A 25-year-old newly ordained Catholic priest arrived in Korea for the first time in the spring of 1966. The Columban priest from New Zealand named Robert John Brennan has lived on the peninsula ever since, adopting a Korean name, Ahn Gwang-hoon.
After 46 years of contribution and selfless service, the Seoul Metropolitan Government awarded the priest its Welfare Grand Prize on Tuesday.
Father Brennan was ordained in 1965 and moved to Korea the following year.
Fr. Brennan’s first posting was at a Catholic church in Samcheok, Gangwon. A year later, he moved to a church in a nearby coal mining village in Jeongseon County and taught Bible study while helping those in poverty for 10 years.
In 1972, the priest, with approximately 30 residents, formed a local credit union by collecting donations. The local bank in Jeongseon has grown to a banking institution with assets of around 40 billion won ($35.2 million) over the past 40 years.
His contribution to Korean communities continued during his next at the Mokdong Catholic Church in western Seoul.
Father Brennan opened the church gates for those who had been driven out of their homes for 1988 Seoul Olympics development projects without government compensation and formed a village for those without homes called the Mokwha Village in Siheung, Gyeonggi.
The priest said it was a meeting with Bishop Ji Hak-soon, known for his pro-democracy activities in the 1970s when the country was ruled by Park Chung Hee, that led him to begin his community service work.
“It was Bishop Ji who sent me to a coal mining village in Gangwon to take care of those in need,” the 71-year-old priest said. “After watching him deliver a Mass that addressed social and political issues, I realized church must exist for people.”
The priest has spent 46 years in Korea serving those in need.
“I, myself, have been evicted from my house three times. And I will go anywhere if someone without a home needs my help,” he said.
Father Brennan has run the Samyang Resident Solidarity for eight years now, which works to counsel those looking for jobs and also provides small loans.