Once upon a time when I was a small schoolboy in short trousers at Rossdoney school I won the prize of a bar of chocolate because I collected more money for the wee Black Babies away out in darkest Africa than any other child in the school.
In pennies and sixpences and shillings I collected just over two pounds. That was a lot of money back then.
The parish priest was the man who presented me with my prize. He told the whole class that the money we had collected with the special cards we were issued would help to feed a whole village of Black Babies. It might even help to build a school for them.
And maybe they would be lucky enough to get their own Catholic priest and, if we kept our fundraising effort going strong, their village out in Africa might even be able to build a small thatched chapel so they could go to Mass every Sunday just like us.
I felt like a real saint that day. I even shared my chocolate with Patsy McGurn in the next desk.
It was a very Catholic era back in those times. The church was in its full pomp and power. Not a week but we would have a visit from a priest from somewhere.
We loved to see the returned missioners coming in to preach a bit and pitch for vocations. They were all gauntly yellow, probably as much from bouts of malaria as from the equatorial suns, and they told us all about the lives of the Black Babies we gathered our pennies for.
There was a popular religious magazine too called The Far East, and there were collection boxes with photos of some Black Babies with huge eyes just looking hopefully out at us all over Ireland. We were so sorry for them and so willing to go out with our collection cards to save their little bodies and convert their souls.
I have a confession to make here and now which I never confessed in the confessional box to the parish priest. It was probably a mortal sin at that time too.
You see, this was up in the Six Counties and we were not supposed to go with our cards to Protestant homes. Not the done thing at all.
But I knew two families of genteel Presbyterian ladies who were fond of my mother and I called upon them always. It was a surreal thing because the cards were imprinted with a set of Rosary beads around the small Black Babies’ faces, and the donors pricked a bead or two with the pin you supplied them with and paid at least a penny a bead.
The lovely Presbyterian ladies always pricked two beads each and paid over at least sixpence a bead while they asked me to give their good wishes to my mother.
Anyway, that is the back story to how I won the bar of chocolate. Confession over.
The countryside was heavily populated with priests that time. We had a parish priest and two curates in our small parish. When any of them died an army of clergy came from all over the county to bury them with great ceremony, and our chapel was barely able to cater for them all.
I was an altar boy at several such funerals, and one would believe for sure that powerful situation would never ever change. It is incredible that it has done so very quickly and dramatically, especially in the last 15 years of clerical scandals and trauma.
Nothing underscores that fall so dramatically as the fact that, with Irish vocations down to near zero nationally, our wee Black Babies of the past decades are coming over to rescue us, to serve as priests in parishes that no longer have Irish pastors.
The situation was commented upon by Clonfert Bishop John Kirby, whose diocese spans Galway, Roscommon and Offaly, when he recently confirmed the arrival of two Nigerian priests to serve in areas like Ballinasloe and Loughrea.
“It's a turnaround. Irish missionaries spent a lot of time in Nigeria over the last 100 years or so and now, in a sense, the compliment is being returned,” Kirby said.
Two other dioceses already have Nigerian priests serving in parishes that ran out of native vocations. This is a story I never thought I would write.
This is like something from Ripley. But it is a reality.
I have not yet had the opportunity to meet any of our new Nigerian priests. I would like to do that soon and tell them that maybe, in my short trousers long ago and far away, I may well have helped to build the small chapel where they began to learn their trade.