Priest and Vet
Columban Fr Michael Riordan was a vet before he became a missionary priest. This is his story.
In 1977, when Michael Riordan asked the Dean of Veterinary Medicine at University College, Dublin, for a reference the Dean remembered a request he had received from a Columban friend in Korea for a volunteer vet. The idea of going to Korea as a volunteer vet was far from Michael's mind, but, once planted, it had its own attraction. Six months later Michael found himself on a plane to Korea, "a place I could just about find on the map."
The priest who had invited and greeted Michael on his arrival was Columban Fr Patrick James McGlinchey, founder of the Isidore Development Association, who had spent the previous 20 years setting up welfare projects to help the local people of Jeju (Cheju), an island off south-west Korea. At the time the farm had about 15,000 pigs, 2,000 Hereford beef cattle, and over 1,000 sheep. There was no shortage of work for a vet.
The reluctant vet developed such an interest that he stayed for two and a half years. On returning home to Dublin, Michael decided he wanted to be a missionary priest and joined the Columbans.
Why the change of plan?
"This was the first time I had lived outside of Ireland among people who were not Catholic, who some at times had no religion," he explained.
"When I saw adults asking for Baptism it made me ask: Would I, in my mid-20s, ask to become a Christian if I had not been born one? I began reading the Gospels and little by little the person of Jesus, his humanity, became real for me. I began to think that, even if He was not God, and I met Him today, I would certainly like to be a friend of his."
"Another influence was a visit to the Philippines, where I saw Columbans involved in work for justice and peace. I had always known that the sacraments were visible signs of God's presence. My visit to the Philippines led me to see that many other activities, outside the walls of the church, were also sacraments of some kind."
Columban Fr Michael Riordan was ordained in 1986 and assigned to Korea. He lived with a Korean family while studying the language and then moved to a slum area of Seoul. He shared a tiny house with another Columban. From there he moved on to more conventional parish work and then into church related justice groups.
Many ordinary people asked Fr Michael to help them deepen their faith about the Christian foundations of his work. He studied spirituality and later did a postgraduate degree in Rome at the request of his superiors. On his return to Korea, he spent several years in training future priests, in giving retreats and missions.
In 2005, his old boss, Columban Fr Patrick James McGlinchey, returned after 25 years with another request. This time Fr McGlinchey was looking not for a vet but for a parish priest. Michael, the one-time-vet returned to be parish priest, and today he is the Chairman of the Board of the Isidore Development Association. As of 2013, the Association had an estimated 200 employees. The Isidore farm, now producing organic milk and antibiotic and additive-free beef, is still a big part of the welfare project. There is also a busy feed mill and the Youth Development Centre received over 17,000 youth applicants for courses the year prior.
The old agricultural college, having served its purpose, is now a retreat centre which caters for 3,500 locals and visitors annually. Nearby is a big hillside park with beautiful sculptures and a lake, a place for peaceful meditation. There is a nursing home for 90 people and a hospice which can cater for 25.
Where does the money come from?
The farm, which can handle up to 350 milking cows and 400 beef cattle, used to make a significant contribution but has recently passed through a difficult period with market fluctuation, feed and labour costs. A profitable new addition is the horse breeding project. The farm has two prize stallions and 20 mares; they also take in horses from other owners.
What has the Isidore Development Association contributed to the island of Jeju over the past 50 years?
Fr Michael summarises, "It helped people to find new ways to earn their living. Hundreds of young men were trained in the agricultural school and 100 of them were given farms and stock on reasonable terms of repayment.
Thousands of acres of land has been improved. The island's thriving pig-rearing industry began here. Many successful farmers and business people started here. Through the projects of the Columban Sisters many women could supplement their income with weaving and knitting.
The old can get first-class care and the terminally ill can die with dignity. A huge amount of human and spiritual formation takes place in the centres. Five communities of nuns in the Isidore complex (Holy Family, Salesian, Benedictines, Mirand and Poor Clares) serve the people and pray for them.
The church is now greatly appreciated in this once anti-Catholic island. Isidore could make a lot of money if it were run purely as a business venture. But, for us, the first question always has to be: Can people see God's love in action in what we do? We live, if not from hand-to-mouth, from year to year; and somehow God provides.
Columban Fr Alo Connaughton is the former editor of The Far East magazine in Ireland. He now lectures in Philosophy and Patrology in the seminaries of Beijing and Bangkok.