Gambia’s Longest Serving Bishop, Host of Only Papal Visit Dies at 95

Late Bishop Michael Joseph Cleary with Pope John Paul II when he visited the Gambia in 1992.

The longest serving Bishop in The Gambia who played host to Pope John Paul II in 1992, the only Papal visit to the West African nation, died Wednesday, September 2, a day after marking his 95th day of birth.

The leadership of The Gambia Pastoral Institute announced the death of Bishop Michael Joseph Cleary, a member of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit (Spiritans, CSSp) Thursday, September 3.

“On behalf of the Bishop of Banjul Most Reverend Dr. Gabriel Mendy CSSp, Priests, Religious and the lay faithful we regret to announce the death of our beloved Bishop Emeritus Michael J. Cleary,” The Gambia’s Pastoral Institute leadership announced in a statement.

Bishop Cleary, the emeritus of The Gambia’s Banjul Diocese, died in his native country of Ireland where he was residing since 2015 when he left the West African nation.


He arrived in The Gambia in 1953, a year after he had been ordained a Spiritan Priest in Ireland.

As a young missionary Cleric, he had wished to serve in a rural Parish. However, he was assigned to teach at St. Augustine High School in Banjul where he taught history and mathematics. He served at the school for 25 years, 17 of them as the Principal of the Catholic Institution. 

He was appointed the second Bishop of Banjul, the only Catholic Diocese in The Gambia, in January 1981.

It was during his Episcopacy that Bishop Cleary played host to Pope John Paul II when he visited the predominantly Muslim nation in 1992.

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Addressing Gambians during his pastoral visit, the Pope extended a special word of esteem and friendship to all the members of the Muslim community.

“The Catholic Church everywhere, as also here in The Gambia, welcomes opportunities for Christians and Muslims to know each other better, to share with each other their reverence for God, and to cooperate in serving the human family,” Pope John Paul II said during his 1992 Apostolic visit to The Gambia.

The Pontiff added, “Catholics rejoice in the religious freedom which marks your society, and which makes it possible for the majority Muslim community and the Christian community to live together in respect and accord.”

Bishop Cleary retired in February 2006 at the age of 80 and left for his native country of Ireland in 2015.


Addressing the faithful gathered at St. Therese Parish in Kanifing for his farewell Mass, Bishop Cleary was quoted as saying, “I am too emotional, but I have always dreaded parting from friends and saying goodbye. Sixty-two years ago, I came to the Gambia, and it is here I spent all my priestly life. Later as Bishop, I travelled throughout the country and got to know well, and love its people. Otherwise, I would not have stayed. I made many friends here, both Muslims and Christians.” 

He went on to explain the reasons for returning to his country of birth saying, “Now, in my 90th year, I feel I should live nearer to a hospital and nursing care and not be a burden here. So, I wish to sincerely thank you for the best years of my life.”

“I now ask the Almighty to guide and protect you and your friends and families. You will always be in my thought and prayers. God love and bless you all,” Bishop Cleary said. 

The late Bishop has been eulogized as a selfless servant of God who dedicated his entire life serving the people of God in The Gambia.

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In a Facebook post, the leadership of Project Gambia, a charity organization that reaches out to vulnerable persons in the West African nation express sorrow following the passing on of Bishop Cleary saying, “Project Gambia was saddened to learn this afternoon of the passing of the second Bishop of the Diocese of Banjul and the founder of St. John’s School for the Deaf in The Gambia.”

“What a privilege it was for some of us to be able to meet Bishop Cleary in Ireland last year, a man who had dedicated his life to God, and indeed to serving some of our World’s very poorest communities,” the leadership of Project Gambia adds.

“A very sad day for the Catholic Church in The Gambia, and for us here at Project Gambia. May he Rest in Peace,” the leadership of Project Gambia further says.

Chiarina Sacco mourns in a Facebook post, “A very sad day for The Gambia! Such a beautiful gentle soul who will be remembered fondly by all who were privileged to know him. My condolences to all the religious communities and the people of the Gambia. May he now rest in perfect peace.”

John Mendy posted, “Gambians especially the Catholic community are grateful for your relentless pastoral work in The Gambia. Rest in Peace Bishop Cleary.”

“He contributed his time to the kingdom and human need. May his memory be a blessing and his soul rest in eternal peace,” Sylvanus Leigh eulogizes.

Meanwhile, Nigerians are mourning the death of Professor Gabriel Jimoh Afolabi Ojo, a former member of the Vatican-based Pontifical Council for the Laity.

Professor Ojo, the pioneer Vice-Chancellor of the National Open University of Nigeria, died Sunday, August 30 in his sleep, his family has been quoted as saying.

The Don is remembered for his active service in the Church, which earned him the title of the Knight of the Order of St. Gregory the Great after Pope Paul VI conferred him with the Papal Knighthood in 1975.

Magdalene Kahiu is a Kenyan journalist with passion in Church communication. She holds a Degree in Social Communications from the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA). Currently, she works as a journalist for ACI Africa.