Interviewed by Sue Leonard
Published in Reality, March 2013.
When Michael Sinnott was 17, he had no idea what to do in life. So he agreed to return to school to retake his Leaving Certificate, with a view to becoming a Civil Servant. Just after he had started that year, an African Missionary came to the school, and mentioned the need for priests.
“He said a priest needed three attributes including good character and good health. I had all three, and as God had been good to me I felt I should give something back.”
From a strong Catholic family of nine children, Fr Sinnott was the first to have a vocation; though a sister later joined.
“My parents were accepting, and maybe happy.”
Joining the Columban Order, Fr Sinnott entered their seminary in Dalgan Park, County Meath.
“We had seven years there,” he says. “A spiritual year, then three years of philosophy, and three of theology. 35 of us started. Most of us were 18; some younger. 21 of us were ordained in 1954, so there was a drop out of a third, which was average back then.”
During that time, Fr Sinnott was chosen, with two other students, to go to America for three years on an exchange programme.
“We ended up in Boston,” he says. “And after I was ordained I went to Rome to study Canon Law. And then I was appointed to the Philippines. And that was what I’d joined up for,” he says.
The Columbans were founded by Bishop Galvin, and were approved by Rome in 1918.
“Originally, the Columbans were founded to serve in China,” explains Fr Sinnott. “But when communism took over there, the country no longer accepted Missionaries.”
Fr Sinnott was appointed to Mindanao.
“Arriving in Mindanao by boat, I was struck by the poverty. I was an assistant parish priest. It was a rural area, and we went round training lay people to be responsible for gathering the people in the village. We had a mass in all the different areas every month. In some parishes there were forty thousand people.
“I loved the work and the people,” he says. “And when in 1965 I was appointed back to the Seminary in Ireland, I wasn’t enamoured. I wrote back to the Superior giving reasons why I shouldn’t be employed as a professor. I said I was never really a student. They sent me home anyhow.”
It was time of unrest, in the seminaries as well as the universities. And vocations started to decline.
“When I arrived there were 198 students and when I left ten years later there were just 37. It wasn’t my ideal job, but it gave me a chance to set up adult friendships in Ireland. And it was nice to see my family.”
When Fr Sinnott returned to Mindanao in 1972, he found the political situation tense. President Marcos had declared a dictatorship, but the New People’s Army were in opposition.
“The people were caught between the two. They were forced to offer support to the New People’s Army, but the military would say, ‘if you support them, you are supporting communists, and you know what will happen then.’ They knew that meant they would be shot.
“The people couldn’t trust anyone, so as clergy, we were very important. As Parish priest, I was trying to give justice to everyone, and, at one time, I was warned not to go out. Both groups were mad at me.”
He survived unscathed. Later, his health began to fail. He had a heart bypass, and moved to Pagadian City on Mindanao, where he was running a programme for children with disabilities, as well as helping out in a local parish. And that’s when trouble arrived.
“I was79,” he says. “On 11th October, I was walking up and down the drive of the compound to get some exercise, and four men appeared. One was on either side of me, one was behind me, and one was in front of me. And he had a pistol. They dragged me to the back of a pickup truck, and took me to the sea shore and onto a boat.
“The actual kidnap was rough. But once we were on the boat, I was satisfied they would not kill me. They said they wouldn’t kill a priest. I’d been kidnapped for the ransom.
I said a ransom would not be paid, and they said, ‘everyone says that, but they pay in the end.’ And in fact, neither the Columbans nor the Irish Government paid one.
“My captors were a breakaway group from the nationalist MRLF,” he says. “They were a group of Muslims who wanted independence for Mindanao. They wanted it recognised as a Muslim state in the Constitution. Whereas the MRNF were negotiating with the government, this group said they, and their children, and their children’s children would fight.
“After three hours the speed boat stopped and we started hiking. I wasn’t fit and I found that difficult. But the men helped me. That first night they took me to a swampy area, with mud and water up to my ankles. We were living in primitive conditions in the open air with a piece of canvas over us. There were seven captors.
“After ten days word got out that the military knew where we were, so we moved on, about seven and a half hours by speed boat. I have no idea where we were. There were then just two men with me, and they treated me well. The food was not the Hilton, but they made an effort to get me special food.”
His health was a worry.
“I didn’t have pills with me and I asked for some. At first they brought pills you could get in any store, then they asked me to prioritise and I asked for my heart pills. They got me a supply. We chatted during the day. They made things as easy for me as they could.
“My main worry was that the military would come in by force. I knew, then, it would be difficult to escape. I found it hard to pray. The Lord seemed very far away. But on the second day, lying in a hammock, I felt I could leave everything in the Lord’s hands. I felt sure he would look after me.”
Fr Sinnott was forced to read a statement before, thanks to great work from the Irish Ambassador, and other ambassadors in Manila, he was released on 12th November. Had the experience changed him?
“Not really,” he says. “I went back to the same area of work. And I stayed in the Philippines until returning to Ireland in July 2012.”
We were talking in the nursing home at Dalgan Park where Fr Sinnott was recovering from surgery. He says he misses the Philippines sometimes, but is happy to be back near his family.
“I have a gang of great nephews and nieces,” he says. “There are fifty and I see most of them.”
Fr Sinnott has no regrets in life. He’s glad he was a missionary. He’s certainly relieved that he wasn’t a civil servant. What was it like being famous?
“I was hounded for a while,” he says. “And the media was worse that the kidnapping!”
© Sue Leonard. 2013