EHB-funded group appalled at being branded "extreme right-wing group'' by the Israelis, says Sinead Grennan. The Irish religious group which was expelled from Israel last week runs a recognized residential center for mentally handicapped people. The Pilgrim House Community receives funding of almost £100,000 from the Eastern Health Board for the care of five men and one girl who are mentally handicapped. The community is a registered charity with the stated aim of living a life devoted to prayer and social justice.
The Pilgrim House Community was set up 19 years ago, by two couples, and has slowly grown ever since. There are now 25 members, including a psychiatrist, counselor, journalist, social worker, accountant and two teachers. They care for seven men and seven children with mental handicaps and live together in an isolated house in Gorey, Co Wexford.
All 25 members made the trip to Israel, which cost them in the region of £25,000. The community initially intended spending Christmas and Easter in the Holy Land, but curtailed their plans when twice refused visas by the Israeli authorities. The group is currently staying at a hotel in Athens, Greece, while the Israeli authorities consider their request to enter the country. Bridget Ann Ryan, a member of the community and former editor of the Irish Catholic, said they were outraged at the heavy-handed treatment meted out to them by the Israeli authorities. However, the group is determined to return to complete its trip.
A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said the department had done everything it could to help. "Our ambassador in Israel met the group and made the facts very clear to the Israeli authorities,'' he said. "But we don't know whether they are actively considering the application, nor have we been given a firm indication as to when we'll get a decision." They are appalled at being branded an "extreme right-wing group'' by the Israeli authorities and feel they are being forced to defend their way of life.
Kenneth Quinn, unofficial chaplain to the Wexford community, was equally shocked. He said the group lived a life "based on prayer and the celebration of the Eucharist."
. "They are living the basic call of the Gospel and are committed to living a shared life with the poor, in whatever form that takes,'' he said. "The beauty of the community is that the mentally handicapped are of most importance within it.''
The community is not officially affiliated with the Church or the National Association of Mentally Handicapped of Ireland. A spokesman for the Archbishop of Dublin said he knew very little about the group, but had seen their publication and to the best of his knowledge they were a very private group of peaceful, practicing Catholics who led a frugal, communal life. The community publishes a newspaper called The Pilgrim every few months and distributes the 10,000 copies outside churches throughout Dublin.
The group has campaigned for the rights of asylum-seekers and protested outside the Dáil on the right-to-work issue. At one point, the Pilgrim House Community ran a cafe in Little Mary Street in Dublin for asylum-seekers.
Dermot O'Leary, a psychiatrist at St Vincent's Hospital, and his wife Helena, a social worker, founded the community with Martin and Margaret Smyth (a counselor and teacher respectively) about 19 years ago. Each couple adopted three Romanian children. The children, from Romanian orphanages, all have mental handicaps. They lived in various houses in Dublin before buying Hyde Park in Gorey.
The group funds its activities through a combination of health board allocations, fundraising and selling a small amount of handcrafted furniture. It has received grant funding in the past to help with the house and outbuildings in Gorey. Their aim is "the establishment of a community of people centered on prayer and work for justice...and to establish, manage, construct and improve houses and homes wherein handicapped people may live with dignity.''