“Gradually coming down to earth,” says the birthday boy when asked how he’s feeling.

Fr Mark Whelehan, stalwart of Minsteracres for more than 50 years, has just celebrated his official 90th birthday (like the queen, there have already been several unofficial celebrations this year).

Sunday 8th May began with a mass celebrated by Bishop Seamus Cunningham to a church packed with family and friends – so much so that some were relegated to take part by our newly installed audio visual feed to the library.

Bishop Seamus

In his address, Bishop Seamus said, “In one gospel on the account of the Ascension we are told that two angels appeared to the apostles and told them not to be looking up for Jesus, he ascended into heaven alright but he is also to be found all around us, especially in the poor, the suffering, the marginalised, the downtrodden.

“Following Jesus includes following him through the gates of death into the fullness of life. So if you wake up some morning and discover that your life is exactly the way it should be, don’t move – just wait for the undertaker. You have arrived, the journey is complete and all the promises of the Lord will be fulfilled.

“It is obvious to all of us who have known Fr Mark that he lives out that gospel message and that God is at work in his life. He is a man who knows Jesus and not just knows about him. The more Christ-like we become, the more human we are. Fr Mark is very human and so radiates Christ. He didn’t spend his life looking up to the heavens after Jesus, but he looked around him and saw the needs of the people – reaching out especially to the vulnerable and the marginalised. He gave without counting the cost and now at the age of 90, God is still at work in and through him in a very powerful way.

“Mark, don’t wake up just yet discovering that your life is exactly that way it should be – keep moving, don’t wait for the undertaker we need you around for a long time yet!”

Church resized

It seems that Fr Mark has heard that message before – he cheerfully tells people how he died more than 20 years ago. As the photographs from that time attest, Fr Mark was a very sick man, suffering a series of heart attacks that led to bypass surgery. The 90 year old Fr Mark looks a far fitter man than his 60 odd year old self.

“I was down to just eight stone,” he says. “These days I’m six stone heavier. Mind you, I believe that like good wine, we mature with age.”

He walks a mile a day in all weathers, usually searching out the volunteers working in the grounds at Minsteracres, “It doesn’t matter where they are – I’ll find them!” he says.

He also likes to quote the advice of his surgeon who said the odd drop of whiskey won’t hurt, and if you’re drinking wine, stick to red. This may account for the lakes of both arriving at the house.

There is more to come. “There are at least three more celebrations. They tell me I’m a party boy – I have to live up to it!” he says.

Ros and Kevin resized

The celebrations on Sunday were the work of many people including the staff and parishioners who prepared food, played music in church and during the reception and produced the order of service into a beautiful booklet, including bidding prayers in Gaelic supplied and delivered by Fr Mark’s Irish relatives, 20 of whom arrived, to his delight, to celebrate with him.

Plate resized

A handmade birthday cake and a plate decorated by the children of Minsteracres’ messy church, were given pride of place and more than 200 people joined in the celebration, including Sr Dympna Smith. She, together with Fr Mark and Fr Luke Magee opened up Minsteracres in the 1980s and 1990s, providing spiritual presence through retreats and practical help through the work of the Manpower Services Commission at Minsteracres which provided skills and labour for a community stricken by the closure of the nearby steelworks in Consett.

Mark and Dympna resized

Replying to a speech of congratulations from parishioner Ray Magee (who remarked that of the two of them, only he himself looked ten years older since the last time he made a speech for Fr Mark’s birthday), Fr Mark waved away the compliments and told the gathered crowd, “I am what I am because of you.”

He has a message he wants to convey to all the well-wishers, present givers and party joiners helping him to celebrate, “I just want to say a great BIG THANK YOU to everyone!”