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Irish missionary champions rights of poor, powerless in South Korea

Father O'Keeffe has spent more than 40 years supporting marginalized communities in the East Asian country

Irish missionary champions rights of poor, powerless in South Korea

Father Daniel Brendan O'Keeffe, an Irish missionary priest and a member of the Missionary Society of Saint Columban, was conferred a prestigious award for his more than 40 years’ support for marginalized communities in South Korea. (Photo: St. Columbans Mission Society)

Every year, the South Korean government honors foreign nationals in the country with the Immigrant of the Year award for dedicated services to people in society.

This year Father Daniel Brendan O'Keeffe, an Irish missionary priest and a member of the Missionary Society of Saint Columban, was conferred the prestigious accolade for his more than 40 years’ support for marginalized communities in South Korea.

On May 20, Father O'Keeffe, 70, received a presidential citation during an award ceremony arranged by the Ministry of Justice.

The priest, also known as Father Donal O’Keeffe, said he was surprised to be selected for the award. "I was very surprised to hear that I was selected as the awardee out of many other immigrants that have done greater deeds than me. I appreciate the Missionary Society of Saint Columban for having sent me here, giving me an opportunity to carry out my ministry with the Korean people," Father O'Keeffe said during an interview with The Korea Times.

The award recognizes decades of vital contributions the missionary priest has made towards vulnerable segments of Korean society since his arrival in the East Asian country in 1976.

A native of Cork, Father O’Keeffe graduated from the University College of Cork (UCC) in 1971 and joined the Missionary Society of Saint Columban.

I looked out over the Yellow Sea and I felt at home

He considered joining the priesthood as one of his uncles was a priest in Scotland. He expected to be a missionary in Latin America thanks to inspiration from a college chaplain who had worked in Peru. He learned Spanish at UCC for his future mission.

Following his ordination as a priest in 1975, he wholeheartedly accepted an assignment to South Korea.

At the time, South Korea was at the crossroads. Father O’Keeffe said he only knew three things about South Korea before arriving — that it had very cold winters, was facing political turmoil under military despotism and was fast becoming an export-oriented country.

For about four years, Father O’Keeffe spent time learning about the local Catholic Church, culture and language by interacting with communities as he served as assistant parish priest for Heuksan island and Mokpo city in South Jeolla province in the southwest.

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Already three years in the country and relatively comfortable with the Korean language by 1978, Father O’Keeffe was on the coastal island to celebrate Christmas with a small Christian community.

“I looked out over the Yellow Sea and I felt at home,” Father O’Keeffe said.

In the 1980s, the priest was appointed to work with factory workers in Bucheon of Gyeonggi province, where he spent about nine years.

He visited a Young Christian Workers center run by the Columbans where he met with young workers eager to improve conditions in their workplaces.

In the city, he also found that many teenage workers were employed in small factories. They came from the rural hinterland of the country without proper education. The young workers suffered from a constant sense of inferiority and insecurity, prompting Father O’Keeffe to help them out.

He joined hands with religious sisters and started a center that he called an “open house” to arrange meetings and training for young workers.

“Church groups were the only organizations able to get involved with workers,” the priest recalled. “Young workers from rural areas, some as young as 15, were coming to the cities and going straight into factories.”

Formation courses were conducted in the evenings after workers finished their work, and the courses were based on the “See, Judge and Act” process that helped them to grow and flourish, ultimately helping them to become strong labor rights activists.

The educational training helped them to study labor law and made them aware of labor rights

The initiative made a tremendous impact on the workers as they were able to express themselves freely and shared good and bad experiences about their lives.

The educational training helped them to study labor law and made them aware of labor rights, leading them to become conscious about self-development and critical thinking.

All these proved vital as many of these workers played pivotal roles in the formation of trade unions in the 1980s that stepped up campaigns to improve the rights and conditions of workers in South Korea.

In 1983, Father O’Keeffe was back in Ireland for a three-month workshop on justice and peace held by the Columbans. He was joined by some lay Koreans including staff from Caritas Korea. The workshop became a guiding light for social justice formation in South Korea. Back in Bucheon, he led a labor apostolate team conducting a five-week training course for young workers. 

Father O’Keeffe returned to Ireland again in 1989. He completed a master’s degree in practical theology at Trinity College, Dublin. His thesis was based on the labor movement in South Korea and he focused on how religions empowered workers.

Back in South Korea, the priest was assigned to a slum area in Bongcheon of Gwanak district in Seoul in the 1990s. He lived with a poor community who had nowhere to go as South Korea underwent massive redevelopment projects that saw the demolition of their houses, making them poorer and vulnerable.

He recalled that house owners were compensated for the loss, but the tenants received next to nothing.

Father O’Keeffe collaborated with Urban Poor Outreach of Seoul Archdiocese to form a tenants' association with the aim to claim their rights including better compensation for their displacement.

He ran education programs for residents of the shanty town with the help of students from various universities.

The future of the world looks bleak if we do not change to a lifestyle which is sustainable

Father O’Keeffe is also passionate about the environment and climate change. In 1998, he became the director of the Columbans in South Korea and actively engaged in a range of environmental activities.

He strongly believes that religious groups must play an active role in the environment and climate change. He forged a multicultural group of priests, religious and lay missionaries from Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Fiji, Chile, South Korea and Ireland in order to carry out committed activities for justice, peace and ecology.

A major campaign of the priest was opposition to construction of a US naval base in Jeju island, about 500 kilometers from China, in 2011. He supported locals joined by the bishop of Jeju and the Columbans. The protesters claimed that the naval base would destroy the local environment and raise tensions in East Asia. The construction was halted several times amid protests, but a court order in 2012 allowed it resume.

The priest also lamented that due to warming of the sea, traditional fish catches have declined and that desertification in China was having an adverse impact on public health.

He has also expressed fears that retreating glaciers in the Himalayas would trigger a water shortage and millions would end up becoming climate refugees.

"The future of the world looks bleak if we do not change to a lifestyle which is sustainable," he said as reported by Independent.ie.

Father O’Keeffe has tremendous respect for the Church in South Korea and says he is privileged to serve as a missionary in a country where the Christian faith has thrived due to the selfless sacrifice of martyrs, mostly laypeople.

“The laypeople brought the faith to the country and faced terrible persecution, with more than 50 percent of Korean Christians being killed in the 19th century,” the priest said, adding that a major thrust of the Columbans in South Korea today is to help the Church became “a missionary church.”

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