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Obituary: Fr Des Wilson, a tireless worker for peace who stood up to authority

 

Dedicated: Fr Des Wilson
Dedicated: Fr Des Wilson
Alf McCreary

By Alf McCreary

The death this week of Father Des Wilson at the age of 94 marks the passing of one of the best-known priests in west Belfast. He often created headlines with his individual approach and made a significant contribution to peace-making and to the local community.

Fr Wilson was brought up in the Ormeau Road area and he later said: "To us it was an amazing place. When I was growing up I was very fortunate. I was able to go to St Malachy's Grammar School and I was able to say what I wanted to say and what I wanted to do. Very few people were able to do that. I wanted to be a scientist or a journalist."

However, he decided to be a priest, and in June this year he and his friends in the priesthood and family celebrated the 70th anniversary of his ordination. He spent some 54 years as a cleric in west Belfast.

He was spiritual director at St Malachy's before moving to St John's Parish. He had clear ideas about what he wanted from his ministry and had difficulties with the structural set-up of the Church. He resigned from some clerical appointments, but later on he and the Catholic authorities agreed a 'modus vivendi' and he spent a fruitful ministry in Springhill Community House.

From this base he helped people at all levels with improving their education, as well as with counselling and helping them to gain confidence and their sense of dignity.

He was also a champion of people under pressure and he wrote a strong letter to the Vatican in defence of fellow priest Fr Brian D'Arcy, who wrote a free-flowing column for the Sunday World and had been censured by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Fr Wilson also worked tirelessly for peace, and with the late Fr Alec Reid he tried to mediate between various republican groups and to attempt dialogue with loyalist paramilitaries.

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In his condolences, Irish President Michael D Higgins thanked him for a "life of dedicated service, inspired by what was a generous vision of a new, more inclusive, peaceful and welcoming Ireland".

He added: "During his life's work, Fr Wilson gained enormous respect for his activism for rights, his indefatigable work in community, integrated education and promotion of civil rights.

"Fr Des Wilson was referred to by so many as a true 'champion of the people'. In his work for the betterment of communities, he was unafraid to challenge figures of authority from all sides.

"It was his sense of fairness and decency that resulted in him being called upon, together with Fr Gerry Reynolds and Fr Alex Reid, to help in bringing about the negotiations that led to the IRA ceasefire."

Among many tributes, the victims' group Relatives for Justice said: "His support for the families we work with was unwavering. We are diminished without him but remain all the better for having had him."

In his three years as parish priest of Corpus Christi, Fr Paddy McCafferty came to know Fr Wilson well.

He said: "In his latter years he was physically frail but his mind remained robust and he was as sharp as a tack. He inspired me with his kindness and encouragement and his gentle words.

"His contribution to the church and community is inestimable. He was an amazing man, and he will be sorely missed."

His funeral will take place at Corpus Christi Church at 10am on Saturday. The celebrant at Requiem Mass will be Fr McCafferty and the address will be given by Fr Joe McVeigh.

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