Carlow and Cardinal Spellman

It was on a late October morning in year 1953 when people on the road from Kilbride cross to Kildavin saw four motor cars in convoy. The reason these cars deserved a second glance was the fact that it appeared that the cars all contained clergymen and aroused the interest of those who did not know the reason for this convoy heading south along the highway.

The fact that cars were not so plentiful at that time was one. The cars came to a halt outside the chapel gates of St Lazarian's Church in Kildavin and the occupants descended from the cars and made their way into the church. They were greeted at the gates by parish priest of Clonegal parish, Fr. Bennett, along with Fr. Grace and Fr. O'Brien. Quite a number of people gathered at the gates as were the schoolchildren of Kildavin NS and their teacher Mr O'Shea and Miss Kealy.

It was now that the reason for the convoy of cars and the number of priests was disclosed to the ordinary bystander who up to now had been wondering what it was all about. One of the men in the cars was the great Cardinal Spellman from New York in the USA.

There was something prophetic about the way the Cardinal had ended up at a graveyard in a little known village near the foot of the Blackstairs mountains on the Carlow/Wexford border. The first seeds of the visit were spread several years before when the mainland of Europe was being torn apart by the armies of the Axes and Allied forces and when as a young man he had been asked to do certain things far removed from the duties of the ordinary priest. He had often gone on missions that were known about only by a select few.

He could speak several languages and was an expert when it came to using certain dialects on special occasions. As a matter of fact, it is said that this art was the cause of him putting his head where another person would not put his foot. Now let us go back in time to when a baby girl was born in the Kehoe family at Shirwood, Kilbride. This family had come from Castlegrace near Tullow and settled in the beautiful country above the Slaney. The baby girl was, according to Clonegal Baptismal Register of September 1834 named Ellen Kehoe and grew to be a very handsome girl who at the age of 16 emigrated to America where she married and reared a family. Her daughter married a businessman called Spellman in Whitman, Mass. They had five children, three boys and two girls, one of the boys was Francis and it was in the large country home that he was brought up. As a boy he was both studious and athletic, playing baseball and football and winning high honours in Latin and English.

In 1911 he entered Fordham University and was prominent in the schools debating and dramatic circles. He was also noted for his remarkable memory. He was the life and soul of the people he mixed with for some time but then began to lead a quieter life and eventually informed his friends that he had decided to become a priest.

He entered the North American College in Rome where he was ordained in 1916. It was in his home town of Whitman that he celebrated his first Mass.

After his ordination he was appointed to a pastorate in Boston where he won immediate popularity. He treated all men as his friends no matter what the colour or code. In 1922 he became chancellor of Boston diocese. He went to Rome in 1925 and in 1926 was made a Monsignor by Pius XI. He was consecrated bishop by Pius XII in 1932 and in 1939 became Archbishop of New York. It was in a statement by him at that time that he said: "I shall give my all- my completely absorbing interests will be the salvation of souls- including all - and the welfare of my fellow men excluding none."

It was during some of those trips abroad that his life was in danger, along with the odd occasion in the USA. One of the most interesting assignments was in 1931 when he was chosen to smuggle the Pope's Encyclical out of a Fascist-ridden Italy to Paris, where he translated it and delivered it to the world, this was one occasion when his gift of languages and ability to mimic dialect proved a big help. During this dangerous mission he was shot at but such things took no effect upon him. He was no stranger to war, he had been in Korea at the time of the Consistory of the Sacred College in 1953 and arrived in Rome - with one hour to spare - and having broken every speed regulation in the book, in a Comet Jet. He made history as the first "jet propelled" cardinal. He also spent many Christmases in the jungles of Vietnam with the American troops.

Actually, it was while he was on a mission to Europe and a visit to Dublin that he told Fr. Frances Hickey of St Patrick's, Kiltegan, that he thought he had relatives in Co.Carlow. Fr. Hickey discovered who they were and let the cardinal know and this visit was the result. The Spellman hall, Kildavin and the GAA park are also named after the cardinal who contributed to both, paying for the building of the hall and contributing towards the park.

On his visit to Kildavin he was greeted by Fr Bennett, Fr. Grace and Fr O'Brien and the school children and teachers Mr O'Shea and Miss Kealy. He asked some of the children to speak to him in Irish and they did. He then addressed the people in the church and advised them to be loyal to their faith and heritage. Kildavin was not the only village he called to in Carlow on that day. His first visit was to Dr Keogh, bishop of the diocese. Then he was received at the Cathedral by the Adm. Fr. Dan Kennedy (a Clonegal man). He then went on to Tullow where he was greeted by large crowds. After that he went of Ballon where he checked parish records to trace his ancestors.

There he was greeted by the PP, Fr. Gardiner. The school children under Mr. Jim Morris (one of the stars of the Carlow team of 1944) lined the streets in welcome. The cardinal spoke to some of the children and left them a gift. Cardinal Spellman also visited the country in 1952 and '53. His four grandparents were Irish his maternal grandfather was a Carlow man who had married a Carlow girl called Ellen Kehoe from his parish.

In 1967 Cardinal Spellman was called by God to his eternal reward. He had truly lived up to his promise at the time of his consecration. In peace as in war Cardinal Spellman was there to help, comfort and console first his fellow countryman and then all men. His death left a great gap in the American Church. "A great priest who in his days pleased God."

Courtesy of Willie White and the Carlow Nationalist