Fr. Des Wilson last June and at the time of the 70th anniversary of his ordination. Belfast Media Group photo.
By Irish Echo Staff
Tributes on both sides of the Atlantic have been paid following the death of West Belfast priest Fr. Des Wilson.
The peacemaker and community activist was 94. Fr. Wilson died on Tuesday, November 5.
The Irish Times reported: Deeply involved in the development of the Springhill and Ballymurphy community associations during the darkest days of the Troubles, he was a strong advocate of adult education.
Having grown up in the Ormeau Road area of south Belfast, Fr Wilson attended St Malachy's College and was ordained in 1949.
He spent 16 years as the spiritual director at the north Belfast school before moving to St John's Parish in west Belfast in 1966.
In the years that followed, Fr. Des found himself in dispute with the Catholic Church and later resigned from clerical positions.
Having a great passion for education, he went on to form the Springhill Community House, which became a refuge for the members of the community seeking learning and counselling.
Former Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams led the tributes to the late priest.
Adams said the community of West Belfast, especially of the Upper Springfield area, would be devastated by news of the death of "our friend and mentor.”
Continued the Times report: “He described Fr Wilson, who married the former MP and his wife Colette in 1971 while Mr. Adams was on the run from the authorities, as ‘hugely respected and loved.’
"He was also a man of great courage, a good neighbor, and a decent human being," Adams said.
"Fr. Des's life was dedicated to helping people. During the terrible years of conflict, he stood with the Upper Springfield Road community against the aggression and violence of the British state forces. He gave comfort and solidarity to those in need."
Mr. Adams said that along with Frank Cahill and others, Fr. Wilson had established a number of projects aimed at bringing jobs and investment to the area, including the Whiterock Industrial Estate, the Rock Knitwear Group and later the Conway Mill project.
Adams, according to the Times report, also credited Fr. Des, alongside the late Fr. Alec Reid, as performing a mediation process between the different republican groups, which he said had "undoubtedly saved lives following feuding in the late 1970s.”
He said the together the two priests also embarked on an outreach program, in which they spoke to unionist paramilitaries and facilitated meetings between republicans and loyalists.
"They met officials from the British and Irish governments, and indeed anyone who would listen to them, in the hope that through dialogue they could assist the work of peace building. They pioneered this work," Mr. Adams said.
A spokesman for Relatives For Justice said the campaign group was "bereft" to hear of Fr. Wilson's passing.
"He was always on the side of the marginalized, the silenced and the oppressed," the spokesman said.
"His support for the families we work with was unwavering. We are diminished without him but remain all the better for having had him."
President Michael D. Higgins release a statement of condolence.
“It is with great sadness that I have learned of the death of Fr. Des Wilson,” said the president
“As President of Ireland, may I convey my deepest condolences to his family and friends, and express my thanks for Fr. Des Wilson’s life of dedicated service, inspired by what was a generous vision of a new, more inclusive, peaceful and welcoming Ireland.
“During his life’s work, Fr. Wilson gained enormous respect for his activism for rights, his indefatigable work in community, integrated education and in the promotion of civil rights.
“Comfortable as he was working in both Irish and English, Fr. Des Wilson was referred to by so many as a true ‘champion of the people.’
“In his work for the betterment of communities, Fr. Wilson was unafraid to challenge figures of authority from all sides.
“It was his sense of fairness and decency that resulted in him being called upon, together with Fr. Gerry Reynolds and Fr. Alec Reid, to help in bringing about the negotiations that led to the IRA ceasefire. Síochán siorraí do a anam lámhach.”
Last June, a Belfast Media Group report on a Mass to celebrate “champion of the people” Fr. Wilson and to mark the 70th anniversary of his ordination, carried some reflections from the man himself.
Stated Fr. Wilson in an interview: “I never thought I would get this far. There were more than 80 priests ordained the same day as I was, most of them are gone from this world, a mere handful of us laughing about which of us will reach the 100th birthday first.
“What I want to do now, most of all is to thank God for allowing me to live among such good family, friends and neighbors during those years. You taught me what life means; you taught me that especially during the bad, sad times. I believe we are seeing the beginning of a renewed Ireland, a renewed Christianity, a renewed city of Belfast – and we are privileged to live in one of the most beautiful parts of the city – between the beautiful mountain that is full of surprises like the feast of bluebells in the beginning of summer to the snow topped hills in winter, between the sweeping magnificent valley of the Lough and the Lagan. This must surely be one of the most beautiful places for a city to be in.”
“This is where I learned the best lessons about life and I am grateful to family, friends, neighbors who taught me and even had great patience when I learned so slowly. I learned how good people show their dignity even during the hardest of times, show it most of all during the hard times.
“So I am grateful to God for being here, grateful, to all whom I have had the privilege of being family and neighbor to. And very, very hopeful for the future.
“Coming out of the worst of times we could now be facing into the best of times. May God and good people make it so.”