IT’S perhaps no surprise that someone imbued with the love of the Catholic faith from an early age decided to take up a vocation, but it’s an amusing coincidence that someone who loves fishing so much would eventually become a fisher of men.
To boil the story of Fr Willie Brandon—a Society of African Missions (SMA) Father—down to just that, however, would be to do a disservice not only to him but all of the many other missionaries who have led extraordinary lives, which is fitting as Pope Francis has declared October 2019 as the Extraordinary Mission Month.
Fr Willie (above) endured something of a difficult, but not uncommon start to life back home in the Emerald Isle. Born out of wedlock, he was delivered across the sea in Liverpool, before being brought back to be Baptised in Drimnagh, in Dublin. After that—as often happened in times past—he was taken to an orphanage run by nuns. However, unlike some of the negative experiences of those who were raised in Catholic institutions in Ireland, Fr Willie speaks positively about his own time spent in them, before eventually being fostered.
“I was taken to an orphanage in Ballymote, Mayo, which was run by nuns,” Fr Willie said. “I had an absolutely wonderful upbringing to be honest. After that, when I was about seven or eight I was taken to another orphanage in Wicklow, which was for older children, which again was run by religious sisters and played an important part in my upbringing, with religion at its core. Then at the age of 13, I went to a school called Artane, which was run by Christian Brothers. I never had any problem moving from institution to institution because they had that religious dimension that I liked and that kept me grounded. I had a good experience in all of them.”
In the midst of this, the Brandons—who were also very committed to their faith—fostered Fr Willie, taking him home to Dún Laoghaire during the holidays and eventually integrating him fully into their family. He went to live with them permanently and finished his education at the technical school in the town. Being by the seaside gave him his lifelong love of fishing, which he continues to practise to this day with friends close to the parish of Holy Family in Dunblane, where he currently serves.
“My love for fishing came from my family, because Dún Laoghaire is right on the coast,” he said. “So there wasn’t a day that went by where we never went fishing. I could sit there all day in the summer months. It’s a passion, I just love it. Of course when you come to Scotland, you have to learn to do it the proper way in terms of fly-fishing. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s therapeutic though. If you miss a trout or get your fly tangled, then there’s some choice language used.”
A passion for faith
His other big passion, though, was his faith. Growing up in what he described as ‘a wonderful Catholic family,’ he reiterates that faith has always played a big part in his life.
“I would serve morning Mass in the convent of the Little Sisters of the Assumption, who were just round the corner from us,” he recalled. “They were great with me, very welcoming. I couldn’t have imagined my life without religion.”
While he admits that growing up in various institutions and his religious upbringing no doubt had an effect on the depth of his faith, it was the visit of missionaries—in particular—that helped him to discern his vocation.
“I remember one day someone coming into the classroom and saying or asking who’d like to be a priest and I said I’d love to,” he said. “There was a priest, Fr Moore, who came in to speak to us and there was something wonderful and mystical about him. Once the question was asked about what people would want to do with their lives, I knew I wanted to be a priest. It was there in my mind. I always had a deep relationship with God, a very personal one.
“I always had a desire to be a missionary priest. Africa was always in my mind and I don’t know why. It was just something I felt. One of these mornings when I was serving Mass, I was speaking with Sr Perpetua who told me that an SMA Father was coming in to celebrate Mass and that he was a missionary who had been to Africa. I was excited and I had a chat with him and then one day another SMA priest came to speak with me and convinced me that that is what I wanted to do. The connection held from there.”
Once the decision was made, he went to Osterley in London—rather than Maynooth in Ireland—to study under the Jesuits and allow him to join the SMA’s British Province. As with many things in his life, he describes this as ‘divine providence’ as it allowed him to come into contact with other missionary orders. As part of his training, he was sent to Ghana for a spell to see if the vocation was still there. Given that there had been a military coup and a shortage of food, it wasn’t without its challenges, but Fr Willie admits that it was the people that drew you in, something he’d make mention of repeatedly while talking about his time on the missions in Nigeria and Liberia.
“I used to be someone who’d mess about a bit before I went to Ghana,” he admitted. “But when I came back, my head was totally in the books. People were asking what was wrong with me and I would just say: ‘I need to get back to Africa.”
He was ordained on November 3, 1984, the Feast Day of St Martin De Porres—a saint who holds special significance for him for that reason. His family asked him if he wanted to find and invite his biological mother to his ordination but he didn’t have any real inclination to do so. He did eventually meet with her in 1990, at the age of 35, something which he is glad he did as he was mature enough to handle the encounter.
“I was at an age then where you can accept rejection if it comes,” he said. “I had been in Africa for six years at that point. If I had been 18 or 19 it might have been a different scenario. I just never had any inclination to go looking, because I was quite happy where I was. My first meeting with her was when I was 35 and it didn’t matter what happened in any event as I had a loving family behind me.”
Just weeks after being ordained, Fr Willie was posted to the Makurdi Diocese in Nigeria, a country that was to be his home for the next ten years. While today he says he draws strength mainly through prayer, while on the missions, he said it was his relationships with the people there that fortified him. This was no doubt aided by his willingness to overcome the challenges of learning the languages and becoming accustomed to the food. Regarding the former, he said: “In Nigeria, I lived in rural areas, in what they would call the bush. I remember when I went there at first I said if I don’t learn the language—which was Hausa—I’m not staying there. So I did learn it and actually gave my first sermon within six weeks. There was a Kiltegan Father, Tom Hayden, who was absolutely brilliant at speaking it and when you see a missionary speaking the language absolutely fluently, it’s inspiring. I stayed with him and learned everything, the grammar and all the details.
“A lot of the work is done on your own. I learned the Rosary from repetition every night in the church and then you become closer to the people. When you can crack a joke in their language and they laugh, you know you’ve got it. Within a year I was confident enough to go anywhere on my own. The only problem was that my Hausa would be like the Queen’s English and theirs would be a bit more pidgin, so you come across as posh, but they totally understood you and you understood them. That’s what gave you strength, deepening relations with people.
“With regards to the food, I remember visiting my very first village there and I always insisted on staying with the people. I celebrated a Mass in Hausa for them and afterwards they brought me my evening meal. They first served me pounded yam—which I’ve always loved—and after that, looking directly at me, in the pot, was a rat. All its insides were gone and it was done in a little black stew and all I remember saying to myself was: ‘Oh my God.’ Then I remember that Jesus said ‘whenever you went to a village and they make you welcome, eat what is set before you.’ So I took a piece of the meat, squashed it into the yam and ate it and kept doing that. They had given me it because I were a special visitor. Then when I was leaving they gave me a chicken! I thought why didn’t you give me that last night?
“I always thank God for having tried it because had I not, I probably wouldn’t have been able to stay. After that I ate all manner of things, so I didn’t have a phobia about eating anything, because in the pot it all looked the same. Life on the missions was exciting and it was always an adventure, but the food and the language were challenging and some of our brother priests found that difficult.”
Civil war and challenges
After ten years in Nigeria, life on the missions was about to get a little more challenging as Fr Willie headed to Liberia in the midst of a civil war, which lasted from 1989-1997 and eventually resulted in the deaths of more than 250,000 people and the displacement of one million more. When he arrived, he ended up not in the place he was originally intended to be placed, but rather a refugee camp. He helped to distribute food while he was there and describes what he was doing there as ‘more akin to social work.’ In the midst of the chaos, Fr Willie still remembers some humourous incidents.
“One evening we had to evacuate the camp and head into the forest,” he recalled. “You could hear the bullets whizzing overhead. The Nigerian Army were fighting with the rebels and we were all lying hunkered down. In spite of this, the Catechist said to me: ‘Father, why don’t we pray the Rosary?’ he then proceeded to kneel. I said in the loudest whisper possible: “Would you ever get down, we can pray the Rosary some other time!”
The Nigerian Army eventually took Fr Willie out of the refugee camp for his own safety. The SMA Fathers in Monrovia had all been evacuated, but one of his fellow SMA Fathers in Buchanan enquired about his whereabouts and he was taken there from the camps shortly afterwards. He admitted that had the rebels caught him they would have accused him of being an American spy and taken him away.
“That made me feel like what Jesus called the ‘hired shepherd,’ who when things get rough, runs,” he lamented. “I did actually feel that at that time. That was hard, because you’re leaving the people you were close to behind. You were the priest, the shepherd and you were being escorted out of the danger zone and leaving these people to it themselves. And they destroyed everything in Liberia, churches, schools you name it. The place was just a mess.”
Fr Willie is more than a little harsh on himself. Wherever he was sent to on mission, he always endeavoured to bring some semblance of normality to people’s lives—even during periods of tumult and chaos—whether that was providing parishioners with a livelihood, recreation, education or medical care.
“I remember in Ghana there was a crippled guy who was very intelligent,” he said “We got him a typewriter and that became his source of income, because he wrote official letters for people. So we had a typewriter school and a sewing school and things like that set up within the parish.
“We also had football teams for the kids in Liberia. The BBC used to bring out a magazine called Focus on Africa, and one time it had a centrefold of a rebel soldier with a guy’s head, showing the atrocities that were going on in the country at the time. I remember one of the kids who played football, pointing to the centrefold and saying: ‘That’s what they did to my father and he was a great footballer.’ So while that was pretty shocking, football still proved to be a great therapy for these young lads.
“In Nigeria, the first thing we did after developing the parish was to build a nursery school and it was a community event, which was great. There was nothing for the young kids so to build a nursery school was fantastic. The people donated the land, brought the sand, the water, I got the cement, they made the blocks and everything. They carried them down to the site and helped to build it and did a lot of the work itself for their own community. When the local government threatened its existence, the whole village stood up and ensured its completion.
“There was also a nurse in a former parish I was in—10 miles down the road—who would come in once a week or twice a month and set up a clinic so that people could come in from the outstations and receive medical treatment. That was great too.”
Mission and witness
This type of practical help is something that Fr Willie feels contributes to the wider sense of mission. For him, the practical must run parallel to the spiritual.
“Mission is about proclaiming the Gospel,” he said. “I don’t mean it literally in terms of reading it but the proclamation of the Gospel is, in practice, everything else, the witness. You have to be witnesses. I think that was the whole Easter message, go out and proclaim the Good News. The benefit of the Gospel is in the practical, not just the spiritual. So you’re not just building a church, or a school, or helping individual people in their lives, it’s a witness.
“For example, when we built a house in our parish—a mission house—it would probably look like the best house in the village. It would be cement blocks, not mud, have a good roof and all that so that it could be handed over as a proper mission house. When you’re there and working with people and they see you helping out, there’s no problem with the Gospel. However, supposing you were a priest and you came in and all your time was spent getting the collection in and then they saw a house full of ill repute, they’d see the house as something different. Then they’d say look at this man living in this big house, doing what he’s doing with our donations. Look at what he’s doing and us living as we do. Then it becomes like the Gospel in reverse.”
The work of Fr Willie and his fellow missionary priests and religious is helped in no small part by the financial assistance provided by the Pontifical Mission Societies, the Pope’s official charity for overseas mission, of which Missio Scotland is its Scottish arm. He admitted that it is a special charity due not only to the fact that it provides much-needed funds for the missions and missionaries, but also because it raises awareness that Catholics the world over belong to something greater.
“In terms of the Pontifical Mission Societies and Missio Scotland help to raise awareness first and foremost that we are part of a global mission church. It helps to make people aware that the Church is not just Dunblane—it’s global and we’re part of all of that. Supporting churches that are poorer, whether in Scotland or elsewhere, is extremely important and there are many good people who contribute and are always happy to do so. People are also keen to hear stories from the missions too, because where else would they get it? They don’t get it on TV. They are interested in knowing what goes on. People want to know and need to know and they want to contribute to your work, which is equally important.”
If you would like to contribute to Missio Scotland and help missionaries like Fr Willie Brandon carry out their mission, you can donate to the charity by visiting: http://www.missioscotland.com/donate call them on: 01236 449774 or send donations to: Missio Scotland, St. Andrews, 4 Laird Street, Coatbridge ML5 3LJ