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Lecarrow priest has spent over 30 years working in the Amazon region

Story by Adrian Cusack

Wednesday, 5th September, 2012 12:30pm

Lecarrow priest has spent over 30 years working in the Amazon region

Fr Pat Brennan at home in Lecarrow.

Lecarrow native Pat Brennan's decision to enter the priesthood was motivated by a simple desire to reach out to people who needed help the most.

"Growing up reading about third world countries and the need for priests to help those in poverty... that kind of thing would touch you," he says. "So I thought, 'I probably won't be able to do much, but I might be able to do a little to make this world a bit better.'"

It's Monday morning and priest is sitting in the Johnsport, Lecarrow, house where he was born 64 years ago. He is coming towards the end of a three-month visit to Ireland. In just under a fortnight, he will begin the long journey from South Roscommon to the Amazon region of Brazil, where he has been based for over 30 years.

Last weekend, a parish social was held in Lecarrow and locals presented him with €9,200 which was raised towards his work in a parish on the Transamazon Road, in the prelacy of Xingu.

"I get to visit Ireland every four years and each time I come home we have a fundraising social. The people here are great for supporting it," he states.

During his time in Brazil, he has worked among communities directly affected by the massive deforestation which has taken place in the Amazon. Because the Church's advocacy for the poor often runs contrary to commercial interests, there is an undercurrent of danger to this work.

He speaks about a 73-year-old missionary from the United States, Sister Dorothy Stang, who was assassinated ten years ago because of her defence of poverty-stricken communities in the parish where Pat is now based.

"Whoever goes to work with the poor is always in danger of being threatened because they're in conflict with the interests of the big ranchers," he says.

"If you try to defend the native people against the knocking of the rainforests that's against the interests of the timber companies. And when someone gets in their way, they try to get rid of them."

Pat grew up in "a traditional Catholic, religious, family" - one of four children born to Alice and Jim Brennan. He was educated at Glanduff National School and St Aloysius College in Athlone.

Before entering the priesthood, he worked at St Bridget's Hospital in Ballinasloe for three and a half years, and also had a spell as a civil servant in Dublin, with the Irish Land Commission.

President Michael D Higgins was one of Pat's professors when he studied philosophy in Donamon Castle, Roscommon, and he then went on to study theology in Maynooth.

After his conversion to the priesthood he departed for Brazil, 35 years ago. Following an initial period in the State of Rio, he was sent to the Amazon region where he has been working ever since.

"The first parish I worked in was bigger than Ireland," he recalls, stating that it would take 15 hours of travel by boat to reach some of its communities.

The lifestyle of the people there was "primitive," with many depending on fishing and hunting for survival, though the economic and educational development of Brazil over the years has helped improve conditions.

"Up to 20 years ago, the vast majority of Brazilians would have lived in poverty and a big percentage would have been in misery. But, with changes in Government, things started to improve," he says.

As one might expect, his work involves the religious sacraments - such as baptisms and weddings - as well as visiting communities and organising training for lay leaders in the parish. However there is also a strong social justice aspect to the role.

"We'd be involved in helping people to get organised so that they can defend their own rights," he comments.

In one parish where he worked, "over 100 families were thrown off their land because a mining company came in for bauxite, which is used for making aluminium. The company got a huge amount of land and the people who had been living there were just dumped off that land without any rights. They were given an hour to leave their homes. They were given promises but the promises were never fulfilled."

He says cases like this were "very common in the 80s" and are still happening today, albeit on a smaller scale.

One of his most memorable experiences was living for a year in a community that settled in an abandoned rubbish dump. The people made homes there because they had nowhere else to live, but the settlement was contentious. They were evicted by the police and had their homes destroyed.

"The Church supported the people, who went back in and started rebuilding the houses, and barricaded the entrance so the police couldn't get in. They succeeded in building their houses there."

Fr Pat lived in a small, straw-roofed house among them. This house became a seminary of the Society of the Divine Word.

"We had no water, no electricity but just to be with the people was fantastic. Today it is a huge part of that town. They've got everything, but at the start it was pure, basic necessities."

He feels the deforestation of the Amazon, largely caused by human settlement and cutting down trees for development, has seriously harmed the earth's climate.

"Thousands of hectares, bigger than many countries, have been knocked to get timber. That must have had an awful effect on the climate. Now the government is trying to control it, but it's hard to control it when there's so much corruption. The person who has money has power," he says.

He's also concerned about the ecological impact of a massive hydro-electric dam which is planned in his parish. Entitled the 'Belo Monte Hydro-Electric Dam', it is scheduled to be the third largest in the world.

"It will be a disaster. They say it's clean energy, because it's renewable, but it destroys so much. It will destroy the river and have terrible consequences for the climate."

Despite the ongoing difficulties he encounters, Fr Pat knows his work is making a difference in the lives of the local people.

"Just to be with the people in their suffering (makes a difference). And you do see things that are positive."

He mentions the fact that more vocations to the priesthood have been emerging from Brazil, and that local people have made some progress in the struggle to protect their rights and improve facilities such as roads. He also speaks of his connection with the native Indian people, with whom he worked nine years in the extreme north of Brazil.

In his current parish he started to visit native Indian communities, and each year he spends three days travelling on the river to reach some of them. In one of these isolated communities, the people had not been visited by a priest for twelve years before Fr Pat arrived.

"When I got there a woman who was standing on the bank of the river said: 'Oh thanks be to God! We're all Catholic here! Now I can baptise my grandchildren and I want Mass in the cemetery where my husband is buried.'"

On that first visit, he baptised 77 people in two communities. In the future, he "would like to get more involved with other Indian villages and communities that haven't been having a priest come to visit."

When asked about the changes he sees on his visits back to Ireland, he says the country has changed in numerous ways, some positive and some not. "But in the parish here (of St John's, Rahara and Knockcroghery) it's great to see so many people involved in activities that are helping people. You have Lecarrow heritage group, Lecarrow development group, a benevolent fund, people working to help those who have cancer, football clubs, people doing voluntary work... I'm pleased about that."

Does he miss Ireland? "When you go out first, you miss the people, the culture and the sport but now after so many years you don't think about it," he says.

At the moment he doesn't see himself returning to this country for good, but there's no way of knowing for sure what the future will bring.

"I'll leave that in God's hands," he says.