by Gordon Nary
Gordon: When did you receive your vocation? With whom did your first discuss it, and what was their response?
Father Hugh: I first expressed an interest in the priesthood during my last year in elementary school. A priest came into the classroom and talked about a vocation to the priesthood. He asked if there were any students who had thought about it, and several put up their hands and he took their names down. I never responded. I appreciated the idea of the priesthood but I did not see it as something for me.
Then the priest did something quite extraordinary. He said he was going to ask a student in the classroom if he had ever thought about the priesthood. I intuitively knew that he was going to ask me and I dreaded the thought of him doing so.
Well, he put the question to me. And I nodded my head. I thought that would be the end of it, but it wasn’t. Later in the afternoon when I was home with my school friends in the farmyard of our home, one of my buddies told me that he saw this priest in my home talking to my parents. I was surprised. Before I knew, I was asked to come into the house and that’s when the discussion about the priesthood began in earnest. My parents told the priest that I never mentioned it to them.
This priest kept in touch with me every year which helped to renew my interest in the priesthood. He was a Carmelite priest, so I went to a Carmelite high school and later entered the seminary in Dublin where I was ordained as a priest in December 1966.
Gordon: Where did you attend seminary and what was your most interesting course and why?
Father Hugh: I attended St. Mary’s Carmelite Seminary in Dublin. It is now closed. I also did my examinations at the archdiocesan seminary in Dublin, called Clonliffe. As part of my education, I attended University College Dublin where I did my undergraduate B.A. degree and studied English and French language and literature.
My most interesting academic courses were at the National University of Ireland, of which University College Dublin is an integral part. I studied English and French language and literature and was enthralled by my studies. I studied in France during the summer months when I was on vacation. It was enlightening.
In the seminary, I enjoyed philosophy as well as theology. But my university training enabled me to appreciate these subjects better from a literary and cultural point of view. In a way, I would say that my university education enabled me to ground my philosophical and theological training in a way that was more accessible to people.
Gordon: Please share with our readers an overview of your teaching career in Ireland.
Father Hugh: I taught for five years at the Carmelite college in County Cork. The college no longer exists and has been converted into a five-star resort hotel. For five years, from 1970 to 1975, I taught English and French language and literature. It was a wonderful experience because it helped me to express myself more clearly through the art of teaching. I would turn short stories into one-act plays and get the students to perform them on stage. This activity was noticed by professors at University College Cork. They would attend the plays, for which they gave me very high marks (first class honors) when I sat for a higher diploma in education at the university. I also did a Master’s of Education on the writings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a 19th century English poet. Coleridge fascinated me because he was a poet, a philosopher, and a theologian. He helped me to galvanize my ideas so that I was able to write a Ph.D. thesis on the relationship between faith and reason, which I later published as a book. My Ph.D. was submitted at the University of Hull in England. I originally began it under Prof. McClelland at University College Cork but, since he was my mentor from the beginning, I finished my Ph.D. under him at the University of Hull where he was a full professor.
Gordon: What is Christian Community Action (CCA)?
Father Hugh: Christian Community Action is an organization I founded when I was teaching at the Carmelite College in County Cork from 1970 to 1975. The purpose of CCA was to implement the corporal works of mercy as outlined in the Gospel of Mathew, chapter 25. During the course of those five years, we built homes for seniors, homes, and shelters for the handicapped, a community center, and a housing project for young families in Glencolumbcille, County Donegal, Ireland. The unique feature of this program is that we began without a budget and always succeeded in every project without a debt. I called it Christian Community Action in order to unite the Catholic and Protestant communities in Ireland in a common Christian program of helping the needy. One of my close friends and sponsors of this work was the president of Ireland, Erskine Childers.
Gordon: When and why did you move to the United States?
Father Hugh: I moved to the United States permanently in November 1975 to the Diocese of Orlando. Prior to that, in 1974, I was invited to give a workshop at the Catholic Committee for Urban Ministry (CCUM) at Notre Dame, Indiana. After that, I was invited by several bishops to come and work in their dioceses in the United States. My first preference was the Diocese of Pueblo, Colorado. Bishop Buswell wanted to meet me in Philadelphia, where I was visiting because he was having a bishops’ meeting in New England. Things didn’t work out since he had to rush back to his diocese. Then I visited with the Bishop of Orlando, who also invited me to work in his diocese, and that’s where I decided to stay. The Diocese of Orlando and the Archdiocese of Miami were later broken up to create the new Diocese of Palm Beach where I now reside.
The reason I made the transition from teaching in the Carmelite College to pastoral work in the United States is that I wanted to combine the social ministry of the Church with its pastoral ministry. Eventually, I was able to do that when I became a pastor at Sacred Heart Church, Okeechobee, Florida.
Gordon: What was the most memorable experience that you had when serving as pastor of Sacred Heart Church, Okeechobee, Florida.
Father Hugh: I was a pastor for 30 years at Sacred Heart Church, Okeechobee, Florida. Perhaps, the most memorable experience was that I was able to document over 16,000 immigrant families who were living in and around the big lake area. We set up an office of Immigration Assistance and worked hard day and night to make it possible for these families to have a future in this country. Because of the trust in the Church, at that time, we were declared a Qualified Designated Entity (QDE) by the government with authority to assist these people to achieve legal status. It was an enormous undertaking with many problems and challenges. But the outcome was very satisfactory.
Before retiring as pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Okeechobee, I was blessed, with the whole-hearted help of my parishioners, to build a new church for the community of Sacred Heart, debt-free, with money left over.
Gordon: Please provide an overview of your mission and activities at Cross Catholic International?
Father Hugh: Cross Catholic works in 50 countries worldwide doing, more or less, what I did in Ireland over 40 years ago. This organization builds houses, sinks wells, builds clinics, and schools for the neediest of people. My principal activity is to bring the message of Cross Catholic to parishes across the United States so that people, not only hear about it but can make donations to the work of serving the poor worldwide.
Gordon: We encourage our readers to check out your website.