Father Denis Joseph SLATTERY (1916 - 2003)
Denis Slattery was born in Fermoy, Co Cork, in the diocese of Cloyne, on 29th February 1916. He died in St. Theresa’s Unit, Blackrock Road, Cork, on 7th July 2003.
Denis was one of six boys and two girls born to Catherine (nee Curtin) and Timothy Francis Slattery. He was born the seventh child on the odd day of a leap year, that of 1916 – a momentous year for Ireland - both circumstances in which he took great relish. The family home was at 65 MacCurtain Street, Fermoy. Denis received his secondary education from the Christian Brothers in Fermoy (1928-1932) and at St Joseph’s College, Wilton, matriculating in 1934. He was then promoted to the Society’s noviciate and house of philosophy at Kilcolgan, Co Galway. Two years later he entered the Society’s major seminary at Dromantine, Newry, Co Down. Denis was received as a member of the Society on 29th June 1936. He was ordained to priesthood in St. Colman’s cathdral, Newry, by Bishop Edward Mulhern of Dromore diocese, on 17th December 1939. He was one of a group of seven ordained on that day.
After ordination Denis was appointed to the Vicariate of Bight of Benin, but because of the difficulties in obtaining a sea passage in wartime he did not reach Nigeria until May 1941. The convoy in which he travelled - the journey lasted thirty days - was bombed by German planes off L’Havre and a number of ships were sunk. On arrival Denis was assigned to Ilawe-Ekiti mission where he studied Yoruba. Six months later he was appointed to the staff of St. Gregory’s College, Obalende, Lagos, Nigeria’s first Catholic Secondary school, founded in 1928. On completion of two academic years – during which, in addition to his teaching work, he distinguished himself as Games Master – Denis was appointed Manager of St. Paul’s Press and Bookshop at Ebute-Metta. He spent the last two years of his first missionary tour as Editor of the Nigerian Catholic Herald, based in Yaba. Denis’ success in this latter capacity led his Superiors to send him to the Catholic University of America, Washington D.C. in January 1947. Taking Sociology, Journalism and Economics for his subjects he was awarded a Master of Arts degree by this institution in the summer of 1949. The title of his Masters thesis was ‘The Transition from slavery to a free Labour Movement in Nigeria, 1850-1948’.
On his return to Nigeria in September 1949 Denis renewed his editorship of the Nigerian Catholic Herald. A monthly magazine when he first became editor, Denis turned the Herald into what he described as ‘a militant anti-colonial religious and political weekly.’ Indeed this newspaper became important in moulding public opinion in the lead up to Nigerian Independence bringing Denis into close and friendly contact with leading Nigerian Nationalists including Dr. Nnamidi Azikiwe. The Herald was particularly influential during the discussions on the Constitutional Conference. Denis also addressed social issues and his published extracts from his MA thesis relating to ‘Nigerian Railways’ Workers and the killing of the Coal Miners in Enugu’, aroused considerable interest, while the fearlessness of his reports during the Nigerian Railways Strike of 1948-1949 earned him the plaudits of Nigerians and the hostility of the colonial government. In June 1954 Denis visited America on vacation and took time to raise funds for the Lagos jurisdiction. Six months later he returned to Nigeria. He was to remain in the Lagos jurisdiction until September 1999 when ill-health compelled him reluctantly to retire. In all he was to spend some fifty-five years in Nigeria, making him one of the longest-serving missionaries in the Society and one of two members of the Irish Province to give such service.
In 1955 Denis became founding principal of St Finbarr’s College which started as a two-classroom building on Apapa Road before moving to its present site at Akoka. Denis was to guide this prestigious Grammar-cum-Technical school with a sure hand until 1976 when with other Catholic schools it was taken over by government. He devoted the remaining years of his missionary career to the pastoral ministry. He ministered in St. Denis Catholic Church, Bariga-Akoka – near his beloved St. Finbarr’s - which he built and named. He also built and founded St Flavius Catholic Church, Oworonshoki, and St. Gabriel’s church, Somolu. In addition he established St. Joseph’s Vocational School, and Our Lady of Fatima Nursery and Primary School, both in Akoka. In 1985 Denis was appointed Vicar General of Lagos Archdiocese, a post which required him to take charge of the jurisdiction during the Archbishop’s absence.
Coming from a family keenly interested in sport, Denis’ enthusiasm was given a very practical and important expression throughout his missionary career. In 1947 he became an accredited referee and a member of the Nigerian Association of Amateur Referees. He also pioneered the training of Nigeria’s first indigenous referees. Despite his small stature he radiated authority when in possession of the referee’s whistle. As a FIFA graded referee he took charge of a number of international matches involving Nigeria and the Gold Coast (now Ghana) as well as many FA finals. He took a keen interest in schoolboy sport, helping to establish the popular school soccer competition, ‘The Principal’s Cup’ (known popularly as the ‘Zard Cup’) in 1949. His own school, St. Finbarr’s, won this trophy in 1971, 1972 and 1973. Denis was also a member of the Nigerian Amateur Boxing Association. Moreover, putting his journalistic skills to good use, for many years he wrote a Sports Colum in the Lagos Weekend newspaper under the pen-name ‘Green Flag’.
Denis received many honours during his life from the people he served so well. In 1989 he was conferred with chieftaincies by Imo State and Ile-Ife State. One of the chieftaincy titles fittingly hailed him as ‘Enyi Oha 1 of Oru Ahiara Mbaise’ (‘Friend of the People’). The second title was that of ‘Oosi Olokun-Ijio of Ife’. Denis’s long and distinguished service was recognised by the Nigerian government in their National Honours Awards for 2001. He received the Order of the Niger conferred on him during his retirement at Blackrock Road. A year later he was also to be honoured by the Fermoy Urban Council.
In 1996, to commemorate his 80th birthday, Denis published his memoirs under the title My Life Story. This was launched at the Institute of International Affairs, Kofo Abayomi, Victoria Island, Lagos. His age and status allowed him to speak openly on social, religious and political issues and he was widely reported. From the 1960’s he was known as a staunch advocate and encouraging critic of the people of Nigeria in their search for self-expression and self-reliance as a nation.
Denis celebrated the Golden Jubilee of his priesthood in 1989 and his Diamond Jubilee in 1999. The homilist at his funeral Mass said: ‘There is no doubt that Denis took great pride in all his achievements. But his life was ultimately lived not to bring honour to himself but to give honour and glory to God.’
He is buried in Wilton Cemetery.