For more than 40 years she cared for a legendary Co Cork church.
Now, the Vatican has presented a rare accolade — the female equivalent of a Knighthood — to ‘the boss of Gougane Barra’.
Countless bishops, priests and wedding couples became close friends of Sheila O’Leary during her years of service to the tiny, but picturesque, St Finbarr’s Oratory.
And for everyone — even ‘Franc’ the colourful wedding-planner — the Gougane Barra native’s word was law when it came to respecting protocol relating to the ancient church.
Sheila’s dedication to St Finbarr’s was rewarded on December 29.
The mother-of-two, now in her late 70s, was presented with the prestigious award of Dame of the Order of Saint Sylvester by Bishop John Buckley of the diocese of Cork and Ross.
The honour, for which Bishop Buckley had to make a special application to Rome, is seen as a fitting tribute to the woman who took over the mantle of Sacristan from her mother who, in turn, had been passed the role from her parents and before that, their parents.
In fact, says Sheila’s daughter Helen McCaffrey, the O’Leary family service to the church stretches back to the early 1900s.
Sheila’s husband Cornelius (83), also an O’Leary and now retired, looked after the grounds of the church for many years, a duty he willingly shouldered when Sheila’s father became unable to continue the work.
Sheila, who only retired from her role in mid-2015, never considered herself off duty.
Helen recalled: “As a child, I remember couples coming to our door at dinnertime to ask about organising a wedding.
“Mum would put her dinner in the oven and talk to them. It was never an inconvenience.
“There was no such thing as going away for the weekend because many weddings took place on a Saturday.
“Mum could be gone by 11am on a Saturday morning and not back until 5.30pm.
“She became friends with many couples who got married in Gougane — in fact she and dad often acted as their witnesses.
“Some weddings would be small and private and mum and dad would even play the role of bridesmaid and best man.
“Many brides even changed into their wedding dresses in our house, and had their breakfast there.
“Sometimes there would be a little wedding reception in the house for the couple and the priest afterwards.
“Mum is part and parcel of Gougane Barra — even Bishop Buckley said she was the boss when it came to Gougane Barra Church,” says Helen.
She recalled how even Franc, the renowned wedding planner and TV personality, had to respect her mother’s wishes during his decoration of the Oratory for a wedding.
Even while supposedly off-duty, Sheila kept a watchful eye on the little church from her kitchen window.
In 2000, Sheila — a close friend of Cardinal Timony Manning, a native of Ballingeary now stationed in Los Angeles — was awarded a Benemerenti Medal for her commitment to the church.
However, nothing could parallel the spectacular ceremony at the end of 2015.
Clad in a black cloak specially sewn in the Vatican, with a gold chain and Vatican emblem, Sheila was presented with the award of Dame of the Order of St Sylvester.
It’s the female equivalent of a knighthood.
It was presented by Bishop Buckley, aided by parish priest Fr Martin O’Driscoll and diocesan secretary Fr Tom Deenihan.
During the ceremony Bishop Buckley recalled Sheila’s unswerving commitment to the church.
And on a lighter note, Fr Deenihan recounted some humorous anecdotes from Sheila’s four decades as sacristan.
“She is a great woman, who had a great sense of humour and is well-known to the people of Cork,” Fr Deenihan said.
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