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Athlone's skydiving priest reflects on his leap of faith

Story by Tom Kelly

Wednesday, 23rd May, 2012 4:55pm

Athlone's skydiving priest reflects on his leap of faith

Midlands priests Fr. Shane Crombie, Tullamore, Fr. Pat Gilbert, Birr, Fr. Pierre Pepper, Banagher, Fr. Kevin Heery, Navan, Fr Charlie Healy, Athlone and Fr. Vincent Connaughton, Killanumery, Co. Sligo ready for action before taking A Leap of Faith at Birr Airfield, County Offaly when performing a pa

Last Sunday was a day Athlone priest Fr Charlie Healy won't forget in a hurry.

On the Feast of the Ascension, the priest from St Mary's Parish, along with five other members of the clergy, took to the sky. They set off from Birr airfield for a parachute jump to raise money for Offaly Hospice.

The event - billed as 'a leap of faith' - was hugely successful. While the priests were hoping to generate somewhere in the region of €5,000, the total raised is believed to have far exceeded that.

The other priests who took part were Fr Pierre Pepper from Banagher, Fr Pat Gilbert from Birr, Fr Shane Crombie from Tullamore, Fr Kevin Heery from Navan and former AIT chaplain and Athlone priest, Fr Vincent Connaughton from Sligo.

Here, in a piece for the Westmeath Independent, Fr Charlie reflects on the novel experience:

"Where to begin? It all started when Fr Pierre Pepper in Banagher was approached with this fundraising idea for Offaly Hospice.

Fr Pepper, who has a fear of enclosed spaces never mind flying, said he would take 'the leap of faith' if those he asked would do so too.

Not knowing exactly what was involved, only that it was a Tandem jump which meant I would not have to worry about pulling the cord, made me say yes.

There were also other factors. To jump, one had to be 15 stone.

As I was 16 stone ten pounds on Easter Sunday, to lose almost two stone in 40 days was a big ask, as I like to eat. No matter what home I visit, there are always goodies to be sampled.

So I set out eating less, walking more, swimming and, believe it or not, on the Sunday morning of the jump I was down to 15 stone 2 pounds. Being over 50, I was obliged to pass a medical. While I was having an ECG my doctor opened the door and looked in to say to me, 'it's not his heart we should be checking!'

The other big motivating factor is that all of us know what great work Hospice does here in Athlone and throughout Ireland.

And our leap of faith is but a fraction of the leap of faith of all who need hospices' help every day.

I made sure not to eat much on the Saturday before the jump, and nothing on the morning.

I celebrated Mass with the residents and staff of St. Vincent's Care Centre in Athlone and they sent me off to Birr on a spiritual high.

I arrived at Birr Airfield at 12:30pm where there was a huge crowd from all over with a few familiar faces from Athlone who were there to encourage me and make sure I took the leap.

When the others had landed safely, the pressure was on the last three of us not to let the team down. We had to wait a while and when the plane was refuelled we proceeded to board.

The aircraft began down the runway and it wasn't long until we left the ground - no turning back now!

We had to go in a large circular movement to gain our altitude, the view was breathtaking, all the cars in the air field, the huge crowd looking up, the cows and calves out grazing below, not knowing who or what could fall out of the sky.

We went higher and higher and every now and then the plane would drop. Luckily for me I had an empty stomach.

We broke through the clouds, and upwards we went until we reached the desired height of 10,000ft.

Others jumped first, and when my time came I moved over to the door and let my legs hang over the side as instructed.

I grasped hold of my brace around my waist and waited for my instructor Garry to nudge me forward. I looked straight out and with a tap on the shoulder it was 'showtime'.

There wasn't time to take it all in. We were travelling at over 200kms per hour. At first I could not breathe, but I managed to get a few breaths and gave the 'thumbs up' with a struggle.

We headed down at supersonic speed until we broke through the clouds and as we hurled towards the ground there was enormous air pressure on our bodies.

We pierced through the clouds and soon afterwards the magic moment arrived when the cord was pulled and back up into space we went, before we settled down.

Garry removed my goggles to let me take the view in. I was testing my vocal cords with a multitude of sounds from joy to amazement, to thanking God, it's good to be alive, isn't our country a beautiful place?

We drifted down in large circles to be ready to make our approach.

We circled around the stand and made our way gracefully along the edge of the runway to our designated spot.

What a relief to be on the ground.

There was a great cheer and an enormous thrill at arriving alive and well. I was overjoyed and did a handstand in celebration.

There was great rejoicing with our fellow priests at our combined achievements.

I felt a lightness for the rest of the day. It was time to thank all who supported us and get a nice cup of tea and a sandwich.

Finally a word of thanks to all from Athlone and beyond who sponsored 'Offaly Hospice' and especially all who prayed that my 'leap of faith' would turn out right.

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