Ardoyne priest Fr Donegan stepping down after 15 years
An Ardoyne priest who has faced death threats from dissident republicans, negotiated with loyalists, and shaken hands with Barack Obama and the Queen is stepping down after 15 years.
Fr Gary Donegan said he faced a "baptism of fire" after joining Holy Cross Church at the height of a loyalist picket in 2001, when pupils at the local primary school ran the gauntlet of protesters.
"I'll be in bits physically leaving the place because it's very much my home," he told the Belfast Telegraph.
He said leaving was "something I do out of obedience, I don't go by choice".
Having served four terms at Holy Cross, the last two as parish priest, Fr Donegan has now finished the maximum time in his post the church constitution allows.
His new post will be at the Tobar Mhuire retreat in Crossgar, Co Down. In four weeks time his successor at Holy Cross will take on the role - friend and colleague Fr Eugene McCarthy.
Thanking Fr Donegan for his work the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness said on Twitter: "Best wishes Gary, through your work in the community and for peace you've left an indelible mark on all who know you."
The respected cleric plans to commute to Crossgar every day while continuing his peace and reconciliation work in Ardoyne.
"During my time there I've been called to the scenes of murders and sadly the area has struggled with suicide. Those have been very challenging but I'm also very privileged to have helped people in some of the most awful situations. In those situations you also experience the best of humanity. I've seen that time and time again."
When first appointed to Ardoyne in 2001, Fr Donegan recalled: "I had a baptism of fire, on my birthday on June 19, during the Holy Cross blockade.
"Myself and my predecessor Fr Aidan Troy came to the fore during that time.
"But out of adversity came positivity because it gave a launch pad to becoming involved in peace and reconciliation," he said.
He credits his sense of humour with helping him build bridges.
"I've spoken with so-called loyalist paramilitaries. They'd be the first to shake your hand and acknowledge your work," he said.
"There was a lot of joking going on with them saying, 'you're going to try and convert us to Rome'.
"But I just said, 'It's difficult enough holding on to the ones we have, never mind going after you!'
"I've been so lucky," he concluded. "Anyone who serves in a place like Ardoyne should count themselves extremely privileged."