A Boy in Ballyfermot, a Celebrity Priest in Ghana

On the low altar, three priests in green-and-white vestments stand in position. The priest in the centre leads the Mass. To his left, another priest clasps his hands tightly and brings them close to his face as he prays.

The prayers aren’t murmured today; instead, they’re being sung.

It’s a significant turnout for Monday-morning Mass at St Mary’s church in Lucan. Around 100 people are in attendance and many seem to be regular churchgoers. The communion travels down the pews to those who have difficulty walking.

It seems a close-knit congregation. But the few people I spoke to knew little about the priest on the left with his hands drawn up to his face.

They didn’t know that in Ghana, he’s a public figure. They didn’t know that he rubs shoulders with Accra’s elite, and sits at number 52 in ETV Ghana’s list of the 100 most influential Ghanaians.

“He doesn’t go for tea . . . ,” said one woman in a baby-blue top, and she pointed to the tearoom.

They didn’t even know he is from Ballyfermot.

From Ballyfermot to Ghana

As Father Andrew Campbell tells it, he had wanted to go to Africa as a missionary ever since he was in primary school in Ballyfermot.

It was magazines that did it. “I used to read of missionaries going out on horseback and going to villages,” he says. “I’ve never been on horseback in Ghana, but that was my vision.”

To become a missionary, Campbell knew he’d have to go to secondary school. But his parents couldn’t afford it. So, for two years, he worked as a delivery man to save up.

It wasn’t a pleasant time, he says. “I remember feeling cold even when I was working.”

Later, he was accepted to a seminary in England, where he worked in the summers as a nurse, a welder, or whatever he could to make a few bob.

At 18, he applied to the Society of the Divine Word, and once his studies were done, he volunteered to go to the only mission it had in Africa: Ghana.

So, on 1 October 1971, with nothing but a few essentials, he boarded a boat in Liverpool bound for West Africa. Back then, the trip took thirteen days at sea. “Going through the Bay of Biscay, I was as sick as a dog,” he says.

Leaving family behind was difficult. Every three years, he returns to Dublin for a three-month holiday, and stays with his niece. But Ghana, he says, is now home. Recently, he was granted dual citizenship.

The Perpetual Beggar

With his soft voice and unusual accent, Campbell tells a story from when he was struggling to earn enough money to buy the clerical clothing he needed. He bought a suit and was given a present of some black shoes, but he still needed £10 to buy a cassock.

“I’d never seen a £10 note at that time, and that’s when somebody put a letter in my letterbox with a £10 note in it and a letter that said ‘Dear Mr Campbell, please accept this little gift,’” he says. Forty-five years later, he still expresses incredulity.

The letter was simply signed ‘Donor’. To this day, Campbell has no idea who the money was from. “I felt it was God saying, ‘I’ll look after you from now on’,” he adds.

It did set a precedent for the priest’s ability to get donations for costly projects in his parish in Accra, Ghana’s capital city.

Schools, a chapel, a leprosarium, a convent, day centres for the elderly, a medical clinic, a new wing of the country’s only children’s hospital and a dam in a remote village that had caved in. Over the years, networking with the rich and powerful has brought him funding to do a lot, he says.

Father Campbell in Accra with Nancy, who was cured of leprosy

Just before he left Ghana for Dublin this summer, Campbell says he asked the president of Ghana, John Dramani Mahama, for help to build a new leprosarium in the north of the country, where people with leprosy are living in mud huts without water or electricity.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Father, you’re a real beggar priest,’” laughs Campbell. But it works. It seems the president has agreed to provide funding.

Campbell talks about how he helped to build a new surgical wing for the children’s hospital, eight years ago. Through his connections, he secured an architect, an engineer and a surveyor for free, while Tullow Oil allowed the project to use $2 million worth of equipment.

With more than 500 surgeries performed in the unit in the last two years, he is happy. Sort of. He already wants to start “begging again” to add to the hospital.

These donations sometimes have a cost. Campbell recalls being coerced into appearing on Ghana’s version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? after mobile company MTN had helped with the hospital.

At a more local level, the parishioners of Accra started a project to set up a clinic. Campbell was asked to build it without a penny, and his first move was to ask for furniture donations from the congregation.

He smiles as he remembers the array of chairs, plates, pots and pans that they brought. Now, twelve years on, the clinic has a lab, a dental unit and an outpatient department and he is hoping to get help from Irish Aid to build a 30-bed theatre.

He hasn’t worked with any Irish charities so far, but he wants to make some contacts.

A Paternal Father

Campbell doesn’t want to comment on the Catholic Church here in Ireland. But he says he would miss the “spirit of togetherness” and feeling of family from his church in Accra. There, a dedicated congregation of 200 people attend Mass at 6.30am and five services take place on a Sunday.

Besides Masses and fundraising, Campbell’s day – which starts at 4am and ends around 10pm – sees him talking to people with leprosy, listening to the confessions of prostitutes, praying with prisoners on death row, and visiting the children’s hospital.

He describes his work with prostitutes as interesting. “Some of them would dodge me,” he adds.

Once, he says, he gave a scapular – a holy necklace – to one, who asked if she could wear it even when “doing wrong”. He laughs and says, “I said ‘yes’.”

He believes his role is to bring hope to people and tell them not to give up. He looked up to Mother Teresa, who died in 1997. “She’s just so down-to-earth and has the Lamb of God in her heart,” he says softly.

As he speaks, he begins to preach and conversation turns to the sins he disapproves of.

He explains how he has taught his female students to save sex for marriage. He expresses his pride at those who do so, but, speaking of one student who apologised that she didn’t wait and confessed to going a bit wild in her second year at university, Campbell smiles with amusement.

Over the years, he says he has adopted “quite a lot of children” for various reasons – because they were left on his doorstep as babies, or because he talked their mothers out of aborting them. He’s put many through school and receives around sixty messages on Father’s Day, he says.

“I’ve always loved being with children, maybe [it’s] the daddy instinct,” he comments.

As Campbell tells it, modern Ghana seems to in some ways mirror Ireland 50 years ago, when people were staunchly religious and priests were revered. Back then, if Campbell had returned to Dublin for three months, everyone in the parish would have known.

In Ghana, he is the last Irishman among the Divine Word Missionaries. But the seminaries and convents there are full. “Instead of us sending priests out there,” he says, “they’re sending priests out here.”

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Louisa McGrath: Louisa McGrath is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at lmcgrath@dubinq.com.

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