Belfast Telegraph

Monday 15 September 2014

John's long road to find God

An illiterate Irish Traveller raised a Catholic, Newry man Reverend John Purcell now travels the world preaching born-again Christianity. He tells Una Bradley why being 'saved' was the most important moment of his life

Born-again Christain preacher John Purcell.

JOHN Purcell lowers his head and closes his eyes. "Lord, God, we thank you for sending our friends to us here today. We ask you to be with us as we do this interview and take these photos.


JOHN Purcell lowers his head and closes his eyes. "Lord, God, we thank you for sending our friends to us here today. We ask you to be with us as we do this interview and take these photos.

"We ask that you will be honoured through this work.

"For God is good. Praise God. Aaaa-men."

The 56-year-old lowers his hands and flashes an intensely warm, beatific smile around his large, extended family.

He's a happy man, Rev Purcell, since he was saved by the Lord, ten years ago.

By his own admission, he was a degenerate in a previous life - a nightclubbing, drinking womaniser. Money was his god, along with the adrenaline buzz of popularity.

"I'd tell fortunes in the pub, just to get a big circle of women round," he says.

It's not hard to imagine. The father of seven and grandfather of 11 has charisma enough to set off a forest fire.

When he talks, his sapphire-blue eyes dance and a laugh comes easily.

Despite having no education to speak of, he's brimming with a raw intelligence and a gift for electrifying storytelling.

For anyone who relished Robert Duvall's performance in the title role of the film, The Preacher, John is like the real thing.

Except where Duvall's character was marred by ego, John seems to be genuinely self-effacing.

"It's not me who heals, but God," he says of the former cancer sufferers who claim he has made them better. "All I want to do is tell people about Jesus."

Like most Irish Travellers, he was raised a strict Roman Catholic.

The eldest of 18 children, he remembers the day his parents brought their poverty-stricken family to England, where they heard it was easier to make a living as scrap merchants.

"We had sold our horse-drawn caravan and the horses I loved," he recalls.

"I remember clearly standing at the side of the road, about five-years-old, about to get on the boat.

"My mother was cradling a three-week-old baby in one arm. In the other she was holding a small rug, tied at the corners.

"It contained all our worldly possessions."

Perhaps because he never learned to read or write, John grew up resourceful and ended up running a business transporting mobile homes.

Latterly, he has learnt the Bible by heart from cassette tapes and can quote liberally.

It was with the same single-mindedness that he asked his wife, Patricia, to marry him on their first date.

"I looked at him like he was mad," says Patricia, with still a hint of an English accent.

Marrying John was a big leap for her. Not only was she English, but she was not even a Traveller.

For the first 15 years they were together, caravans and car parks were their home, although Patricia always insisted the children go to school.

When their youngest - twins Melissa and Michael, who are now 20 - were born, they felt it was time to settle into a house.

A handsome, showpiece home was built on a plot of land they had bought near the Army checkpoint, at Cloghogue, just outside Newry.

This was in the days when status symbols were still important to John; he had flash cars and designer suits, too, he recalls.

Nowadays the large, detached villa is flanked by caravans, some of which are home to the grown-up Purcell children and their families.

Up until recently, motorists on the main Belfast to Dublin road could glimpse a herd of pet llamas - and even a camel - in the garden.

John's religious conversion came about via his brother, who suddenly renounced the high life.

"He rang me up and told me he'd been saved," recalls John.

"But I was looking at my watch, as I was losing valuable drinking time.

"I thought he'd gone mad. I thought maybe we should bring him to a doctor?

"He started phoning every night and the phone became like a Rottweiler - no-one wanted to go near it.

"He was telling me about all these Travellers who were not drinking, not fighting, but driving miles to prayer meetings.

"They were getting their cars taxed and insured.

"Then he held a mission in his yard, with all these pastors over from England.

"My son Michael was saved the first night, my daughter Eileen the second night, but I just laughed in their faces.

"One evening, on the way to the pub, I did a detour by the mission out of curiosity.

"I stood at the back - they're not going to get me, I thought - and all I could see was this great love."

A few weeks later, John was driving in his lorry, thinking about how hollow he felt his Catholic faith to be.

"I would go to Mass and was all holy on the outside, but my mind was elsewhere," he says.

"I wasn't getting fed spiritually.

"I didn't know then that it's God who saves, not religion."

As he drove along, tears began to gush down his face, and he was forced to pull over.

"I realised all the things God had given me - a good wife, children, a home, food on the table - and I had never thanked him.

"I got down on my knees and begged forgiveness."

John has just returned from the Philippines, where he preached to thousands in village squares. He shows me photos of crowds of young people, arms fervently stretched overhead to be saved.

In his capacity as a Reverend for the International Gospel Assemblies, John has travelled all over Europe and to the US, as well as around the UK and Ireland.

Although he admits his new-found faith has alienated him from many in the Travelling community - and even his own siblings - his wife and six children are all devout. One of his sons, a triplet, died shortly after birth, leaving him and Patricia with effectively two sets of twins.

Although his own parents were Catholic, and never owned a Bible, John hopes their strong faith may have saved them from damnation.

"They were good people, who never turned their backs on God," he says.

"They lived for their children.

"I remember us, six or seven in a bed, like pups. They would never go to sleep until all the children were in from outside.

"We'd be there in the bed and my mother would say to my father, 'Mickey, is all the children in?'

"I was thinking about that recently, and how we, their children, have become divided over religion.

"And I was thinking perhaps my parents are in heaven with God and my mother saying, 'Is all the children in?'"

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