Lives of two extraordinary clerics brought to book by Jean Harrington
Michael ‘Rufus’ Halley ought to be celebrating 50 years in the priesthood currently. On April 6, 1969 (Easter Sunday), the Butlerstown native was ordained as a Columban Father and within six months, he, along with four colleagues were assigned to work in The Philippines.
The country which Rufus became inextricably linked with would ultimately and tragically prove his final resting place after his life was brutally cut short by Islamic extremists August 2001. He was 57 years old.
Both his life and that of fellow Columban Des Hartford, who was kidnapped by the Moro National Liberation Front in 1997 (and released after 11 days), have been meticulously documented by Jean Harrington in her new book titled ‘Murder In The Missions’.
That the life of Rufus Halley has been so suitably honoured in what would have been his golden jubilee year in holy orders is a poignant albeit accidental coincidence, as the author explained.
“It took me 14 years to complete the book, and that was largely due to personal reasons,” she told the Waterford News & Star.
“I started it in 2004 and submitted it in 2018 but in the meantime I had a child, my marriage broke down, I got divorced, changed careers, went back to college and got another job. I was a single mother, working full time, so I put down the book for a while, then I picked it up and put it down again; I’m sure a lot of people know the way things can get when you’re trying to juggle everything. The book was just something that kept slipping down the list of priorities, yet I kept coming back to it, I kept going with it, I just had to get it done.”
She added: “This was a book that I couldn’t leave, I couldn’t not finish it, if you know what I mean. There were so many times when I felt overwhelmed, there was so much material, I did an immense amount of research. But because so many people helped me, because so many people gave me access to their personal correspondence, there was no way I couldn’t not finish it. And I’m so glad that I did because I think the story of both these men’s lives is worth sharing and for me, this is such a worthwhile book. I met members of the Hartford and Halley families at the launch in Dublin (on Thursday, July 18, with a Waterford launch on Sunday, August 18) and they were all really happy with the book so I’m really happy that I did persevere with it.”
And readers should be grateful too, particularly those who didn’t know either Rufus or Des (who succumbed to cancer in 2004) given the welcomingly wide window it opens into both of their lives.
Rufus Halley’s warm, gentle, compassionate and conciliatory character is wholesomely detailed by Jean Harrington. And unlike Des Hartford, whom she met prior to his death, Jean Harrington writes of Rufus in a fully-realised sense despite never had the pleasure of meeting him.
“When Des gave me the go-ahead to write the book, he also put me in touch with a lot of people whom he felt I really needed to talk to,” she said.
“I didn’t realise how sick he was when we met – he had cancer at the time and sadly didn’t live for too long after that – but obviously he knew how ill he was, he implied it to me at the time, he knew he wouldn’t be around to see the book finished. But he told me who to contact in the Halley family, Gerry, so I got in touch with Gerry; thinking back now, either Des or the Columbans may well have contacted Gerry before I did, and it went from there.”
Both Rufus and Des invested their lives in their pastoral work in The Philippines, albeit with slightly different approaches, according to the author.
“Des was a reluctant person in terms of working in the Muslim/Christian conflict (in The Philippines). He didn’t feel drawn to it in the way that Rufus did. Rufus really, fundamentally, wanted to go and work with the most disenfranchised people, people who had been most neglected by society. He was drawn to the underdog, he wanted to protect the people who needed the most protection. I obviously never met Rufus but I really felt as if I knew him because I spoke to so many people who knew him well, who told me about him and that allowed me to build his real-life character. I had access to letters from so many different people, for which I was really grateful for because it really helped to shape the man for me. And then reading his letters, sent to different people at different times, and the articles he wrote helped me to understand his motivation and where he was coming from. He really just wanted to live a good life and lead by example but also to heal by his actions, to attempt to heal the hurt he encountered during the course of his work by being a good person. He couldn’t change everything but he sought to change his own surroundings and the people around him and he always worked to make things better, be it between religions, be it the deforestation he witnessed – he always took action. He stood up against the (Filipino) army and refused to say Mass when the bombings were happening. While he was afraid for his safety, it never stopped him from doing the right thing.”
While his faith was at times tested, the commitment Rufus Halley made to his adopted country and its people, as evidenced in his “prolific letter writing” was absolute.
“Those letters showed his feelings and what I really liked what they also showed were his vulnerabilities – he was never afraid of being open and vulnerable with people – and he just seemed to be so full of love and that was what drove him with everything he committed himself to. He loved his friends and at one point it seemed he started to develop romantic feelings for a woman but I think his love of faith and of God and his commitment to both were so strong that it brought him back to what he felt was his purpose: to stay within the church and to stay on that road.”
The title of the book references the appalling manner of Rufus Halley’s death, which Jean Harrington again details with crystal clarity. Did she find the compilation of his murder upsetting to write?
“Yes, I did. When I interviewed the people who discovered Rufus’s body, the culture in that part of the world is somewhat different to ours as there were photos taken at the scene, something that we wouldn’t do here, and they were quite graphic in terms of how he died. When I travelled to The Philippines (which Des Hartford had recommended Jean to do), I found it quite difficult to listen to the graphic descriptions and I realised I had to be sensitive in terms of how I wrote it. This was a person, a family member, a community man, someone who was loved by so many people and yes, I was worried about getting it right.” She need not worry on that front as far as this reader is concerned.
The final word on a fine work about two fine men goes to its creator.
“Rufus was so talented,” said Jean. “He stood out in so many ways. He was great at sport, he was brilliant at languages and he was interested in people. He tried to create beauty in everything he did and he’s the type of person I wish I’d known. I think we would have liked each other. In terms of both Des and Rufus, this book is rooted in relationships and love, but not in a romantic sense: for me this book deals with pure love for your fellow human being to the point of sacrifice. They loved the people they served, they loved their communities and they loved God. They had huge belief in what they were doing and put themselves in danger, even though they never sought it, out of a fundamental love for humanity.”
‘Murder In The Missions’, published by the Mercier Press (€14.99), is available now