Each year, the South Korean government honors foreign nationals in the country with the Immigrant of the Year award for dedicated service to people in society.
This year, Father Daniel Brendan O’Keeffe, Irish missionary priest and member of the Missionary Society of Saint Columban, received the prestigious honor for his more than 40 years of support to marginalized communities in South Korea.
On May 20, Father O’Keeffe, 70, received a presidential citation at an awards ceremony hosted by the Department of Justice.
The priest, also known as Father Donal O’Keeffe, said he was surprised to be shortlisted for the award. âI was very surprised to learn that I was selected as a laureate among many other immigrants who have accomplished greater deeds than me. I appreciate the Missionary Society of Saint Columban for sending me here, this which gave me the opportunity to minister to the Korean people, âsaid Father O’Keeffe in an interview with Korea’s time.
The award recognizes decades of vital contributions the missionary priest has made to vulnerable segments of Korean society since arriving in the East Asian country in 1976.
A native of Cork, Father O’Keeffe graduated from University College Cork (UCC) in 1971 and joined the Saint Columban Missionary Society.
I looked at the Yellow Sea and felt at home
He considered becoming a priest because one of his uncles was a priest in Scotland. He expected to be a missionary in Latin America thanks to the inspiration of a college chaplain who had worked in Peru. He learned Spanish at UCC for his future mission.
After his priestly ordination in 1975, he wholeheartedly accepted an assignment in South Korea.
At the time, South Korea was at a crossroads. Father O’Keeffe said he only knew three things about South Korea before arriving – that it had very cold winters, that it faced political turmoil under military despotism and that it was quickly becoming an export-oriented country.
For about four years, Father O’Keeffe spent time learning about the local Catholic Church, culture and language by interacting with communities while he was Deputy Parish Priest for Heuksan Island and Town of Mokpo in South Jeolla Province, in the southwest.
Already three years in the country and relatively comfortable with the Korean language by 1978, Father O’Keeffe was on the coastal island to celebrate Christmas with a small Christian community.
âI looked at the Yellow Sea and felt at home,â said Father O’Keeffe.
In the 1980s, the priest was appointed to work with factory workers in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province, where he spent about nine years.
He visited a center for young Christian workers run by Colombians where he met young workers who wanted to improve conditions in their workplace.
In the city, he also found that many teenage workers were employed in small factories. They came from the rural hinterland of the country without a proper education. Young workers suffer from a constant feeling of inferiority and insecurity, which prompts Father O’Keeffe to help them.
He joined some nuns and founded a center he called an âopen houseâ to organize meetings and trainings for young workers.
âReligious groups were the only organizations capable of getting involved with workers,â the priest recalled. âYoung workers from rural areas, some of whom were only 15 years old, came to the towns and went straight to the factories. “
The training classes were delivered in the evening after the workers had finished their work, and the classes were based on the âSee, Judge and Actâ process that helped them grow and flourish, ultimately helping them to become strong labor rights activists.
The teacher training helped them to study labor law and made them aware of labor rights
The initiative had a huge impact on the workers as they were able to express themselves freely and share their good and bad experiences about their life.
The teacher training helped them study labor law and made them aware of labor rights, making them aware of personal development and critical thinking.
All of this turned out to be vital as many of these workers played a central role in forming unions in the 1980s which intensified campaigns to improve workers’ rights and conditions in South Korea.
In 1983, Father O’Keeffe was back in Ireland for a three month workshop on justice and peace organized by the Colombians. He was joined by Korean laity, including staff from Caritas Korea. The workshop has become a beacon for social justice training in South Korea. Back in Bucheon, he led a labor apostolate team that organized a five-week training for young workers.
Father O’Keeffe returned to Ireland again in 1989. He obtained an MA in Practical Theology from Trinity College, Dublin. His thesis was based on the labor movement in South Korea and he focused on how religions empower workers.
Back in South Korea, the priest was posted to a slum in Bongcheon in Seoul’s Gwanak District in the 1990s. He lived with a poor community that had nowhere to go as South Korea suffered massive redevelopment projects that saw their homes demolished, making them poorer and more vulnerable.
He recalled that the home owners had been compensated for the loss, but the tenants had received almost nothing.
Father O’Keeffe worked with Urban Poor Outreach of the Archdiocese of Seoul to form a tenants association to claim their rights, including better compensation for their displacement.
He ran educational programs for the slum dwellers with the help of students from various universities.
The future of the world looks bleak if we don’t move to a sustainable lifestyle
Father O’Keeffe is also passionate about the environment and climate change. In 1998, he became the manager of the Colombians in South Korea and was actively engaged in a range of environmental activities.
He firmly believes that religious groups must play an active role in the environment and climate change. He forged a multicultural group of priests, religious and lay missionaries from Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Fiji, Chile, South Korea and Ireland to carry out committed activities for justice, peace and ecology.
A major campaign of the priest was opposition to building a US naval base on Jeju Island, about 500 kilometers from China, in 2011. He supported the residents joined by the Bishop of Jeju and the Colombians. Protesters claimed the naval base would destroy the local environment and increase tensions in East Asia. Construction was repeatedly halted amid protests, but a court order in 2012 allowed it to resume.
The priest also lamented that due to the warming of the sea, traditional fish catches have declined and that desertification in China is having a negative impact on public health.
He also expressed fears that retreating Himalayan glaciers could trigger water scarcity and that millions of people would eventually become climate refugees.
âThe future of the world looks bleak if we don’t move to a sustainable lifestyle,â he said as reported by Independent.ie.
Father O’Keeffe has immense respect for the Church in South Korea and says he has the privilege of serving as a missionary in a country where the Christian faith has flourished through the selfless sacrifice of martyrs, mostly lay people. .
“The laity brought faith to the country and faced terrible persecution, with more than 50 percent of Korean Christians killed in the 19th century,” the priest said, adding that a major goal of Colombians in South Korea South today is to help The church has become “a missionary church”.