Father Charles O’Rourke, South Korea
It might have been the Columban and Maryknoll mission magazines lying around the Iowa farmhouses where his family lived, first near Missouri Valley, then Neola and Council Bluffs. Father O’Rourke can’t quite remember.
But the desire to serve as a missionary priest began when he was very young, said Father O’Rourke, 87, who continues to serve in parishes in the archdiocese, visit nursing homes and people in hospitals, and this year is celebrating 60 years of priesthood.
"When I was little I dreamed of being a missionary. That was just part of my life. That was part of my dreams."
Some of the dreaming took place while walking 90 minutes to a Catholic school and then back each school day – or riding a horse instead. When in eighth grade he went to a priest and expressed his interest in the priesthood, he was encouraged to go to high school first.
That lasted one year. At that point, the priest asked if he remained serious, and volunteered to take Father O’Rourke to the Columbans in Bellevue, which led to a Columban seminary in Silver Creek, N.Y., near Buffalo. He also studied at the former seminary in the order’s U.S. headquarters in Bellevue – packed with 60 other students "like sardines" into a dormitory that is now the retreat house.
His parents’ faith-filled support was key, particularly in the early going, when he didn’t think they could help him financially at a seminary on the East Coast.
But when he talked with them about it, they responded, ‘"Oh, we’ll support you if you want to go,’" Father O’Rourke said. "That changed everything. Once they said that, I was gone."
After his ordination, Father O’Rourke spent 27 years in South Korea, often drawing strength from the faith of the people he served.
That strength and resilience included parishioners in his last assignment in South Korea, when he helped found and build the church at St. Luke Parish in the city of Kwangju. The parish between 1981 and 1985 grew from 150 to 2,500 members.
Still suffering from the toll taken by the Korean War, "people were in search of God and meaning in their lives," Father O’Rourke said. It’s particularly striking when people hear about Christ’s love for the very first time, he said. ‘"Is this for real? I can’t believe this could be true,’" people often exclaim about Christ’s sacrifice for them. "‘He did this for me?’"
And now, reflecting on 100 years of Columban Fathers’ missionary work provides a unique opportunity to give thanks, Father O’Rourke said.
"It’s a year of gratitude to God for all the blessings – gratitude for what God has done through the Columbans over the years."