Fr James Kirstein SMA – Obituary
James Francis Kirstein was born on 17 May 1935 in Ardfallen Estate, Douglas, Cork, the eldest of a family of three – two boys and one girl – of Francis Henry Kirstein [+1989] and Margaret , née Foley [+1988]. His father was a Fitter and his mother cared for the family in the home. An uncle, John Kirstein, was a member of the Dominican Order [OP]. His brother, Noel and sister, Elizabeth, survive him.
Jim was baptised in his home parish of St Finbarr’s South on 20 May 1935 and was confirmed in the same parish church on 26 May 1947, aged 12 years.
Following his Primary and Secondary education at St Nessan’s, Sullivan’s Quay, Cork, Jim was employed for seven years as Secretary to the Manager of Irish Steel in Haulbowline, Cork. In 1961, aged 26, he decided to test a call to become a missionary priest. He began his studies with the SMA in our Novitiate at Cloughballymore, Co Galway. He took his First Temporary oath of membership in the Society on 25 June 1962. He then moved to the SMA House of Studies in Wilton, Cork, where he did a Bachelor of Arts degree, including Philosophy [required for ordination], majoring in history and Spanish (1962 – 1965). Following his Honours BA degree, Jim studied theology in the SMA Major seminary at Dromantine, Newry, Co Down (1965 – 1968). He became a permanent member of the Society on 11 June 1968 and, along with 8 classmates, was ordained a priest by Bishop Eugene O’Doherty in Newry Cathedral on 18 December 1968.
Fr Jim arrived in Nigeria in September 1969 to begin his Tyrocinium studies [a period of some months where the new priests learnt about the culture and the local language they would need in their ministry]. He was then appointed to the teaching Staff of St Murumba’s College, Jos diocese (1969 – 1977) and then as the Spiritual Director in St Augustine’s Major Seminary, Jos (1977 – 1983). During three summer holiday periods (1978 – 1980) Fr Jim did a Master’s degree in Spirituality at Creighton University, Nebraska, USA. This was to better equip him for the work of spiritual accompaniment, first of all with the seminarians but also with a growing numbers of lay people and clergy / religious who saw in him a man of deep spiritual wisdom. He enjoyed his work in St Augustine’s, though the task of being Spiritual Director to over 200 seminarians was very demanding.
During these fourteen years Fr Jim was not blind to the huge workload of his SMA confreres working in parishes in a diocese covering 52,000 sq. miles [Ireland is 32,595 sq. miles in comparison]. Jos diocese has since given ‘birth’ to five more dioceses: Kafanchan, Bauchi, Lafia, Shendam and Pankshin. At weekends and during holidays, whenever possible, Fr Jim travelled to different parts of the diocese to help out with parish commitments: baptisms, confessions and celebrating Sunday Masses. The Catholic population of Jos diocese in 1980 was 170,000 with 62 priests to cover this vast area [25 of them local diocesan clergy assisted by SMA and Augustinian priests]. Jos had a large prison, including a section for those condemned to death. Fr Jim readily accepted the role of Prison Chaplain and notes in one letter that he over some weeks he baptised eight men condemned to death.
Due to his fluency in French, Jim served on various SMA Commissions, e.g. the 1983 General and Provincial Assembly Preparatory Commissions. He was also a member of the Recruitment, Formation and Retirement Commissions in the Province.
In 1983, Jim returned to Ireland to as Director of Students and, for a period, Vice Rector at the SMA House in Maynooth. He served there from 1983 – 1991. Though he would have preferred to return to Africa, Jim accepted this new responsibility on the spirit of obedience which is a hallmark of his entire life. During this period he also travelled each summer to Jerusalem to teach a course on St John’s Gospel at the Ecce Homo Centre run by the Sisters of Sion.
From an early age he was a keen sportsman, proficient in many sports, including hockey, tennis and golf. Very careful of what he ate, he was serious about keeping himself fit.
Fr Jim undertook a Sabbatical programme in 1991, some of it in France to improve even more his French language skills. In September 1992 his life took a major turn, crossing the SMA language divide into a French area of mission. At the request of the SMA Superior General, Fr Patrick J Harrington, he joined the staff of the deBrésillac Centre in Calavi (Benin Republic) – an international centre devoted to the spiritual formation of SMA seminarians. They came from many African countries [where SMA’s worked], India and Poland. He served in Calavi for just under six years and was greatly regarded by both students and staff. Since the announcement of his death, many messages have come from some of those former seminarians, now SMA priests, attesting to the positive effect Fr Jim had on their lives. He was held in high esteem by his French and Italian colleagues who appreciated his wisdom, generosity, openness, and ability to speak French so well. One Nigerian SMA priest remembers that during his year in Calavi, Jim would often begin his sermons with the phrase: ‘When I was a priest in Jos diocese, Nigeria…’. Of course this was spoken in flawless French!
In Calavi, Jim worked in close collaboration with our French and Italian confreres, helping to form students of nine different nationalities, and covering three continents, to become SMA missionaries. Writing in the Provincial Newsletter, Link, he described his time in Calavi as “an enriching experience of internationality”, and he viewed his ministry there as “a sign of God’s Kingdom calling us into one family”.
From 1993 to 1998 he served as a Councillor to the African Foundation Superior which gave him an insight into the formation work in our other SMA seminaries in the Central African Republic, DR Congo, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Nigeria and Zambia as well as our pastoral training programme for seminarians in Cairo, Egypt.
In 1998, Fr Jim’s contribution to the international development of the Society was to take a new turn, when he was appointed as Superior of the SMA House of Studies in New Manila, Philippines. Aged 63 years he readily accepted this new challenge and adapted himself to the climate and culture of the Philippines. As well as his formation work he also engaged in weekend pastoral ministry in the SMA Good Shepherd Parish. This sounds a lot easier than it was: to go from New Manila to Good Shepherd could take 2 or more hours in bumper to bumper traffic with the constant pollution of this huge city of many millions. But Jim didn’t complain and undertook this work with great enthusiasm. It’s noteworthy that, to this day, our Filipino and Irish priests in New Manila still travel each weekend to celebrate some of the 16 Masses that take place every weekend in the Good Shepherd parish, with its several churches. During his years in Manila, Jim was constantly busy meeting requests to lead Retreats and offer spiritual direction. There is little doubt that, though he enjoyed his varied ministry there, it was also a challenging time for him as health issues began to arise but, nonetheless, Jim stayed at his post, eventually serving for seven years of what was originally a three-year appointment.
All in all, Jim spent 27 years of his life in the field of formation. In 2005, returning to Ireland in poor health, Jim took over the management and supervision of our Promotion Office in Blackrock Road and continued in that role until a further deterioration in his health forced his retirement in 2010. But Jim was not one to ‘sit back’ and take rest. He continued to play as full a part as possible in the community exercise, particularly in the Oratory, as Choirmaster.
He was greatly appreciated by many of our sick and retired members in our Nursing wing, St Theresa’s, in Blackrock Road. He visited them each evening to pray with them and give his blessing. A couple of years ago the late Fr Jim Higgins, on not seeing Jim for some weeks [he was unwell and hospitalised for a period] told the Provincial Leader that he missed Jim coming in to him each evening to pray and bless him. When Jim returned, he resumed his ministry to the sick and retired.
In October 2016, Fr Jim moved into St Theresa’s unit as his bodily strength began to ebb. He appreciated the wonderful care of the Nurses and staff there until he was admitted to the Cork University Hospital in December. These last months of his life in St Theresa’s and in Cork University hospital were painful, but he bore his suffering with admirable fortitude until his death on Monday evening, 23 January, when the Lord called him home. As Fr Michael McCabe, SMA Provincial Leader, put it in his sermon at Fr Jim’s funeral Mass: “he is now united with the One he loved and served so well. May we, who are the poorer for his passing, draw strength and inspiration from the example of his life.
Ar dheis de go raibh a anam dilis.”