Columban Fathers receive $500K donation to support retirement home operations


BRISTOL — In spite of the relatively small size of their operation – their priest and retirement home currently houses only 14 retired priests –­ t­he Columban Fathers in Bristol have received what can only be described as a generous and providentially bestowed gift. A recently deceased Catholic in the Diocese of Providence donated a sum of $500,000 to the Columban Fathers to be used for the continued operation of their retirement home.
“It’s quite amazing,” said Father John Brannigan, the superior of the St. Columbans House, of the gift, given by a donor who had wished to remain anonymous.
Father Brannigan said that the money will be mainly used for maintenance, with a particular emphasis on helping those living at the retirement home at the St. Columbans House, home to many senior priests of the Columban Order from throughout the United States.
The retirement home occupies a plain, brick building attached to a small chapel built in a contemporary architectural style, with a view of a large, open field overlooking Narragansett Bay, just opposite Prudence and Hog islands.
At the entrance to the building is a statue of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the 19th century French Carmelite nun and mystic who was later declared to be the patron saint of missionaries. Just outside the building is a plain white stone statue of St. Columban, the 6th century Irish monk and missionary who was considered one of the greatest missionaries of the early Medieval period.
The St. Columbans Mission Society was founded in 1918 by two Irish priests, Father Edward Galvin and Father John Blowick in response to their desire for more systematic efforts to evangelize the peoples of East Asia, particularly China. Over the course of the next few years after their founding, the nascent order advocated its charism among the local clergy and faithful, and in 1920 began its first mission trip to China.
In 1922, Father Blowick, together with a local Catholic widow named Francis Moloney, established an affiliate organization for religious sisters known as the Missionary Sisters of St. Columban.
Between the late 1920s and the 1940s, the organization grew rapidly, expanding their missionary efforts into the Philippines, Korea, Burma and Japan. Over time, they also established missions in the Middle East, South America and the Caribbean. While their primary work was evangelization, they quickly noticed the large numbers of poor among those they converted, and thus began to devote many of their resources to helping the poor.
The first religious house in the United States was established in Omaha, Nebraska in 1918, the same year the Society was founded, and remains the headquarters for the Society in America.
In 1932, the Society decided to increase their presence in the northeast and the region immediately surrounding the Great Lakes in order to cater to the needs of the growing Irish Catholic population.
In 1933, the Society established a major seminary in Bristol. The spread of the Society into Rhode Island was approved by then-bishop of Providence, William A. Hickey, who also dedicated the original building. The current building was constructed in 1951 and was dedicated by Bishop Russell J. McVinney. The building was converted into a retirement home for senior priests of the Columban Fathers in the late 1980s.
In Rhode Island in particular, the priests associated with the St. Columbans Home focused much of their attention on supporting the local Church, primarily through education and pastoral work. Many of the priests living and working at the home would assist in filling in for Mass at local parishes, as well as teach classes in the adult religious education program.
While many local Columban priests have reduced their work due to old age and decreasing health, many still remain active to some degree with furthering the mission of the Society.
Up until two years ago, one resident, Father Bob Mosher, worked with the Columban missions in Chile, and eventually with a series of ministries near the U.S.-Mexico border meant to help recent immigrants.
“I think, as a priest, the basic orientation of all our priests would be to respond to the needs of the people, both spiritual and physical, insofar as we can,” Father Brannigan noted.
“We’re not an aid society, we’re not a social work society, we’re not a government agency, but at the same time, there are things we can do,” noting that the Columban Fathers have often devoted themselves to helping the local community with the various struggles they face.
“Put it this way: we’re spiritual people, we’re spiritual persons, but we’re also physical persons,” Father Brannigan said.
“A healthy mind and a healthy body. … One interacts with the other. You cannot just preach a disembodied spirituality. And Jesus certainly did not do that.”