By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — The Irish Center of Kansas City chose not only to honor Bishop Emeritus Raymond J. Boland, but they chose the most appropriate possible place and time.
In front of a near-capacity audience at downtown Midland Theater Dec. 5, Irish Center director Nancy Wormington presented the Irish-born bishop with its first “Honorary Irish Ambassador” award.
He accepted just before The Priests — a trio of Irish priests from the Diocese of Connor and Down who have become international singing sensations — took the stage in a benefit for the center in partnership with KCPT, Kansas City’s Public Television station.
“If you Google the word ‘ambassador’ (on the Internet), you will find such things as, ‘works for peace,’ and “protects citizens,’” Wormington said in the brief presentation ceremony.
“Bishop Raymond J. Boland has done all that and more. He is also know for his wit and humor and for his endless thirst for knowledge,” she said.
Wormington also said that Bishop Boland had the three marks of a true Irishman — “Deep faith, hard work, unshakeable family ties.”
“Just as you will find this spirit in the Irish of Kansas City, you will find it in Bishop Boland,” she said.
Wormington noted that the Irish Center chose to make Bishop Boland it’s first ever “Honorary Irish Ambassador,” not only for his 56 years serving U.S. Catholics as a priest and bishop in Washington, D.C.; Birmingham, Ala., and Kansas City-St. Joseph, but for also serving the Irish people at the same time.
Bishop Boland served as a consultant member of the Bishops’ Committee for Migrants and Refugees, representing the interests of Irish emigrants.
And during the “Troubles,” Bishop Boland led the U.S. Catholic component of the Northern Ireland InterChurch Committee, a project between Catholic and Presbyterian clergy in both countries working for peace in practical ways.
One of those ways was through fair employment and economic development, including financial assistance for young people in Northern Ireland to seek university business degrees in the United States and take their skills back to their home country.
As hundreds of people stood to applaud him in the elegantly refurbished Midland Theater, Bishop Boland graciously accepted, but then, in a voice still challenged by a successful battle against cancer of the vocal chords a year ago, immediately changed the subject from himself to The Priests — Father Martin O’Hagan and Father Eugene O’Hagan, who are brothers, and Father David Delargy.
They began singing four decades ago in the seminary at St. MacNissi’s College in County Atrim, but weren’t persuaded to record a demo until five years ago. They were immediately signed by Epic records, recorded an album of classical and spiritual hymns.
That self-titled 2008 debut album sold in the millions, shattering sales records in most of the English-speaking world and Europe — but not in the United States.
Bishop Boland recalled that about that time the album was flying off the shelves, he was serving as a chaplain on a cruise ship, when he was approached by an Australian man with a strange question.
“What do you think of The Priests?” the man asked.
“I know a lot of priests,” Bishop Boland answered.
“No, I mean the Irish Priests,” the man said.
“Well, I know a lot of Irish priests, too,” Bishop Boland said.
“No, I mean the signing Priests who made the recording,” the man insisted.
“What recording?” Bishop Boland asked.
The Australian man was a music distributor, the bishop said.
“Before my ship got back to the United States, there was a copy of ‘The Priests’ CD on my desk,” Bishop Boland said. “I have listened to it not once, but several times.”
And again, in his self-effacing humor, he made a request of the artists that were about to perform, that they return to the United States when the bishop dies and at his funeral sing Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Pie Jesu,” off that debut album.
“If they do, then I can slip by the pearly gates unnoticed because everyone up there in heaven will be in awe,” Bishop Boland said.