Fr Willie Purcell with the local Kilkenny Gospel Choir
This week, I met up with Fr Willie Purcell and we chatted for hours about the Kilkenny Gospel Choir, the priesthood and his take on marriage for priests in the Catholic Church.
I could listen to Fr Willie’s stories and adventures all day long - he is some man to tell a yarn! If you would like to hear the full recording of our chat, you can listen to it on www.kilkennypeople.ie
Fr Willie is the parish priest of Clara, Kilkenny. He also works as the National Vocations Co-ordinator and is a member of the Council for Immigrants for the Irish Conference of Catholic Bishops.
A native of Kilkenny and a past student of St Kieran’s College he entered the priesthood 39 years ago.
Fr Willie is the Director of the internationally acclaimed ‘Kilkenny Gospel Choir’, who this year celebrates its 20th anniversary. To date the Choir has assisted 150 charities, raising over €100,000. The Choir has performed for presidents and popes and has shared the stage with internationally acclaimed performers.
Here is a glimpse into Fr Willie’s world…
You are celebrating the 20th anniversary this week of the Kilkenny Gospel Choir – the first gospel choir in Ireland. How did it all start?
Twenty years ago I was living in Washington DC and I encountered the genre of gospel music. When I returned to Kilkenny I noticed there was no such choirs in Ireland and decided to establish Kilkenny’s Gospel Choir.
I put out a call out for people that might like to join in the Parish Newsletter and in the Kilkenny People. There was huge interest with 140 people turning up on the first night, making us the largest gospel choir in Europe!
Over the 20 years we have travelled worldwide and sang with some of the greats, as well as playing for some of the greats. We had audiences in Irish Embassies, been to Rome to sing for Pope Benedict and we even performed at the Prague Musical Festival.
Throughout the 20 years there was a lot of movement for the choir. Anyone that is involved in a choir knows the importance of the travel and social aspects of a choir, as well as the opportunities to meet other choirs.
The Choir has raised over €100,000 for charities over the years. As well as raising the roof with your numbers, the Choir has also been asked to fundraise for a few new roofs too!
When the Choir began, one of our missions was to fundraise. Over the years we have worked with people’s lives that have been touched by cancer (Irish Cancer Society, Cois Nore, Relay for Life), missing persons (Jo Jo Dollard’s yearly anniversary gathering) and suicide.
We were a bit of a novelty so we were invited to fundraise for a lot of things around the country. And yes, replacing the odd church roof was an element of the fundraiser requests that we sang for. When they need a new roof, they call us!
Why Gospel music, besides the obvious of you being a priest?
The word Gospel means ‘good news’. Gospel music is the oldest form of music, everything else originates from it. All the top stars, such as Elvis, Whitney Houston, Eva Cassidy to name a few, began their music career in a Gospel choir.
Every single gospel song tells a story. When I first experienced Gospel music, I felt that it is a form of music that has a message. So when I returned to Kilkenny after my time in DC, I decided to set up Ireland’s first Gospel choir. Since then Ireland has approximately 26 choirs, all singing loud and proud.
You were also appointed the Chaplin for the very first Direct Provision Centre set up in Ireland, which happened to be in Kilkenny. Did Kilkenny’s new migrant community take part in your choir?
In 2000 the first Direct Provision Centre was based in John’s Green. Many refugees, mostly from Africa, came to live in Kilkenny and I was appointed as the Chaplin to the migrant community.
Their religion was very important to them and when they came to Kilkenny they were searching for an identity and a community. We introduced them to the Gospel Choir, so we had new members from all over Africa. For them it was integration into the local community into Kilkenny through music.
How do you plan to mark the Choir’s 20th Anniversary with social distancing?
The plan was to have a big anniversary concert in September and welcome back some of the top artists in Ireland whom we had worked with over the years.
Now we are looking are doing a virtual concert. We are looking at a Kilkenny Gospel Day, where people can connect in with different aspects of the Choir, in different areas of Kilkenny. For example two weeks ago we sang in the Rose Garden of Kilkenny Castle for Relay for Life, which was added onto their virtual gathering. So that shows it can be done!
Let’s chat about you - why become a priest?
The priesthood was always in the back of my mind, as were politics and teaching. I was asked one day by a priest in St Kieran’s College ‘did I ever consider becoming a priest’? That was the resurrection moment.
The seminary formation was in Kieran’s, so I literally left secondary school and went across the yard into the seminary to begin my seven years of training.
You were only 17 years old. You made the decision pretty quickly.
I did, it was quite common back then to join straight after your Leaving Cert. It’s very different today - if a guy wanted to join the priesthood, we would encourage him to go get a degree first and to have a certain amount of time living in the world and then to come back to us.
You are also the National Diocesan Vocations Director. What are numbers like for people entering the priesthood - are people still answering the ‘Call’?
Numbers are very different today. Last year five men entered the seminary, this year the numbers are up, we might have between seven and 10. While that sounds like small numbers, they are good because people are still thinking of priesthood and still answering the call.
Working as the National Diocese Vocational Co-ordinator - there are still calls and emails coming through from men of different ages enquiring.
What about female priests?
In relation to women priests and also women deacons, I know it is an ongoing discussion that’s taking place in the Vatican. I know Pope Francis had set up a commission to look at women deacons.
Would you have like to have been able to married?
Yes, I think I would have. I think ‘family’ is the most important unit in society. While families can be difficult and they have their struggles, there is also something very fulfilling that I see within a family. I see my brothers and sisters with my nieces and my nephews and I see their lives. I see family life is this unit that creates a wonderful sense of relationship. I know it’s not there for priests at the moment, but who knows what the future holds.
Did people come back to God during Covid?
Covid gave us the opportunity to step back from the hustle and bustle of our lives and to take stock of who we are. It also created a new awareness in family life. Families rediscovered new ways of sharing family together. It made people stop and realise that we can take time for others and ourselves.
They also realised that there is something else here. That there is a higher power and this higher power is God. People saw and are still seeing we are not in control of this world. A phrase I like to use myself is that we are just guests in this world, we are just passing through this earth. We don’t own our houses, they will be passed onto somebody else, same with money and possessions.
People heard the birds sing for the first time; they noticed the change in the season from spring to summer. People got the opportunity to do their gardens, but they also got the opportunity to pray. People who couldn’t go to church, listened on the radio instead or sat out in their garden or lit a candle in their homes and began to talk to God.
Kilkenny Gospel Choir are always looking for new members. If you would like to join, visit www.kilkennygospelchoir.com
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