Michael Hender, O.Carm. (1934-2013)

Given at the Funeral Mass in Ashford, Co Wicklow, on October 17, 2013, by M. Kilmurray, Prior Provincial.

On this sunny autumn morning we have welcomed Fr Michael’s body back to Ashford, and later we will lay it to rest in the soil of his beloved County Wicklow.
This beautiful church has been very significant in the life of Michael and the family over many generations. It was here that he was baptised seventy-nine years ago, began with his parents support to live in the light and spirit of Jesus Christ. It was here that Michael received First Holy Communion, was given the fullness of the Holy Spirit in Confirmation, and celebrated his First Mass of Thanksgiving after his ordination to priestly ministry on July 8th, 1962.
Over the years many Carmelites have come from County Wicklow. The early contact of a goodly number of those men with the life and work of the Carmelite Order was through their schooling at Terenure College in Dublin. Michael is one of those and in looking through the Annual for 1952 I came across the following entry for September 14th in Day by Day: House elections today. Congrats to J.J. O’Donnell and E. O’Connor on being elected House Captain and Vice-Captain respectively. The four strong men and true are: J. Cahill, M. Hender, T. McDermott and P. Barrett. This group of Prefects are pictured in the same Annual with another Wicklow Carmelite, Fr Andrew Clarke.
On the completion of his secondary education Michael decided to join the Order at Kinsale in County Cork. Perhaps the witness of those Carmelites at Terenure College together with his devotion to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, influenced his decision. We also remember that this church is dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary. Throughout his life Michael retained a devotion to the Rosary and his Rosary beads were close to him during the months of his illness. In his final days at Blackrock Hospice his sisters – Sister Angela, Ina, Mary and Carmel – recited the Rosary a number of times at his bedside and they could see that it gave him some comfort. In fact, on the Sunday morning while he was still able to speak he asked them to say the Rosary. In this, perhaps, Michael is reminding all us of the value of this prayer which keeps us close to Mary our Mother as we contemplate the Life, Death and Resurrection of her Son, our Saviour.
Michael made his First Profession as a Carmelite at the Friary in Kinsale on September 24th, 1954 – fifty-nine years ago. On that day he pledged himself in the words of the Carmelite Rule ‘to live in allegiance to Jesus Christ and serve him zealously with a pure heart and a good conscience’.
After ordination and the completion of studies Michael was appointed to the Community at his old school where he was to remain until 1965 when he was assigned to the Community at Moate in County Westmeath. He taught French, English and History in then Carmelite College. This was where I first met Michael as he was my French teacher for two years. He always demanded at least a good effort. Even then we noticed his pride in his native county ‘the Garden of Ireland’.
In 1970 Michael moved to Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia, and was to live and minister there for the next forty-two years. He only returned to live in Ireland due to his final illness in January of this year. Michael had grown to love Zimbabwe and its people so much that it was with a heavy heart that he came back to Ireland. The nineteen seventies were difficult years in Zimbabwe as it was the time of the war of liberation. Michael wrote many years later: When I arrived from Ireland in 1970 I had no idea how eventful would be the next decade that lay ahead. As social and political tensions increased so too did the violence and bloodshed, until Independence was granted in 1980.
During those years of struggle the Carmelites, like all other missionaries, walked a tight rope between the security forces and the insurgents. Their lives were oftentimes at risk as they tried to protect the people – especially the women and young people – on their Missions. Michael spent most of this time at St Columba’s Mission which was on the border with Mozambique. The area was a hotbed of military and insurgent activity. There were many serious incidents including shootings at the Mission itself.
Michael was always a man of iron determination. He didn’t back off easily. I gathered his style on the football field as a young man might have contributed to this. He did not back off from arguing the toss with the security forces or the insurgents if their actions were endangering the lives on the Mission, especially the lives of young people. Eventually he could no longer live on the Mission but served it while residing in Mutare. As the present Commissary Provincial, Fr Simplisio Manyika, said in tribute ‘Carmelite missionaries remained resolute in ministering to the needs of the people in spite of the dangers of the war’. Michael was one of those Carmelites.
Michael reflected in his life the words of St James in the Second Reading that ‘if good works do not go with faith it is quite dead’. As I remarked yesterday evening at Gort Muire, education had a special place in Michael’s ministry, not only in the classroom but also in facilitating the education of young people by assisting with school and College fees, the provision of books and study aids. All education in Zimbabwe has to be paid for; there is fee-charging from primary school to university. Michael held that good education liberated young people giving them the knowledge, skills and confidence to advance in life. Over the years many young people benefitted from his support and have gone on to be highly successful in a number of professions within and outside of their country. Michael had a network of supporters in Ireland and elsewhere who helped in the provision of finance for this work. Among those supporters were family, friends, Carmelites and An Garda Síochána.
Michael, despite living away from Ireland for so many years, kept in close contact with family and friends. He was present with the family for significant occasions. It was wonderful that he was able to join with them in the recent birthday celebrations for Sr. Angela and Ina. He looks so happy in the photographs from the occasion. He was with the family for weddings, christenings, funerals. The last time I was in this church was for the Funeral Mass of his brother William. Michael had travelled from a hot Zimbabwe to a very cold and wet Ireland. I know he was loved and appreciated not only by his siblings but also by his nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews. His wry sense of humour gave rise to much laughter on occasions. He related so easily with young and old.
Sr. Angela, Ina, Mary and Carmel: your love and support was with him to the end of his earthly life. You sat with him continuously over those final days. You could have done no more for him.
Michael was exemplary in his illness. He showed great patience and forbearance as his physical powers lessened. It was not easy for such an active person but again his strong faith and iron determination helped him. He kept doing small things: participating when possible in the community prayer and events at Gort Muire; keeping touch with Carmelites, family and friends by email or letter; writing up notes on the presence of the Order in Zimbabwe over the years. He collected many interesting articles on the early years in his book ‘Celts among the Shona’ and a personal memoir on the years of the struggle for liberation. He founded and edited ‘Carmelletter’ for twenty years. Michael wanted what was good from the past to sustain and inspire the present and the future.
Today, at Hatfield in Harare, Carmelites, friends and parishioners will gather to offer Mass for Michael’s happy repose and celebrate his life: a considerate brother Carmelite; an available and compassionate pastor; an educationalist and historian.
Since January, in the words of the first reading from Lamentations, Michael waited ‘quietly for the salvation of the Lord’. It is our prayer today that he is now enjoying the peace of God.
Michael, may you smile on all of us – eternally.