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Fr. Francis O’Duignan was born on July 10, 1901, in Longford, Ireland. After being educated at St. Patrick College in Carlow, he was ordained to the priesthood there on June 12, 1927. He was designated to serve in Missouri in what was then the St. Joseph Diocese of Kansas City, Mo.
When Fr. O’Duignan arrived in the small village of St. Patrick in 1935, he was struck by a community that was rich in tradition and rich in faith, the center where the light of faith that St. Patrick took to Ireland 15 centuries ago, still burned bright.
One of the first things he began doing was collecting the past history of St. Patrick stating the ambitions and dreams of the founders and leaders down through the years. He often spoke how, on many a summer’s evening he would sit on the front porch of the rectory watching the lights of the unpretentious homes of the village being turned off and silence reigned supreme. He would look out over the cemetery, with its tall Celtic monuments, and felt a calling to carry on building a community with the foundation left by them, dedicated to St. Patrick and the glorious heritage of Irish faith.
It was in 1936, coming to the realization that the small farming community would be unable to raise all of the funding needed for building a Shrine to St. Patrick, Fr. O’Duignan, with assistance from John N. Kirchner, Postmaster, developed the special cachet stamping with the words, ” St. Patrick, Mo. – The Only One In The World” to be placed on every piece of mail that passed through the St. Patrick Post Office. Fr. O’Duignan also enlisted the help of the St. Patrick High School typing classes to process over 3,000 letters yearly to send throughout the United States to people of Irish descent asking for donations for the Shrine. To this day, 85 years later, the cachet is still applied to the Special Pictorial Cancellation Envelopes being processed at the St. Patrick Post Office.
In July of 1938, Fr. O’Duignan made a Pilgramage to Croagh Patrick, the sacred mountain in Ireland that St. Patrick prayed and fasted 1500 years before. Pausing to catch his breath on the rocky slopes of the mountain, a small group gathered. Fr. O’Duignan told them “I come from St. Patrick,” he quickly added, ” not from St. Patrick in heaven, but from the now world-famous village of that name in Missouri.” It was high on rocky Croagh Patrick that Fr. O’Duignan could see his dream being fulfiled. He had come here with thousands of other pilgrims to pray where Patrick had prayed and to ask for the saint’s blessing for his work in far-off Missouri. He was one of 22 priests who said mass in the little oratory at the top of the mountain. When he came back down Croagh Patrick, he brought with him an altarstone that had been used on the sacred mountain and a flagstone worn by the tread of pilgrims throughout the years, placing both items in the Shrine. And from Lough Derg, the other great Shrine to St. Patrick in Ireland, he brought a chalice that is being used today for mass celebrations. Fr. O’Duignan stated the following from his visit to the gravesite of St. Patrick, “As I knelt, with deep emotion, by his graveside in Downpatrick to ask his blessing on this great work, I came away with the conviction that his benediction was already on it and that he would bless all those who aided, in any way, the creation of a National Shrine in the only town in the world honored by his name.”
For the 30th Anniversary of the Shrine of St. Patrick in 1987, Fr. O’ Duignan was asked to pen a few thoughts as he looked back on his time in St. Patrick over 50 years ago. He spoke of his fear of being sent to a parish where there would be little to do as he was always wanting to keep busy. Upon his arrival he saw many opportunities – he went to the W. P. A. office in Hannibal to lobby for road improvements and, thanks to Joe Hunolt, the area received immediate attention for road improvement to Derrahs, Williamstown, and Kahoka. He stated, with the generous help of Dick St. Clair, the St. Patrick High School was recognized by the State of Missouri and enrollment doubled in size, providing a good solid education. He also mentioned that in those days, when few people went to hospitals when they were sick, he covered all parts of the parish on sick calls and would often call on non-Catholic familIes as well.
Msgr. O’Duignan passed away on June 3, 1991, in San Diego, Ca. where he had been living since his retirement in 1977.
The St. Patrick community will be forever grateful to Fr. O’Duignan for his vision, dedication, and perseverance in building the beautiful Shrine of St. Patrick that we all enjoy today.