Chief Joe Gilleece’s story!

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How did you first hear of the Presentation Brothers?

I went to the Presentaion Brothers Secondary School in Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh. Br. Xavier came to our schools and invited boys to go to the Juniorate in Cork. “By the Sea of Galilee Jesus called the Apostles Peter and Andrew,” he said. “I am taking the place of Jesus today calling you. Will you refuse Him?”
Joe Gilleece would not say no to Jesus!

I wanted to say yes to Jesus and Xavier promised us that we would be playing football every day in the juniorate. I must admit that this was an influencing factor in making the 300 mile trip to Cork as I was football mad at the time!

Br Joe Gilleece, photographed in 2013.

Br Joe Gilleece, photographed in 2013.

What was your formation programme like?

My formation programme was very different to the programmes in place today! Our experience was strict with great emphasis on obedience. We were assured that by following the timetable we were guaranteed that we were doing the will of God. The bell ringing was God calling me. I accepted this literally and tried to live by it for many years. Looking back on it, it wan’t very helpful to cut us off from newspapers, radio and T.V. Thankfully, it’s much different today.

Our novice master was very sincere and walked the talk.

Br Joe outside the health clinic in Nakolo, which he helped develop.

What was your first assignment?

My first year after making my first profession was spent teaching in primary school. In my first year I taught in three different schools . South Monastery in Cork, a primary school in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal and a primary school in Kinsale, Co. Cork. I enjoyed especially my teaching in Letterkenny.

Academically, I was barely average, but I soon found out that in the classroom I was effective. The reports I got from inspectors were very positive so I felt I had found my niche. My mother wanted me to become a priest for her own glory and the glory of our family. But, for me – as a young boy – seeing the priest on the altar fiddling with pieces of cloth as I saw it, led me to conclude that this was not a man’s job! It turned me off.

Br Joe crosses a river to reach a village in Ghana.

You have been a missionary for most of your life. What has that been like?

I have spent nearly forty years in Ghana. We soon discerned in Ghana that we would have to get native vocations if our mission was to continue. There were only two Brothers in Ghana at the time and so we decided to nurture local vocations. To make a long story short we now have over forty young men at various stages of their formation. There is immense satisfaction – spiritual satisfaction – in seeing our young Brothers growing and endeavouring to follow in the footsteps of our founder.

If the cap fits…Br Joe becomes a bishop…for a moment!

When I was appointed novice director it was a crisis for me. I knew I was an effective teacher but would I be able to guide these young Africans from a very different culture from mine? I prayed over it and the Lord seemed to say to me “Trust what I send you each day”. This thought calmed my spirit and empowered me to manage many difficuties. At that time there was a partial famine in Ghana. I had to drive twenty miles to get a loaf of bread but we somehow managed to get the basics. However, that thought: “Trust what I send you each day” often came to my rescue.

I also got involved in development work in Ghana and this gave me the feeling that I was doing something to help the people. We built schools, clinics and sunk boreholes. We felt we were improving the lives of the people. There is no greater pleasure than to give a borehole to some remote village. You become a hero for the people.

Br Joe (right) with the late Br Basil at the Beatification of Edmund Rice by Pope John Paul II in Rome, October 1996.

What advice would you give to any young man interested in following the Lord as a religious Brother?

I would say to a young man who wants to become a religious not to expect absolute certainty about his decision. There is an element of risk-taking in every vocation but I would say, “Take the risk! And be determined to  make a go of it!”

Pope Benedict XVI receives a copy of Br Joe’s history of the Church in northern Ghana.