Following in Father Pat’s footsteps

By Siobhan McCaffrey

Fr Pat McCaffrey, from County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, died suddenly in Pakistan on 18 May 2010. He had served first as a Columban missionary in Fiji before joining the pioneering group of Columbans that went to Pakistan in 1979. Later he spent some years in Britain, based in Bradford, where there are many people of Pakistani origin. He was involved with Muslims there and celebrated Mass regularly with Catholic Pakistanis. He returned to Fiji but was to spend his late years in Pakistan. Here his niece writes about her visit, with her brother Niall. This article was published in The Far East, the Columban magazine in Australia and New Zealand.

My uncle, Columban missionary Fr Patrick (Pat) McCaffrey, died in Pakistan on 18 May 2010. His sudden and untimely death meant that no family members from home in Ireland were able to attend his funeral. My brother Niall and I therefore decided to make a pilgrimage to Pakistan over Christmas 2010 to follow in our Uncle Pat’s footsteps.

We arrived at Karachi airport in the early hours of 19 December 2011 and were met by Columban Fr Tomás King. He was to be our host, driver, guide and interpreter, along with Annette Menzes, a good friend of Father Pat’s. We then travelled to the parish of Matli in the Sindh Province where Father Pat had ministered from 1984 to 1994. It was here that he had initiated a housing scheme for parishioners from outlying areas to build their homes on church land in the town. We visited many of these homes that ranged from sturdy brick constructions to basic one-room mud huts.

Many of the people we met remembered Father Pat with great affection and gratitude, as they had him to thank for their home. They were no longer bonded to a land owner. Many of the people disappeared into their houses only to reappear with the memorial picture of Father Pat. His great legacy is in Matli. ‘He should have been buried here’, said one lady.

Siobhan at her Uncle Pat’s grave

Another lady we met was Sr Annalisa Samuel. She had worked with Father Pat in Matli during his ten years there. She told us many stories about his selflessness and how he was ‘always ready to be with the people’, bringing them closer to God, taking the sick to hospital, educating poor children and making provision for their needs. She also commented how ‘he never cared for his health’.

When Father Pat returned to Pakistan in 2009, he was appointed to Greentown Parish in Lahore. From Matli we travelled to Lahore on Christmas Eve and attended Midnight Mass there. Father Pat had celebrated Midnight Mass here just two years previously. There we met Father Pat’s colleague, Fr Liam O’Callaghan, who is parish priest in Greentown.

Father Pat and friend in Ba, Fiji

After Midnight Mass we were overwhelmed by the welcome we received. Everyone spoke so highly of Father Pat and also of how deeply they missed him. On Christmas morning, we visited his grave, a beautiful spot under a large tree behind the Church compound in Greentown. Alongside our uncle's grave was that of his colleague, Fr Tommy O’Hanlon, from County Kerry, Ireland, who died in Lahore 19 days after Father Pat. It was very poignant to see the two graves and it was also a very emotional experience for both of us, being the first family members to visit since his death.

We followed the lovely Pakistani practice of lighting candles and incense sticks and arranged them on both graves. For us, Father Pat’s faraway family, it is such a comfort that the graves are so lovingly kept by the parishioners. As his family, we were aware of his wishes to ‘die with his boots on’ and to be buried among the people to whom he had dedicated his life.

We visited his grave for the final time on our last day in Lahore, just as the sun was beginning to set. It was hard to walk away. What made it easier, for me at least, was that when we had arrived at the grave that evening, there was already a candle burning on Father Pat’s grave. He will not be forgotten in Greentown.

On our last day, we travelled to the town of Murree, a seven hour drive from Lahore, situated on the side of a steep hill, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Murree was where Father Pat died. He had been visiting lay missionaries there. He had left the convent around 6:00am to catch a bus to Rawalpindi. He was rushing to catch the bus when he died. The only person around was a street-sweeper, considered the lowest of the low in Pakistan’s caste system.

Father Pat's Grave

This man had seen Father Pat holding on to the rails outside the compound and then fall back onto the road. He went to his aid but was unable to help. He raised the alarm at the convent and the Sisters came.

We thanked the street-sweeper for trying to help our uncle. He apologized for not being able to save him and explained that it was his moral duty to try, but that God had decided to take him and there was nothing he could do.

Our ‘pilgrimage’ to Pakistan has been an amazing, unforgettable experience. We have many, many memories to treasure; of a beautiful country, its resilient people and of the warm welcome we received. We have also come away with a deeper understanding of our uncle’s calling and what it was that drew him back to Pakistan. He had requested this, his final posting.

A final word of thanks to all the Columbans in Pakistan who made us so welcome and went out of their way to ensure we truly were able to follow in Father Pat’s footsteps.