CORNELIUS C. WOLFE (1917–2006)

Cornelius Colbert Wolfe was born on June 11, 1917, on New Street, Abbeyfeale, County Limerick. He was the son of Richard Barrett Wolfe, a pharmacist who lived with his family above the shop, and Catherine Elizabeth Colbert Wolfe. His siblings were Johanna Frances (b. 1914), Hanora Josephine (b. 1915), Richard Michael (b. 1919), and Michael Joseph Colbert (b. 1922). All of them became priests or nuns.

Wolfe’s parents were active nationalists before and during the War of Independence (1919–1921). Catherine Wolfe’s younger brother, Con Colbert, participated in the Easter Rising of 1916 and was executed at Kilmainham jail, in Dublin. Dick Wolfe’s pharmacy became a hub of nationalist activity, and in 1920 it was damaged by the Black and Tans after the Irish Republican Army killed a local constable.

In September 1935, Con Wolfe joined the Spiritan Congregation, in Kilshane, County Tipperary, as a novitiate, professing his vows on September 5, 1936. He studied theology in Kimmage, south of Dublin, and was ordained a priest on July 16, 1944. Founded in 1703, the Spiritans, also known as the Holy Ghost Fathers, began working with former slaves in Haiti in the 1840s and in Africa in the 1860s, opening schools and hospitals.

After being ordained, Father Wolfe immediately joined the Spiritan mission in Nigeria, remaining there for twenty-five years. His sister Johanna, or Sister Mary Agatha of the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary, lived in Nigeria during the same period, from 1938 until 1965.

Francis Cardinal Arinze was a student of Father Wolfe in Nigeria. In God’s Invisible Hand: The Life and Work of Francis Cardinal Arinze, published in 2006 in the form of a long interview, Cardinal Arinze said that “we cannot speak of the Catholic school system in Eastern Nigeria without saying the names of Father John Jordan and Father Cornelius Wolfe.” He continued:

When I gave a conference in Steubenville, the Franciscan University in Ohio, in 1998, [Father Wolfe] was in the U.S.A. at a priests’ conference. And when I was speaking to the priests, there he was in the audience. I greeted him, and I told the priests, “This is the priest missionary who was assistant education secretary for the diocese when I was in primary school, and he gave me the certificate of a good pass in religion in 1946.” He was eighty years old on that day. I asked him to speak, but he was rather hesitant to speak. A very good man!

Father Wolfe moved to the United States in 1970. In 1976 he served as the hospital chaplain in Kingston, New York, and the next year became pastor at Saint Mary’s Church in the same city. On June 17, 2002, his eighty-third birthday, Father Wolfe left Kingston for Ireland. “To those outside the church and Kingston Hospital,” the Daily Freeman News reported, “the diminutive priest is perhaps best known for his work with the local chapter of the Hibernians. In fact, it is named after Father Woulfe, a familiar figure in his bright green beret, marching at the head of the Hibernian contingent. He was co-grand marshal of the 1990 Kingston St. Patrick’s Day Parade.”

On August 16, 2002, Father Wolfe entered the Marian House nursing home in Kimmage. He died there on November 1, 2008, and is buried at Shanganagh Cemetery, in Shankill, County Dublin.