‘My nickname in primary school was Fr. Seán’ - Derry’s new deacon

Deacon O'Donnell.
Deacon O'Donnell.

When Seán O’Donnell was just seven-years-old, his teacher asked the class what they wanted to be when they grew up.

While most of the children dreamed of becoming nurses, firefighters or builders, Seán told them he wanted to be a priest.

Last Sunday, 34 years after that question was put to him at Muff’s Scoil Naomh Brid, Sean’s path to the priesthood took its penultimate step when he was ordained a deacon for the Derry Diocese.

The 41-year-old from Grove Cottages will now be placed within a local parish before being fully ordained into the priesthood.

Sean was 34 when he entered the seminary and previously worked as a school bus driver, in the Maxol shop in Muff and as a duty manager in Derry’s Bowling Alley.

When the ‘Journal’ met with him this week, it was evident he is now where he wanted to be for all his life.

“My nickname in primary school was ‘Father Sean,’ he said.

“I always said I wanted to be a priest and it was something that was still there when I went to the ‘Tech’ in Buncrana. But, with the necessity of life, I needed to work and that’s what I did.”

Sean, the eldest of Joe and Rosemary O’Donnell’s nine children, drove hundreds of children to and from school with Reddin’s buses.

He’s also a familiar face to many from his years employed in Derry’s Bowling Alley, which he “really enjoyed.”

But, the priesthood was never far from his mind.

“There would be times I’d be driving up and down from Dublin, maybe on my own and see people coming out of Mass. I would think: “I should be in there.” Or, I’d be at work in the bowling alley and it would cross my mind again. It was always there, niggling.”

In February 2007, Seán’s life took the turn that would finally lead him to his calling.

“I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and spent some time in Altnagelvin Hospital. I’m a practical person. If something can be fixed, I’ll have a go at fixing it. But, I couldn’t fix it myself. During that week in hospital, that notion about being a priest came back very strongly. I was back working in the Bowling Alley and thought I was too old for that carry on. But this time, I really couldn’t put it out of my head. There was this niggling feeling again. Other priests will tell you about that. This feeling doesn’t go away.

In the summer of 2008, he attended Fr. Daniel McFaul’s ordination in Muff.

He says: “I knew that day I had to suss this out. I needed to follow this.”

Sean had an informal meeting with the then Bishop of Derry, Dr. Seamus Hegarty, followed by a formal interview in Maynooth. Four weeks later, he entered the seminary.

He discloses how his family and friends weren’t in the least bit surprised.

“When I told my parents and family I was becoming a priest they said: “Well, we knew that.” I also told Paddy Simpson (who owns the Bowling Alley) and he said: “I don’t know whether I’m surprised and not shocked or not shocked and surprised.” It seems everybody knew this was for me before I did. But, they didn’t tell me!”

Despite the fact Sean knew the decision was right, he also had responsibilities, including a mortgage.

“That was a major concern. But, when I said this was what I wanted to do, my family said they’d look after it. We were never a huggy, kissy family, but they gave me so much support. It was incredible to have that and to know if things didn’t work out, that was ok too. But, everything worked out by the hand of God, as I grew to trust in that. My prayer was that if this was meant to be it would and I trusted in that and in Him.”

Sean explains how a deacon can baptise, marry, bury and preach. Bishop of Derry Donal McKeown will soon inform Sean which parish he will be placed within.

“I’m looking forward to it. I’m a people person. When I was working in the bowling alley and on the buses, I was always in contact with people.”

He quips: “The problem with my homilies won’t be that they’re too short, it’s that they mightn’t be able to get me to stop talking.”

Sean says he believes that everything which has happened in his life has brought him to where he is now.

“Each year, since I entered the seminary, I accompanied the priest during his first Friday rounds or was in the sacristy or parish office. You have that massive privilege of entering people’s lives at those big moments - the good and the bad. The goal within ministry is to be able to bring Him into other’s lives and experience the good of other people. Christianity is a two-way exchange, you get and also give. This is a unique aspect of our faith and part of the gift of God. It is also something I had a sense of all my life. My granny’s sister arranged for me to become an altar boy with Fr. Laurence Keaveney. There were people who were always praying for me and saying: “One day you’ll be a great priest.” I have a sense that their prayers have now been answered. Everything happens in God’s time and I have a great sense of that.

“I believe everything that has happened in my life and my journey has brought me to this moment. At the time, it may not have seemed like it made sense, but looking back, it does. God has a special mission for each and every one of us. This is entrusted to us and once you are connected with that, there’s a great sense of fulfilment only God can give. I entered Maynooth to put this niggling to rest. Here I am, six years later, looking forward to ministering in a parish through God’s call. It’s clear this is the life for me.”