BY AILÍN QUINLAN
THE Vatican has bestowed the female equivalent of a Knighthood on the woman affectionately known far and wide as Sheila O’Leary.
Countless bishops, priests and wedding couples became friendly with Sheila O’Leary during her years of service as sacristan at one of the world’s most picturesque oratories – St Finbarr’s in the stunning West Cork beauty spot.
And for everyone – even wedding planner ‘Franc’ – the Gougane Barra native’s word was law when it came to respecting protocol relating to the ancient church.
Sheila’s dedication to the little oratory on the lake was rewarded last month, when the mother-of-two, now in her late seventies, was presented with the prestigious award of Dame of the Order of Saint Sylvester, by Bishop John Buckley.
The honour, for which Bishop Buckley had to make a special application to Rome, is seen as a fitting tribute to the woman who took over the mantle of sacristan from her mother, who in turn was passed the role from her parents and before that, their parents.
In fact, says Sheila’s daughter Helen McCaffrey, the O’Leary family service to the church stretches back to the early 1900s.
Sheila’s husband Cornelius (83), also called O’Leary, and also now retired, looked after the grounds of the church for many years, a duty he willingly shouldered when Sheila’s father became unable to continue the work.
Sheila, who only retired from her role in mid-2015, never considered herself off-duty.
‘As a child, I remember couples coming to our door at dinner time to ask about organising a wedding,’ recalled Helen.
‘Mum would put her dinner in the oven and talk to them. It was never an inconvenience. And there was no such thing as going away for the weekend becaus e so many weddings took place on a Saturday.’
She remembered how her mum could be gone by 11am on a Saturday morning and not back until 5.30pm. ‘She became friends with many couples who got married in Gougane – in fact, she and Dad often acted as their witnesses. Some weddings would be small and private and Mum and Dad would even play the role of bridesmaid and best man.’
Many brides even changed into their wedding dresses in O’Leary’s house, and had their breakfast there. Sometimes there would be a little wedding reception in the house for the couple and the priest afterwards. ‘Mum is part and parcel of Gougane Barra – even Bishop Buckley said she was the boss when it came to Gougane Barra church,’ smiled Helen, recalling how even Franc, the renowned wedding planner and TV personality, had to respect her mother’s wishes during his decoration of the oratory for a wedding.
Even while supposedly ‘off-duty’, Sheila maintained a watchful eye on the little church from her kitchen window.
In 2000 Sheila, a close friend of the late Cardinal Timony Manning from Ballingeary. who was stationed in Los Angeles, was awarded a Benemerenti Medal for her commitment to the church.
However, nothing could parallel the spectacular ceremony on December 29th. Clad in a black cloak with a gold chain and emblem, specially sewn in the Vatican, Sheila was presented with the award of Dame of the Order of St Sylvester. It is described as the female equivalent of a knighthood. At the ceremony, Cork Bishop John Buckley was aided by parish priest Fr Martin O’Driscoll and diocesan secretary Fr Tom Deenihan.
During the ceremony Bishop Buckley recalled Sheila’s unswerving commitment to the church, and on a lighter note, Fr Deenihan recounted some humorous anecdotes from Sheila’s four decades as Sacristan. ‘She is a great woman who has a great sense of humour,’ he said.