Noel in the old Mission House, Galapo 2009

It’s one of those moments when solitude bites – that most blessed gift of God that I treasure. It’s when loneliness overwhelms me and there is no one there to absorb it with me, no human face-to-face physical presence. And nothing on earth will relieve it, only God who doesn’t relieve it quickly but stretches it out so that I actually experience it. I’m not the only one and it’s not the worst loneliness going on in the world– but it’s mine, right now. And it hurts!

It happened following my visit to Noel in the hospice, something I’ve already written about but will repeat again here. His brothers JJ and Patrick and niece Fiona were there. Noel slept peacefully so the rest of us chatted until he stirred, woke and looked at us without speaking. I knelt beside his bed, we held hands, I placed my right hand on his head and we prayed.  It felt like we were intimately enfolded in one Heart. I asked Jesus to take our hands, our priestly hands and use them as His own, that the Light of His Love would fill Noel’s mind, heart, soul and body; that the Holy Spirit would pray in every breath he took. Then I prayed Psalm 131 – “O Lord my heart is not proud, nor haughty my eyes. I have not gone after things too great, nor marvels beyond me. Truly I have set my soul in silence and in peace as a child at rest – and then I started to cry unable to say the last line – in its mother’s arms, even so my soul” 

My tears came to me as a surprise, came from deep inside me. You never know what or who is going to make you cry. Was I perhaps looking at my own future, maybe even crying for myself?  His brothers and niece cried and I left the room a while because my crying was going to get out of control. That wouldn’t have been fair to Noel.

When I composed myself, I went back to say thanks to Noel, told him I love him, kissed his cheek and said goodbye in Swahili. Kwaheri, Mungu akubariki, God bless you. Asante, thank you, he replied with a little smile. Kwaheri. We will not get the chance to say these things to each other again. But it’s important for me that they were said.

We have known each other since 1972, though we were not regularly in contact, but there was a genuine affection between us. He was a physically strong sportsman and I am not, but we are kindred spirits, friends of Jesus and brothers in Him.

The word shelter comes to mind when I think of Noel. I was sheltered by him in the height and breadth of his great big hug, sheltered by him in some difficult moments when I was a young priest in Tanzania. Never more sheltered than when my brother Harry and I were in a car accident in July 1984. Harry had to be flown back to Makiungu from the hospital in Dodoma. Noel’s was the first face he saw as he was taken from the plane. The Medical Missionaries of Mary minded Harry, Noel minded me. He understood vulnerability, had the strength to be vulnerable himself and allowed me to be vulnerable in his presence without any embarrassment. When Harry came back to East Africa years later with his wife Elaine, they were welcomed by Noel at Mass in Dagoretti. He invited them up to the altar so the people could see them, got Harry to sing a song and walking down the aisle at the end of Mass he said to Harry, “did you hear that Tipp beat Cork?” His passion for sport mingled easily with his spirituality. It was rather apt that Tipp beat Cork again the day before Noel died!

Noel took me on trips around Tanzania – as far away as Iringa and to the beauty of Karatu where we stayed in what I think was Gibbs Farm. Up there in the beauty of God’s creation we celebrated Mass on a rock in the middle of a river, something I wouldn’t have thought of doing myself but again Noel had the breadth and imagination to do what is alternative while always remaining orthodox. Of course, he would say Mass in a river, being the fisherman he was, and why wouldn’t he!

I hear him laughing, the distinctive sound of his voice, see the brightness that broke out in him, the innocence and the simplicity of the dove, the craftiness that it sometimes hid. He was the best fundraiser I have ever met, standing there melting hearts with his words and his very appearance, his very presence. Truly a man of God!

One of my most treasured memories has to do with his mother Hettie, a woman of great warmth, heart, faith and a sanctity that was direct and had an immense capacity for joy. She always managed to make me laugh, sending me away happier than when I had arrived. The special memory I have is when the three of us were in her kitchen together. She got up to make tea, giving me one mug and putting another between herself and Noel. They both drank from the same mug, each taking alternate sips. It was so tender and intimate, reminding me of when I was a child and how I loved drinking tea from my mother’s cup. It always tasted better, more special. Noel and Hettie seemed to be tasting each other’s life, the other’s love. They were one body, one spirit in a certain way. Enfolded in each other in the most noble and liberating manner. It was that enfolding that came to mind as I prayed Psalm 131 with him, that image that made me cry. As a child at rest in its Mother’s arms, even so my soul, even so is Noel.

As I was driving back from London on Monday May 13th, I finished praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy just after 3.10pm. A few minutes later Noel breathed his last. Into the hands of the Father of Mercy.

With gratitude for the love, the friendship and great witness. I would dearly love to be there for Noel’s funeral on Thursday but, as Derry said, I was there when it mattered. Thanks be to God!n

Noel wearing a hat standing behind me in the early 1980’s. The photo includes John Kelly, Bishop Mabula, Mick Timlin, Bishop Winters, Jim McCartan and Pat Dwyer

10 Replies to “REMEMBERING NOEL: A Child at Rest”

  1. The first time my husband and I met Fr Noel. Another Pallotine Fr TJ Moloney brought him to our Home in Deaborn Hts Michigan. (When he first came to Wyandotte Mich ) I made him a Cup a tea from Irish Tea. He just raved about it He Said that like Tea in Ireland. I never for got that. My Husband came from county Offaly near Tipperary county so he loved that. He was away so special to be around. We Miss him ☘🇺🇸🇮🇪

  2. From Diane M. Smith

    He possessed such a tender and loving soul. Looking into his eyes brought me peace for sure. Wyandotte, Michigan.

  3. From Irene Carden Moran

    What a very special story you shared with us so touching for which I thank you, I love the fact that you said the Divine Mercy at the time you beloved friend was leaving this world. May his gentle soul now rest in peace

  4. From Peter O’Connor

    Wow, as a nephew of Noel I feel such great pride on hearing your words about him. They obviously come from a very honest and pure place in your heart. I will be honest and say that my granmother was the well that we all drew our faith from. Thank you everyone who expressed their condolences, it means so much to his family that Noel meant so much to so many.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your beautiful thoughts about Father Noel. It helps to bring him back a little. I made tea for Noel at our MMM home in the Bronx, but could not find the Barry’s tea we had someplace and gave him Lipton. Even 2 bags of it was not as good as Irish tea. Noel told me he had to fly to his Mission Appeals in the USA because he could not get a cup of decent tea anywhere.
      He was very good to me as a Parish Priest in Makiungu in the 80’s. We were very spiritually and humanly looked after.
      One day, A Muslim man was dying and I asked him if he would liked to be blessed by Father Noel who was usually found in the hospital looking after the sick patients. The man said yes and I know Noel gave him God’s presence and peace. Thank you Father Noel.

  5. Pingback: FR. NOEL O'CONNOR SAC R.I.P. -

  6. That is really lovely with some lovely images and brings back some lovely memories. It certainly was important to him who beat who in hurling. May he Rest in Peace.

  7. Thanks for sharing your very special and precious visit to your friend Fr. Noel. Though it wasn`t easy it must have left you with a loving memory to be cherished.

  8. Thank you for sharing this beautiful part of Father Noels life. He was such a blessing to me when my mother was ill. He will be missed dearly. ❤

  9. Beautiful. Thank you for sharing this. Fr. Noel touched so many lives. He had a way about him that made you feel like you were one of his closest friends. He shared so many stories with me. I treasure every moment that we shared together.

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