Happy birthday, Fortaleza!


Such a title has an article in the October issue of “The Reality,” by Fr. Brendan McConvery CSsR, highlighting the 60th anniversary of Redemptorist presence in the state of Goias, Brazil. In 1960, the Irish Redemptorists initiated the mission, which gave the foundation to today’s Vice-province of Fortaleza. 

Happy birthday, Fortaleza!

by Brendan McConvery C.Ss.R.

When Fr Michael Curran was confirmed as provincial superior of the Irish Redemptorists for a third term of three years in September 1959; Fr William Gaudreau, the superior general, added a few words to his letter of appointment. “After much pressure from the Holy See and from the bishops of South America; I am knocking on your door to ask the Irish Province to take over a mission area there, specifically in the state of Goias; Brazil; in the diocese of Porto Nacional.”

The Irish Redemptorists already had two missions in the Philippines and India, but a bumper crop of vocations in the 1950s made it a place to which a superior might turn in time of need. Although twice the size of Ireland, the diocese of Porto Nacional had only seven or eight priests at its disposal. Four Irish Redemptorists left for Brazil the following April. Only Fr James Collins, the superior, had missionary experience of several years in the Philippines. Frs James McGrath, Michael Kirwan and John Meyers were comparatively recently ordained.

In an article for this magazine, written in October 1961, Michael Kirwan recorded their first impressions of Brazil. Most striking for them was the grave shortage of priests – one for every 5,000 widely-scattered people. Then there was the growing influence of fundamentalist Protestant sects making progressive inroads in communities deprived of priests and the Eucharist. Next was the growing influence of Marxism, especially after the success of Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution in 1959. What was clear, he wrote, was that “there is far too much poverty in Brazil”, for side by side with the plush apartments of the rich, “there are shanty towns that are a disgrace to a Christian community”. The area they covered to reach the scattered rural communities was vast. Fr James McGrath wrote later that year that “travel to the interior was only possible on horseback: with the help of a guide, we move around for nine or ten days at a time… no sign of life anywhere. An amazing silence: no sound apart from the soft plodding of the horses’ hooves.”

A second house was established in Fortaleza, the largest city of North East Brazil, by 1962. The intention was to build a college that would serve for the secondary education of local vocations. It eventually became the headquarters of the Irish Redemptorist Vice- Province of Fortaleza. The vast territory within the remit of the Redemptorists proved capable of absorbing as many men as could be spared from Ireland. By the end of its first seven years in 1967, the Brazil mission numbered five houses and 26 members, and Fr Collins, Don Jaime, was ordained bishop of Miracema do Norte in 1967. We were not the first Redemptorists in Brazil. The Dutch arrived in 1894, with the Germans hot on their heels. Today there are about 600 Redemptorists in Brazil, in five provinces.

What neither Frs Gaudreau, Curran or the first pioneers in Brazil could suspect was how radically Brazil was to change within the next few years. The Second Vatican Council released a new energy of the Spirit on the South American churches. The opening paragraph of the Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, stressed that the church shared in “the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of people of our time”. To become open to those hopes and griefs was to become open a world torn by poverty yet striving for justice.

Dom Helder Camara, who is believed to have drafted the appeal of the Brazilian bishops to the Redemptorist general that resulted in the coming of the Irish to Brazil, was radical in his commitment to helping the Brazilian church become a truly ‘servant church’, the church of the poor. In the years following the Council, prophetic voices in the Brazilian churches were becoming clearer and more insistent. The Irish Redemptorists of Fortaleza began to listen and to identify with the truth of what they were saying. They were also communicating that message back in Ireland. Fr. Jim McGrath attended the Irish provincial chapter and was unexpectedly elected provincial. It was a time of intense change in the Irish Church, but Jim McGrath and Redemptorists on holiday from Brazil but helping on novenas and missions, helped then to see how much of the Brazilian experience was comparable to that of Ireland, especially as it became aware of its own need to be open to its own “joys and hope, ‘griefs and anguish”.

It is appropriate that on this annual Mission Sunday we should celebrate the 60 years of our Brazil mission. One of its pioneers, Fr John Myers, is happily still living in the land to which he has devoted so much of his life. Fr Brendan McDonald, who celebrates 56 years in Brazil this year, sketches a brief memoire of those days, recalling especially his own immediate contemporaries, Frs Joe McLoughlin, Eamonn Kavanagh and PJ Clear. To all who served in Brazil and who are still happily among us, we say thanks for your generous service, and we pray that those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith may receive the reward of their labours.




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