was his next appointment, among indigenous communities, where he met and later married an American nun, leaving the priesthood in the 1980s.

The couple adopted an indigenous baby girl and eventually settled in Colorado where Noel continued his activism, trying to connect American Indian communities and Latinos in the valleys via internet chat rooms. Others can bear testimony to his and his wife’s work there.

That included the part-time teaching of Irish. Born in Dublin in 1935 but raised by Irish-speaking relatives in the west of Ireland after his mother's death in childbirth, his knowledge of the language proved useful in Chile, allowing him to communicate in secret with other Irish priests.

Philip Noel Dunne died in December with Covid-19 in Pueblo, Colorado.

Here are the sincere words of tribute of Patricio Riesco, one of the Chilean refugees who settled in Shannon:

"His commitment to the poor was his way of life. In 1973 Noel was risking his own life and safety on a daily basis in order to help and give shelter to those persecuted by the Pinochet regime.

"He was the man responsible for helping all the Chilean families that came to Ireland as political exiles in 1974, myself and my wife included. We owe him our lives and safety. We will never forget his courage.”

As the saying goes in Chile, where the Irish have been cherished historically: “Honour where honour is due” (A tal Señor, tal honor).

Patrick O’Donoghue

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Lives Remembered