A west Belfast cleric known fondly as the ‘people’s priest’ was described as extraordinary during his funeral service today.
Father Matt Wallace, 69, who served for four decades in one of the city’s most deprived areas during the darkest days of the Troubles was found dead at his parochial house last Friday.
“Let us remember him with a final one (quote) which I know for certain who said it. It comes from an unexpected source, a 1980’s Tory Government minister, who was a difficult man to impress, Richard Needham. In his autobiography he referred to having met and dealt with Matt and described him as “the extraordinary West Belfast priest.” I can’t really think of any better way to describe him or any other way that he would wish to be remembered,” said Fr Thomas McGlynn, who celebrated the Requiem Mass.
Hundreds of mourners who packed into Holy Trinity Church at Turf Lodge to pay their last respects also heard how the popular priest had struggled with the increasing demands of contemporary church life.
“It is not that we as priests feel we have made the wrong choice in our way of life, though some do feel that way; it is that a life of service in a bruised and wounded church can be challenging and is both physically and mentally demanding. It is a hard truth and one that cannot be denied or dismissed and for some it has become intolerable or very difficult to bear.
“Fr Matt struggled with all these issues and it was painful for his family and all who loved him to see him weakened and dispirited, especially so for someone we regarded as strong in the best sense of that word, someone who always attended to the needs, worries and troubles of others with little regard for his own. Generosity lies at the heart of the priesthood but often a high price is paid for such an ideal and sometimes it can bring you to a bleak and difficult place,” added Fr McGlynn.
His death was greeted with shock by parishioners who had welcomed back after 10 months on sick leave.
Fr Wallace conducted funeral services for many of Northern Ireland’s Troubles victims. In 2003 he was stabbed in the face while trying to thwart a burglary at a primary school.
The Co Wexford-born priest was buried at Milltown Cemetery in west Belfast.
A book of condolence has also been opened.