The celebrations took place at the Sacred Heart Church on Western Road, Cork — their first Irish house.
Several dignitaries turned up at the event, including former president of the European Parliament, Pat Cox, and Fr Michael Curran, who served for two terms as superior general of the missionaries in Rome.
They were entertained by the Waterford and Omagh Peace Choir, who were making their first appearance in Cork.
The cross-community choir embraces the various Christian traditions north and south in Ireland and received international acclaim for their beautiful and dignified performance at the service marking the 10th anniversary of the Omagh bombing, which was broadcast live on BBC and UTV television. Fr Joe McGee, deputy provincial of the order and chairman of the centenary committee, said their youthful dedication to singing and to the promotion of peace and charity made them a very fitting choice for the launch of the centenary celebrations as people remember with gratitude those missionaries of the Sacred Heart.
The missionaries departed from the Sacred Heart Church since 1909 to such places as Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, later to South Africa and Venezuela, and more recently to establish a mission in Russia.
Fr Curran said the evils of religious nihilism or rejection of religion on the one hand, and religious extremism or intolerance on the other, have a special power to harm people. He said many world leaders had remarked that Christianity had been a force for good in the world and the church needed carry on this work.
Despite an ageing population of missionaries and a decline in vocations, Fr Curran said the orderwas nevertheless hopeful of being able to attract young men in sufficient numbers to join its community and continue the good work.
“We will not need the big numbers we once had, but we do need the few to keep our spirit and community alive,” he said.
Pat Cox told the gathering that the centenary was a time to recall all the young men who over the years volunteered to follow the spiritual call and to reach out through missionary work.
“The missionaries through their personal fortitude and spiritual calling, through their dedicated service and their compassionate engagement and through their selflessness and sense of duty have honoured their vocations, their Church, their families and our country,” Mr Cox said.
Further events will be held throughout the year to mark the centenary which will include a civic reception by the lord mayor of Cork on March 3, a mass of thanksgiving in St Mary’s and St Anne’s Cathedral on May 16, a special pilgrimage to the shrines of France on June 21-27 and a national pilgrimage to Knock shrine on 25 July.
An exhibition depicting the work of missionaries at home and in developing countries will be held in public libraries throughout Cork city and county.