Father Jerry Cotter, a blue-eyed Irishman with a lilting voice and a kind disposition, arrived in Korea 54 years ago, and although he’s been back to the Emerald Isle since, he considers this emerald isle, half a world away, home. He was assigned to Korea by the Catholic missionary board of Ireland. It wasn’t his first choice.
“I wanted to go to China,” he said, “but Mao Tse-tung changed all that.”
He was happy about his appointment to Korea though, and began eagerly studying Korean history. He and eight other priests were sent to Seoul in 1955 to begin ministering across the country.
Last year, he retired to Jeju where he lives in Yongdu-am at the Colombian House, which was built in the 1960's as a vacation home for the 150 missionary priests in Korea at the time.
“It used to be you had to stay seven years before your first visit home. I'd come down here for holidays,” he said. When he first arrived in Korea, he started by studying the language with a tutor.
“He taught us about consonants and 'wobels'. His English was about as good as our Korean!”
After six months, he was assigned to a parish in Cholla Province as an assistant to a Korean priest. A year and a half later he was off to Gwangju, then a year in Hampyeong, then Jindo. In all, he spent 25 years moving from parish to parish spending a year at each when he was an assistant priest and four to six years each after he became a full priest.
For the amiable Irishman, it was just part of the job.
“Roman Catholics concentrate on missionary work. The first 40 years of our work here in Korea was building up parishes, growing them, and splitting them. Eventually, they developed their own Korean priests, and they, funnily enough, spoke Korean better than we did,” he said with a laugh. “Now the Korean priests do all the parish work and we've had to move on.”
The work of Catholic missionaries here transferred to hospital administration, programs for training new priests, and ministry support like publishing magazines and pamphlets.
“At first all the support was coming from the West, from our home countries. But when it got big enough, we started making the support materials here,” he said.
He went into counseling which he has continued for the last 25 years. While he enjoys the work, it’s not without its challenges.
“You can help people through their problems, but a friend of mine, an older priest says 'You try to help the bastards and they just won't let you.' That's how I feel sometimes,” he said. “It's demanding. You have to wade through a lot of defenses and smoke screens, but when you can help, it is rewarding.”
“My interest is in people. On the whole, I've always found Koreans friendly and helpful. History has been unkind to Korea. They're the Poland of Asia . . . they've suffered between the big powers. The sad history comes out in their character,” he said. “In a way, I think the frivolity and the all night parties are an antidote to the 'han' (deep sadness) of the past they keep with them. But, I find, they have a great sense of humor.”
His visits back to Ireland reaffirm his love for Korea. “You always have memories and it ain't that way no more. I've been in Korea twice as long as I was ever in Ireland. This is my home, the whole country. It's where I've lived my life.”
Jeju has afforded Fr. Cotter to indulge in his favorite pastime – sailing. He is an active member of the Gimnyeong International Sailing Club, which welcomes foreigners.
For information on joining or sailing with the Gimnyeong International Sailing Club, contact Fr. Cotter at 016-359-8405.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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