Monsignor Harry J. Byrne, JCD * * * Comment/

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Location: 3103 Arlington Avenue,, Bronx, NY 10463, United States

June 17, 2009


My last post came from closing out my Upper East Side apartment two weeks ago! 1996-2009! Closing activities were not a Pandora's Box but a cornucopia out of which spilled photos, letters, gift books with messages from the givers, and other magical items connecting me with long-ago relationships that gave color and/or meaning to my life. My last post introduced Meg Campbell, whom I had the priviledge of ushering into the Church. The wife of John Campbell, Laird of the Isle of Canna in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland, she was an American Protestant, transferred to the tiny island by marriage and had been impressed by the Catholic faith of her husband and the other twenty-eight islanders. She wished to join them in this other than a geographic community. On a visit to New York, she had been introduced to me by my friend, Ilah McDermot. At St. Thomas More's on East 89th Street, she entered more than the physical building.

An invitation to visit Canna was followed by plane to Glasgow, the North Highlands Railway train to Malaig, and then the once a week inter-island ferry to the islands of Eig, Rhum, and then Canna. On your computer, type in Canna on the Google slot.You will be brought to descriptions of the island and its flora and fauna. You will find mention of John and Meg Campbell as scholars of Gaelic language and folklore and some photos of the island, looking like a green outpost of another planet. Their quite magnificent house was lighted by what came from their house generator. No stores, no street lights, no streets,no advertising, no automobiles. The rather eccentric Laird - he announced each evening meal by a bugle call - resisted modernity and had his telephone down by the dock at what was called a bothy.

In the extensive house library of these two scholars, I found some hand-written journals of a Father Allan MacDonald (1859-1905). Through these I entered a brief, but meaningful, relationship with a fellow priest in a world so different from mine on the East Coast of Manhattan. There were glimpses of his prayerful spirituality underlying his life of priestly service to his people, marked by a sensitive compassion for the difficulties of his people, their poverty, their neglect and exploitation under absentee landlords, and the harsh climate of the windswept barren islands. On your computer, type in his name for a great story!

He had made studies for the priesthood in Salamanca, Spain. On ordination, he was assigned to a parish in Oban, the see of the Diocese of Argyl and the Isles. Subsequently, he was sent to South Uist in the Outer Hebrides - the Western Isles. They had names strange to us: Barra, Benbecula, Eriskay! He encouraged his people to vindicate their rights. But they were always fearful of being evicted from their land if perceived as trouble makers. The population of Eriskay consisted of many families, who had been evicted from the more prosperous islands. Father Allan was instrumental in having a jetty built in his town for the safety of the fishermen, in having legislative protections enacted for his people, in having the telegraph extended to their island, and in beginning the construction of a church on Eriskay, where he served the last years of his priesthood. He did not live to see it completed, dying of pneumonia at the age of forty-six.

His journals are colorful and filled with the humanity and humor that clearly belonged to him. Communication between islands was somehow made through a series of
signal fires. He writes of a fire from a nearby island that in some way was a signal that he was needed to attend at the death of a parishioner. He arrived in his boat and found the husband of the deceased woman distraught, overwhelmed by his loss. After the funeral, he describes in touching words his solicitude for the broken heart of the husband and writes how he took him, desolate, back in his boat and put him up at the rectory for a few days until he could become more of himself!

Father Allan writes of bringing Holy Communion to two elderly sisters in their thatched cottage on a point of land, swept with a cold, pelting rain. The sisters, to protect their cow from the storm, had brought it into their living room. He thought it looked rather sickly. The ladies, after receiving Communion, fetched him a cup of tea. Would father like milk for his tea? He wrote, "I looked at the cow and said, 'No, no, this is fine. I'll take it plain.'"

He wrote in a prose so appropriate to its splendid content. His priesthood resonated with what I hope mine has been. Sacraments and service. Not jetties, but housing! Responses not by words alone but by deeds! Not by abstractions, but by experience! Not by severity, but by humanity and humor! Thank you, Father Allan!


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