Following in Fr Pat's footsteps

My uncle, Columban missionary Fr Patrick (Pat) McCaffrey, died in Pakistan on May 18, 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 December  19, 2011 and were met by Columban, Fr Tomás King. He was to be our host, chauffeur, guide and interpreter, along with Annette Menzes, a good friend of Fr Pat’s. We then travelled to the parish of Matli in the Sindh Province where Fr 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 Fr 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 Fr Pat. His great legacy is in Matli. “He should have been buried here”, said one lady.

Another lady we met was Sr Annalisa Samuel. She had worked with Fr Pat in Matli during his 10 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 Fr 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. Fr Pat had celebrated Midnight Mass here just one year previously. There, we met Fr Pat’s colleague, Fr Liam O’Callaghan, who is parish priest in Greentown.

After Midnight Mass we were overwhelmed by the welcome we received. Everyone spoke so highly of Fr 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 Co Kerry, Ireland, who had died in Lahore 19 days after Fr Pat. It's 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, Fr 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 Fr 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 Himalayan mountains. Murree was where Fr 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.  

This man had seen Fr 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 nuns came.

We thanked the street-sweeper for trying to help our uncle. He apologised 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 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 Fr Pat’s footsteps.

Read more from The Far East, March 2012