With Compassionate Concern, Father Tom Rooney Cares for the Hard-Pressed of Africa

updated 11/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

The incident occurred more than 30 years ago, but Tom Rooney's memory of it remains vivid and searing. He was a young petroleum engineer then, working in Nigeria. "I was going along in a company car when I came across a young girl, about 16 or so, lying by the side of the road surrounded by a group of people," he recalls. "She was having a very difficult pregnancy. The infant was breached in the womb. The people there told me she had been like that for a number of days. I could see that she was very near death.

"Because I didn't have training in anything like this," Rooney continues, "I couldn't help her. So I put her and her husband in the car and headed for the nearest mission. We'd only gone about five miles when the young man told me his wife had died. I took them back to their village and I stayed, more out of curiosity than anything else. They buried her in an open grave, without a casket or cloth, nothing. I got to thinking that I should really be doing something for these people, something to improve their lives."

That proved to be more than just a compassionate impulse. Within a year he redirected his life toward the priesthood as a missionary, and today, at 59, Father Tom Rooney is more deeply involved in his cause than ever. From his home base in Alexandria, Va., he now operates a far-flung medical mission that last year was instrumental in helping some five million people a year. Currently on a three-month swing through West and Central Africa, he is supervising the building of an irrigation project, opening a trade school in Senegal and overseeing the shipment of medicine to northern Ghana. He plans to spend Christmas with the Pygmies of the southern Cameroons, a people he describes as "the most deprived in Africa today. They've always lived off the forest, and now that the hardwoods are being cut down, there's no place for them. They were used to gathering roots and berries. Now we have to teach them to grow their own food—soya beans, yams and other root crops."

Father Rooney conducts his own person-to-person aid programs through the World Mercy Fund, a privately supported agency which he founded in 1968. Through the years much of the money for his work (his annual budget is now $3.5 million) has come from enthusiastic individuals, and prominent among them are Frank and Barbara Sinatra. In September, for example, the opening night of Sinatra's smash concert series in Manhattan's Carnegie Hall was designated a benefit for World Mercy. The packed house included 419 big givers plunking down $1,000 a head for the best seats and dinner after with the Sinatras. The gala netted $640,000 for Father Rooney's aid programs.

The Sinatras were introduced to Rooney by singer Morton Downey eight years ago, and the acquaintance has been warmly personal ever since. "He's a very calm, wise man," says Frank of the priest he now considers his spiritual adviser. "Father Rooney can give solace to anyone." Adds Barbara: "He's down to earth, part of the real world. I feel I can talk to him about anything because he understands the other side of life, outside the priesthood."

In fact, Rooney's own religious path was circuitous. Though of Irish-Catholic lineage, he was born in a small English town on the River Tyne, the fourth of five children of a marine engineer-shipbuilder. Young Tom, after a World War II hitch as an ordinary seaman in the Royal Navy, studied at St. Joseph's College in Nottingham and at the Institute of Marine Engineers in London. After that he joined Royal Dutch/ Shell as an engineer, and the oil business took him around the world, from Texas and Louisiana to Iraq, Iran, Singapore, the Caribbean and West Africa. Then came the roadside tragedy that changed his life. On Rooney's return to Shell's London home office to resign, a skeptical VP suggested he consult the company doctor to have his head examined. But Shell was ultimately persuaded of his sincerity and even gave him a start-up donation to launch his first medical project in 1950 in Nigeria.

At that time Rooney's fervor far exceeded his practical experience. "I tried to build little clinics, teach basic hygiene," he says, "but it was a forlorn effort because I was lacking so much." What was missing, he decided, was a spiritual basis for his work. "So," he says, "I decided to go to France and become a priest." He joined the Spiritans, an order founded in the 18th century; one of its main purposes is to minister to black Africa.

Once ordained in 1956, Father Rooney returned to Nigeria and with the help of business contacts, subsequently established his World Mercy Fund. A contribution from hotelman Conrad Hilton got him started with a clinic, then U.S. foreign aid funds and private donations enabled him eventually to build four hospitals of 110 beds each. Today the fund supports 110 nurses and lay volunteers working in 18 Third World lands, mainly in Africa. Its annual budget, most of which is channeled through other private voluntary agencies, goes for clinics, trade schools, water projects and distributing food supplements. "I happen to be a priest," says Rooney, "but our work is nonsectarian."

In a special gift last year, Frank Sinatra provided $150,000 to build a chapel at the Spiritan seminary near Dakar, Senegal. ("The Irish and Italians seem to go back to their religious roots as they get older," says Rooney.) Barbara Sinatra, who saw African conditions for herself on a 1980 tour of World Mercy projects, explains: "In countries where 40 percent of the children don't survive beyond age 5 and adults die at 40, the needs are so great." Father Rooney remains undiscouraged. "What I'm doing is only a drop in a huge bucket," he says. "But at least it's something."

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