Well – deserved Papal Award for Julia

Bishop Brendan Leahy presenting the Benemerenti medal to Julia Duggan.
Eamonn Walshe Benemerenti Medal Presentation in Broadford

By Helen Broderick
The Benemerenti Medal is an honour awarded by the Pope to members of the clergy and laity for service to the Catholic Church. Originally established as an award to soldiers in the Papal army, the medal was later extended to the clergy and the laity. The current version of the Benemerenti Medal was designed by Pope Paul V1. The medal is a gold Greek Cross depicting Christ with his hand raised in blessing. On the left arm of the cross is the tiara and crossed keys symbol of the papacy. On the right arm is the coat of arms of Pope Francis. The medal is suspended from a yellow and white ribbon, the colours of the Papacy. It is beautifully presented in a white leather box, along with a framed certificate.
On Saturday night last, in the Church of Our Lady of the Snows, Broadford, Julia Duggan, at the instigation of local priest Fr O’Dea, was presented with this very prestigious medal by Brendan Leahy, Bishop of Limerick. Julia had served most of her long life as sacristan of the church and was a well deserving recipient of the honour. The Mass was concelebrated by Bishop Leahy, Canon Ambrose, and Father O’Dea. The bishop, in his homily, lauded the commitment made by generations of the Duggan family. It was a lovely Mass, with a large congregation and the choir performed beautifully.
As a young girl, Julia started going with her father, the late Paddy Duggan, to the church, helping him with his duties as sacristan. She recalls many occasions with her father, in particular a time when he declared he’d everything ready for Holy Week, the only disturbance would be a possible funeral, and he’d hoped that wouldn’t happen. She describes this as a very happy time, and the beginning of a lifetime love of her church and community. By age fourteen, she was well able for the work entailed, and spent many hours in the church. Julia told me that the first person in the Duggan family to take up the duties of sacristan was her grandmother and namesake, Julia. She and her siblings continued the work of her grandmother and her father long after they’d gone to their eternal reward. She spoke of the many tasks assigned to her in the early days, having to pump water from the well in the village to take to the priest’s house, and delivering milk and other provisions. She described to me the method of washing the vestments of priests and altar boys. Her sister was a priests housekeeper in Feohanagh, and she taught Julia how to deal with the issue of the vestments. A metal tub of water would be placed on a lit primus to heat, and the clothing would be thoroughly washed. They would then be dried and starched and painstakingly pressed. It was a matter of great pride to have vestments presented in pristine condition always. Her brothers also helped. They served Mass when they were younger and attended all the services of the church throughout their lifetimes. She came from a family of five boys and five girls. She would be called upon to help out in the parochial houses of the local priests when events like a dinner party took place. In her role as sacristan, she attended each church ceremony dutifully. The church rituals of Easter and Christmas were busier than other times of the year. But also, in the earlier days, daily Mass was at eight thirty in the morning, and there were two Masses on Sundays. Sad times, of course, were funerals. But she told me there were far more happy times than sad. Weddings, christenings, First Holy Communions, confirmations and more. She was entrusted with the keys of the church, opening in the morning and closing at night. For many generations, the church keys have been, and continue to be part of the Duggan household. She was part of all these times and loved every one of them. She spent her days between her home and the church. She has a memory that stayed with her all her life of a neighbour telling her once how much she envied her position. When Julia asked her why, she simply said how she’d love to be near the tabernacle every day. Julia spends so much time in the church that her sister-in-law Kitty told me that she thought they’d have install her bed there! Ultimately Julia was the girl who stayed home and cared for her elderly parents. I asked if she ever thought about doing anything else. She said she loved her role in the church and was very content with her lot in life. She served with many different priests and was quick to say she had no favourites! She lived her life amidst a large family of siblings, nieces and nephews and continues to play an active role in family and community life. Kitty, with whom she lives, has now taken over the role of sacristan in the beautiful church in Broadford village. Kitty jokingly told me that she’s always a bit cautious when Julia goes to Mass in case she’s critical of her work! But the respect between these two remarkable women is evident to all. Julia hasn’t seen much change in the church during her years of service, the crowds continue to attend, and the population of Broadford is growing. It is a thriving village, and evidence of this is everywhere to be seen.
The local community held a reception in Julia’s honour after Mass, in the community hall, where teas and refreshments, provided by the ladies of the locality, were available to all. John O’Sullivan, local historian gave a history of the Duggan family. It was indeed a great night of celebration for Julia and the community she had served from 1945 to the early years of the new millennium. At eighty -seven, she is as interested as she ever was in her beloved church, and happy to see the Duggan family tradition carry on.
On a personal note, the esteem in which Julia and the Duggan family are held in the parish is no surprise to me. As a young wife and mother, I spent a few very happy years living next door to Duggan’s Forge. I will never forget the kindness of Morty and Johnny Duggan, and indeed all the Duggan Family. The Benemerenti is a well-deserved honour and will the grace the home of the Duggan’s for many years to come.