A spar­tan room in Mill­town: Fran­cis’s last visit to Dublin

Then a ‘quiet’ forty-some­thing Ar­gen­tine priest, in the 1980s the Pope spent sev­eral weeks with a Je­suit com­mu­nity. JOHN MEAGHER re­ports


“He was au­thor­i­tar­ian — no doubt about that,” he says. “And I think he has ad­mit­ted that him­self. And I thought he’d be au­thor­i­tar­ian as pope, but he has proved he isn’t. He changed greatly when he was Bishop of Buenos Aires — he be­came more ex­tro­vert then and went out among the peo­ple and did a lot of work with the poor.

“It’s amaz­ing [how much he’s changed]. When I knew him, he didn’t leave the house [sem­i­nary] that much. It was all about teach­ing and his fo­cus was on stu­dents. But as bishop, he went to the poor slums and that came to de­fine him.”

Since his pa­pacy, many ques­tions have been asked about the be­hav­iour of the Je­suits and Ber­goglio him­self dur­ing the dic­ta­tor­ship that caused ter­ror in Ar­gentina in the 1970s, but Fr Kelly says it was a topic that was not dis­cussed dur­ing his time in the coun­try.

Fr Kelly is orig­i­nally from Co West­meath and was or­dained in 1968. Now 82, he is a year older than Pope Fran­cis.

“I was in Ar­gentina be­tween 1981 and 1983 and I was teach­ing scrip­ture at the Je­suit House [sem­i­nary] in Buenos Aires. He was the rec­tor of the house, the su­pe­rior, and he de­voted a lot of time to the stu­dents. He was very de­mand­ing of them, but he was very much in their favour — they thought he was very sup­port­ive.”

The two spoke about Ire­land on oc­ca­sion and early on, Fr Ber­goglio men­tioned that he had been at Mill­town Park. “He was friendly with one Je­suit, Joe Veale, who spent a lot of time [as English teacher] in Gon­zaga [the fee-pay­ing boys school run by the Je­suits in Ranelagh, Dublin]. He used to write to Joe.”

When Ber­goglio be­came pope, Fr Kelly in­formed his col­leagues at Mill­town that he had stayed there for a short time years be­fore. A thor­ough search of old doc­u­ments and ledgers was un­der­taken and in one, dat­ing from 1980, it was found that a Fr Ber­goglio had been loaned money to buy lan­guage tapes.

When the story reached the me­dia at the time, it was re­ported that he had spent up to three months at Mill­town learn­ing English, but Fr Kelly be­lieves his stay was shorter. “I think he was here for three weeks, maybe a month at most,” he says. “I don’t know why he came here at that time. It’s said he was speak­ing English, but I don’t know.”

The red-brick house that Ber­goglio Clock­wise from this pic­ture: Fr James Kelly — who worked with Pope Fran­cis in Ar­gentina in the 1980s — at the Je­suit Cen­tre in Mill­mount, Dublin; The cen­tre’s ex­te­rior; and the re­fec­tory stayed in has been dis­used for some time, although Fr Kelly is happy to show the Ir­ish In­de­pen­dent the room he be­lieves the fu­ture pope had slept in. He be­lieves he has iden­ti­fied the cor­rect one on the sec­ond floor be­cause Ber­goglio had told him he was in the room next to where Fr Veale lodged back then.

There’s a plain desk now where the bed would have been and the win­dow af­fords views of the old chapel at Mill­town Park as well as the 1970s apart­ment build­ings out­side the perime­ter wall on Mill­town Road.

The din­ing room on the ground floor is fas­tened shut with ca­bleties but one can still get a sense of what this build­ing would have been like back in 1980. A com­par­a­tively new build then, its par­quet floors are a fa­mil­iar sight in re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions through­out the coun­try.

Fr Kelly says Ber­goglio didn’t men­tion spe­cific things he may have done dur­ing his stay in Dublin so those weeks in Ire­land are open to con­jec­ture.

If he wanted to stretch his legs in the evening, he might have am­bled into nearby Ranelagh and Don­ny­brook vil­lages, or ven­tured fur­ther out to Balls­bridge and Sandy­mount. He could have got the No 11 bus into the city cen­tre from close to the en­trance to Mill­town Park or he could have walked it if he had time to kill.

As a foot­ball fan — pas­sion­ate about his lo­cal Buenos Aires club, San Lorenzo — he would have been able to en­joy the ‘beau­ti­ful game’ on his doorstep if he had so wished. Back then, Sham­rock Rovers played at Glen­malure Park, next door to Mill­town Park. Ire­land’s most dec­o­rated club had leased the site for their sta­dium from the Je­suits in 1926 and by the early 1970s, then-own­ers, the Kil­coyne fam­ily, had bought the prop­erty from the re­li­gious or­der. Glen­malure Park has long been lev­elled and a hous­ing es­tate stands in its place to­day.

Pope Fran­cis’s Ir­ish visit is just 36 hours long and there are no plans for him to visit Mill­town Park. Fr James Kelly says he is not well enough, health-wise, to at­tend the mass at the Phoenix Park or the events planned for the RDS and Croke Park, but he hopes there is an op­por­tu­nity to meet him once more.

“I would like to shake his hand,” he says. “I think he has been a good pope. His writ­ings have been mar­vel­lous and very in­spi­ra­tional. And he’s been de­mand­ing too, but then he is a de­mand­ing per­son.”

The priest was on min­istry in Ecuador dur­ing Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ire­land in 1979. “It’s a dif­fer­ent Ire­land now,” he says, sim­ply. Does he agree with those who be­lieve that Pope Fran­cis should pub­licly apolo­gies for cler­i­cal sex­ual abuse dur­ing his time here?

“I’m not go­ing into that,” he says. “I’m not com­pe­tent in that area. I think I’ll leave that to him, but I know there are calls for him to do so, so we’ll see.”

I would like to shake his hand — I think he has been a good pope. His writ­ings have been mar­vel­lous and very in­spi­ra­tional

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