Time for a helping hand

Michael Hand ministered as a priest in Enniskillen for several years in the 1980s. Now a mental health practitioner in Derry, in the first of a short series, he reflects on his time in the priesthood and talks about key moments in his life since then.

IN 1981 when men were dying on hunger strike in the Maze prison for a cause that they believed in, I was appointed as dean of discipline to St Michael’s College in Enniskillen for a cause that I did not believe in.
However, as I had taken a vow of obedience, I did what I was told and that is how I ended up in the beautiful county of Fermanagh.
I did two years hard labour in St Michael’s College for a crime that I did not commit and got out on the early release programme. As a reward for good behaviour, I was appointed as a curate to the town of Enniskillen where I ministered as a priest until 1988 when the vow of celibacy proved to be one that I could not keep.
One of the best kept secrets of the institutional church is that a significant amount of the teachings of Jesus is about social and economic issues and it was the social aspect of the gospel that attracted me. It is my belief that the institutional church has neglected this in favour of the more devotional side of religion.
When I look back on my time as a priest in Enniskillen I am proud of some of the contributions that I made in this area. The 1980s was a time of recession with high unemployment. The area of the parish that I was responsible for was Hillview and Kilmacormick where there was a lot of social deprivation. With the help of Sr. Rosemary Conlon and Eugene Kelly, we set up an ACE scheme which gave employment to over 70 people and helped restore some pride and dignity to an area that was neglected.
With the help of some wonderful people, I set up a Faith and Light group, which provided support and spiritual nourishment for people with an intellectual disability, in a way that met their needs. That group is still going successfully and I was delighted to be invited to their 25th anniversary some years ago. I also established an excellent folk group led by Sr. Magdalene O’Reilly, Attracta Flanagan and Gailey Quinn that performed at 12.30 mass every Sunday and was a joy to listen to – it made Mass bearable for young people. I tried to keep my sermons short, working on the principle that if you haven’t struck oil after five minutes, stop drilling!
I was privileged to be the celebrant at people’s wedding, it was a task that I put a lot of effort into, trying to make their big day that bit extra special. Often I returned home to an empty house after such a celebration and felt very lonely, I longed for the companionship that they had just celebrated. I shared with people in their times of sadness when they buried their loves ones or were struggling to cope with physical and mental illness. The town and the people of Enniskillen will always have a very special place in my heart and I am always grateful for the time I spent there.
After years of struggle, I came to the conclusion, which looking back was glaringly obvious, that I was not cut out for the priesthood and I took my leave and went to Magee College and trained to be a social worker. I worked most of my career in Omagh, working first in Child Protection and then for over 20 years in the area of addiction and mental health and I was privileged to assist many people on the road to recovery although sadly some did not make it.
Before I left the priesthood a good friend said to me: “You have an idealistic view of women and you might never meet one that measures up to your expectations.”
That was a frightening thought but fortunately I did meet a lovely German lass who did meet my expectations and we got married and had three wonderful children. The experience of being a husband and father helped me grow a lot more as a complete human being than the priesthood ever did. Sadly, after over 20 years of marriage, our lives grew apart and we went our separate ways, which was one of the most painful experiences of my life. I have often thought that whenever the Catholic church gets around to allowing priests to marry, which inevitably they will if they want to survive, when priests discover first hand how challenging marriage is, they will take a much more lenient view on divorce!”
To bring things full circle, for the past ten years I have been in a wonderful relationship with a Fermanagh woman from Belleek and we live in the beautiful city of Derry. I still work three days a week as a mental health practitioner attached to a GP practice and I still enjoy helping people who are struggling to deal with the challenges that life throws up.
Over the years, I have put together some stories about key moments in my life and over the next number of weeks this newspaper will be publishing one story a week. I hope you enjoy them.

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The Fermanagh Herald is published by North West of Ireland Printing & Publishing Company Limited, trading as North-West News Group.
Registered in Northern Ireland, No. R0000576. 28 Belmore Street, Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, BT74 6AA