FR Darrell Irvine, 62, ordained in Toowoomba last week, sees his remarkable journey to the priesthood as “a series of lamp-lights”.
Among those “lamplights” are the death of his wife Elizabeth of cancer in 1999, his work with Mother (now Saint) Teresa of Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity in India and his baptism in Auckland into the Catholic faith when he was 47.
On the eve of his ordination to the priesthood, then Deacon Irvine conveyed a sense of awe at the “long and winding road” which had led him to becoming a priest in St Patrick’s Cathedral on the night of February 25.
His adult children Daniel and Mel-issa shared the joy of his ordination with more than 400 others who had braved a wet and windy Toowoomba night.
“I’d always been of a spiritual nature, even as a boy,” Fr Irvine said.
“I was not following any particular religion but always sensed there was a God and that I was being protected.”
Deaths of those close to him, starting with his parents who died a year apart when he was 14, seem to have played a significant role in his journey to the priesthood.
“My mother was a Catholic and I always remember the incense at her funeral Mass,” he said.
“There was something about the sight of the incense being swung around the coffin of my birth mother, something about the ritual that has always stayed with me.”
Born in Christchurch, New Zeal-and, Fr Irvine moved to Auckland at age 18 to join the navy and served in South East Asia during the Vietnam War.
Returning to New Zealand, he met and married Elizabeth, a director of religious studies in the Catholic education system.
However, initially he did not consider getting baptised into the Church.
“I always seemed to be too busy,” he said.
“But slowly Elizabeth wore me down.
“Eventually, she was my sponsor – I was baptised in Auckland with full immersion at the Church of St John the Baptist with two priests in attendance.”
The discovery of his wife’s cancer would inevitably have been a dark time.
But Fr Irvine now lists it as one of his “lamplight” moments.
“The discovery my wife would not survive seemed to top everything off,” he said.
“We talked about me joining the priesthood and she thought I would be more suited to a religious order – the Franciscans, for example.
“After Elizabeth’s death, I tried this out but found I was not suited to this life.”
Among his wife’s possessions, however, was a letter written to Mother Teresa.
“I felt quite drawn to what she was doing,” he said.
“I had been running a business but closed it down, sold up and worked with the Missionaries of Charity and stayed with some Jesuits who were working in the slums of Calcutta.”
He remained involved in this work for more than a decade until 2009 and said it was there his priestly vocation began in earnest.
“I worked in the Missionaries of Charity Nirmal Hriday (Sanskrit for Sacred Heart) home for the dying,” he said.
“The first time I went there, I cried all the way home.
“Being close up and personal with really suffering people who were not going to live was life-changing.
“Despite having nothing, their great happiness and dignity, their strength of character, was a great lesson to me.
“Along with all the other deaths which had impacted upon me, I was deeply aware of these deaths as the end of one journey and the beginning of another.”
To “pay the bills”, he took a job with a refrigeration firm in Auckland but three years later in 2008 was transferred to Toowoomba.
“Walking in the grounds of St Patrick’s Cathedral one afternoon, I saw a man who looked like a priest,” Fr Irvine said.
“‘Are you the parish priest?’ I asked. ‘No. But I am a priest,’ he replied.
“He turned out to be Fr Hal Ranger and I told him I’d decided to join the priesthood.
“He said to come and visit and when I did he unfolded a huge map of the diocese, put it on the floor of his unit and said: ‘This is it’.”
After that, the aspiring priest tour-ed much of Toowoomba diocese before entering Banyo’s Holy Spirit Provincial Seminary in 2010.
Speaking several hours before he was to be ordained, Deacon Irvine said he was “feeling nervous”.
“I am well aware of the challenge to proclaim the Gospel and reach the hearts of people who are part of my mission,” he said.
“But I count my blessings about where I am in this part of my journey.
“Not everyone’s cut out to be a priest, but I’m only here for a short time and intend to do my best.”