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Fr Brendan Forde Obituary: He Walked Beside Central and South America’s Poorest and Most Oppressed

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Ten days before he died, Franciscan priest Fr Brendan Forde was presented with a diploma of honour on behalf of the government of Chile by President Michael D Higgins in Dublin. At Athe Chilean embassy, the President said it was in recognition of the humanitarian assistance Fr Forde provided and the persecution he himself suffered during the Pinochet dictatorship in that country.

He also noted how Fr Forde had “opted out of living in a traditional friary in downtown Santiago and instead built a cardboard and timber hut at the city’s edge, sharing the lifestyle of his shantytown neighbours while helping the poorest Santiago citizens before being expelled to Buenos Aires” in March 1983. The priest was accused of inciting violence for taking part in a march after the disappearance of a man who opposed Pinochet.

Also honoured at that event were Irish missionary priests Fr Desmond McGillicuddy, Fr Liam Holohan (who died in 2002), who served in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship. After expulsion from Chile, Fr Forde served in the Chalatenango region of El Salvador, which suffered greatly during that country’s bitter civil war. In 1992 he moved to Guatemala, ministering to poverty-stricken people in rebel-controlled areas. After a brief return to Ireland in the mid-1990s, he travelled to Colombia, where he received death threats for accompanying a community that refused to take sides in that country’s conflict.

He spoke then of how, after a massacre of five adults and three children, a young woman with special needs collected the body parts in order to put the dead back together again. He remained in Colombia for 16 years with indigenous peoples, before returning to El Salvador. He also worked for periods with leper communities in Colombia as well as with indigenous peoples in Honduras and Guatemala.

He was born in 1943 to Seán and Ita Forde of Clontarf, Dublin. He joined the Franciscan congregation in 1960, and was ordained in 1968. In his identifying with the oppressed of Central and South America, family members say Fr Forde was influenced by Seán, who took part in the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence. Asked once what he accomplished, he said “I accompanied the people”. During the wars he tried “to make things more human for everybody and to bring joy” in the middle of madness.

On his death, UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders Mary Lawlor, tweeted “I’ll always think of him as someone who wandered around Central and South America being with the poor and the oppressed”. He “was very influenced by his accompaniment of indigenous communities, their culture, their spirituality and their grounding in and stewardship of the environment. Brendan was a wise, humble, compassionate and intense advocate against injustice,” she said.

In online tributes, friends spoke of his “very Dublin sense of humour”, his “love of music, particularly the protest songs of Victor Jara and Mercedes Sosa” and one recalled him driving around Santiago in the early 1980s on his motorbike, “as he delivered forbidden leaflets around the city while belting out Gracias a la Vida and other songs.” Fr Forde was home on holidays from El Salvador when he became ill last July. He was predeceased by his sister Barbara, and is survived by a sister Anne, brothers Dermot and Kieran and a large extended family and his Franciscan family.