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Joseph Shanahan was born in Currafrusha, Glankeen, Borrisoleigh, Co. Tipperary, Ireland, on 4 June 1871. He was baptised by Father P.J. Morris on 7 June in Borrisoleigh parish Church. His parents were Daniel Shanahan and Margaret Walsh. Daniel and Margaret were married in Templederry on 17 June 1864. Father John Kenyon P.P. officiated at the ceremony. Their first child Mary was born in 1865 and some time after Mary’s birth the family moved to Glankeen in the neighbouring parish of Borrisoleigh. The next three Shanahan children were born in Glankeen – Joseph in 1871. Some two or three years after Joseph’s birth his father was offered the job as herdsman by John Dwyer O’Ryan near his own residence in Cloghonan, Templederry and the family moved back to the Templederry, six miles south east of Nenagh. The Shanahan family lived in a two-storey house in Gortnalaura adjacent to the Church and primary school. Joseph first attended primary school at Clohinch quite close to his home and beside the parish church. This National School at Clohinch was opened in 1862. Prior to this there had been another National School already in existence in the parish since 1845. This school was located about a mile and a half from Templederry and the stone plaque still extant reads ‘Templederry National School’. From December 1884 Joseph Shanahan attended the older school in Gortnagoona with his brother Dick. Joseph remained on at Gortnagoona School until 31 July 1886 until he finished 6th class and was by then 15 years old.
In 1886 Joseph went to France to study for the priesthood. The Congregation of the Holy Spirit (Spiritan Fathers) was entrusted with the running of an Apostolic School in Beauvais. Joseph had an uncle in this Congregation – Brother Adelm – who in 1886 was appointed to the school in Beauvais. When Father Limbour, who was in charge of the school, learned from Br. Adelm that he had a nephew who was interested in becoming a priest in the Spiritan Congregation but had not the financial resources required in Ireland, he agreed to take Joseph into the school in Beauvais.
Joseph was to remain eleven years in France, from 1886-1897, without returning to Ireland. He was awarded his BSc, studied his Philosophy, completed his novitiate and in 1897 returned to Rockwell College in Ireland as ‘Prefect’ or Junior Master. This college is run by the Spiritan Fathers. He was an outstanding rugby player in Munster club competitions.
On 22 April 1900 Joseph Shanahan was ordained a priest in Blackrock College and served as Dean of the boarding school in Rockwell. In 1902 he was appointed to the Mission of Southern Nigeria and left Ireland on the 9 October of that year on his first missionary journey. On the 27 September 1905 Fr. Shanahan was appointed as Prefect Apostolic of Lower Niger. On 6 June 1920 he was ordained Bishop of Southern Nigeria at Maynooth College, Ireland.
On 7 March 1924 Bishop Joseph Shanahan founded the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary. He accompanied seven brave women who shared his vision, to a house in Killeshandra, Co. Cavan, Ireland. Here they were to begin religious life under the guidance of Dominican Sisters from Cabra, Dublin. From virtually nothing, this dedicated group were to form a congregation of Sisters who would help Bishop Shanahan in his mission, especially to the women of Southern Nigeria. Today Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary are international in composition and found in diverse cultures throughout the world. They continue in fidelity to their charism and the ideals of their founder, to seek new and untried ways in which to find and nurture the seed that is Christ in every culture.
In 1932 Bishop Shanahan retired from the Mission of Southern Nigeria after 30 years of missionary endeavour. He retired to Blackrock College in Dublin from where he continued to work actively in promoting the foreign missions. In 1938, at the invitation of Bishop Heffernan, he went to serve in Kenya where he died in Nairobi on Christmas morning 1943 and was buried in St. Austin’s cemetery. In 1956 the Bishop’s remains were transferred to Nigeria and reverently placed in their final resting place inside the Cathedral in Onitsha that he himself had consecrated twenty – one years before.
Bishop Shanahan’s successor in Onitsha, Archbishop Charles Heerey, C.S.Sp. said that while ” he did not want to anticipate the pronouncements of the Church by calling Bishop Shanahan a saint, that is what he was: we fondly hope that some day Shanahan’s cause may be introduced, and that it may be in God’s Providence we may have the happiness of praying to him as one of the heavenly patrons of Nigeria, and of all missions and Missionaries.”
Always regarded as a saint, Bishop Shanahan’s cause for Canonisation was officially opened in the Archdiocese of Onitsha, Nigeria on 15 November 1997. The Diocesan Inquiry into the life and heroic virtue of Bishop Shanahan continues in the Archdiocese of Onitsha, Nigeria, and the Archdiocese of Dublin, Ireland where it was officially opened in 1998.
Many Witnesses in Nigeria, Ireland and other countries, though advanced in years, remembered Bishop Shanahan and were willing to testify to his life and dedicated work before the Diocesan Inquiries in Nigeria and Dublin. These first-hand witnesses were able to give facts and events in the life of the Servant of God, Joseph Shanahan.
Bishop Shanahan was a prolific letter writer. Part of the Diocesan Inquiry into the life and heroic virtue of this Servant of God is the setting up of a Commission of Experts by the Archbishop. This Commission gathers each and every historical document, either hand written or printed, which in any way pertains to the Cause. The exhaustive search of archives and libraries for documents which relate to Bishop Shanahan demands the expertise of those particularly trained in such fields of investigation. These experts are in the process of gathering all the written sources pertaining to Bishop Shanahan and situating him in the religious, social and cultural environment in which he is considered to have lived heroically the Christian virtues.
When the members of the Commission have completed their task they will submit a report to the competent church authorities together with a report on the writings of Bishop Shanahan. This report, together with the testimonies of all the Witnesses will be forwarded to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints in Rome. It is then for the Roman Congregation to determine what further progress can be made in examining the Cause.