Michael Flannery gives a blessing during a service at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Madison.
Michael Flannery gives a blessing during a service at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Madison.
Fifty years ago, newly-ordained priest Michael Flannery said goodbye to his home in Limerick, Ireland, and crossed the Atlantic to advance the Catholic ministry in Mississippi. At the age of 24, the young priest found himself living in a foreign land with his closest family member residing more than 1,000 miles away.

In the beginning, the transition was difficult.

"Ireland is very far north," said Monsignor Flannery, who was the third of six children during hard but happy times. The country is cold and damp, but its saving grace is the Gulf Stream, a warm body of water that modifies the climate.

"I was never used to very hot summers," explained Flannery. "But when I got here in '64, most places were beginning to become air conditioned."

First placed in Jackson, the monsignor found support in his fellow priests. "We look out for each other," he said of his brothers in faith. He now serves at St. Francis of Assisi in Madison. "I'm basically pastor of the parish, but there are other responsibilities attached to that," he said. He works with St. Catherine's Village and many local private schools, representing them to an advisory council.

"I've always wanted to be a priest," Flannery said. Growing up, he would act as an altar server and assist priests during mass. "We had to learn the Latin responses to the prayers, but I always loved it. Priests would come from different missionary places. That's how I came to be in the diocese here.

"When I first came, just about half of the priests were from Ireland," he said.

A surplus of ordained clergy in Ireland made being placed in a parish there extremely difficult. Rather than teach school until a position opened, Flannery and many others committed to the mission in Mississippi even though they had never been to the southern United States.

Over the years, Monsignor Flannery has discovered that Ireland is not the only country represented by the local community, where approximately 2.3 percent of the population is Catholic. "Every year, we celebrate the feast of St. Francis on Oct. 4," said Flannery. "We encourage people to bring their culture's food."

Through this feast, the St. Francis staff have discovered that India, Germany, Scotland and various Latin American nations are among the many countries represented by residents of Madison.

On July 2, Flannery traveled back to Ireland to celebrate his 50th year as a priest.

"I celebrated mass at the same church that I celebrated my very first mass, and I had a couple of people there who had been at my very first mass 50 years ago."

Though he has many friends in Ireland, Flannery no longer considers the northern nation home. "This is home for me now," he said of Mississippi. "I've become Southern."

Next year, he will mark a second milestone. As all priests do upon reaching the age of 75, Flannery will submit his resignation in 2015.

"I intend to still continue in ministry, but a different form of ministry," he explained. After his retirement, he plans to remain a resident of Madison the City.