Archbishop Thomas White RIP

The death has taken place of Thomas A White, formerly of Durrow, a Priest of the Diocese of OssoryTitular Archbishop of Sabiona and former Papal Nuncio to Rwanda, Ethiopia and New Zealand. He is survived by his sister Alice, his brother Liam, his brother-in-law Edward, and his nephews, nieces, grand-nephews and grand-nieces. He is predeceased by his brother Seán J White and his sister May McKenna.

Archbishop Thomas White was born, one of a family of five, on the 12th of August 1931 to William and Bridget White. After his early education at Cullohill National School, Laois, he progressed to St Kieran’s College, Kilkenny. While there Thomas enjoyed outstanding academic and sporting successes and he was part of the College’s senior hurling team who won Leinster Championships in 1949 and 1950; he was also chosen for the Leinster interprovincial schools hurling team in 1950.

Archbishop White studied for the priesthood in St Kieran’s College and later in Rome until his ordination for the Diocese on 25th February 1956. Released by his Bishop, Rev Dr Patrick Collier from a commitment to teach Canon Law at St Kieran’s, the newly ordained Thomas spent the next two years at the Pontificia Accademia Ecclesiastica in preparation for a career in the diplomatic service of the Holy See. 

In 1960, after graduation Monsignor White was sent as Secretary to what was then the Apostolic Delegation of Eastern Africa, covering territory from Kuwait to the Zambezi, headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya to work alongside Archbishop Guido del Mestri. For the next five years much of his time was taken up with preparing for decolonisation in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi and the Seychelles, and the eventual establishment of separate Nunciatures in each of these countries after independence.

In 1965 he was transferred to the Nunciature in Guatemala where the Head of Mission was also Nuncio in El Salvador. It was a time of great political upheaval in Central America and the local Church was often in the forefront of the struggle to obtain fairer treatment for the poor campesinos. 

From Central America in 1967 Monsignor White moved to Colombia. Most of his first year there was spent on the arrangements for the visit of Pope Paul VI in August 1968 for the Eucharistic Congress in Bogotá and the Plenary Assembly of the Latin American Bishops in Medellín. In 1970 he was posted to Switzerland as Counsellor of the Nunciature in Berne and also acted as Observer of the Holy See at various United Nations and other International Agencies in Geneva.

In 1974, following two years in administration work at the Secretariat of State, he received his first effective Head of Mission appointment as Chargé d’Affaires in the Apostolic Nunciature for China. His appointment coincided with the Cultural Revolution and as the Nunciature had to leave the mainland following the Communist takeover, he fulfilled his responsibilities towards China and the underground Catholic Church there from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. In 1978 he was ordained as Titular Archbishop of Sabiona and returned to Africa, this time as Apostolic Nuncio in Rwanda.

Archbishop White was transferred again as Nuncio in Ethiopia in 1983. The six years he spent there and the three terrible famines in that space of time changed him for life. As head of the diplomatic corps he was responsible for coordinating the contributions of many countries and charities to counter the effects of famine. The endless struggle to help the starving people eventually took its toll. Thomas suffered a heart attack in 1988.  He was then, in 1989, asked to serve in New Zealand. Attached to this was the Apostolic Delegation for Oceania, involving problems of distance and communication in that vast territory embracing practically all the island states of the Pacific Ocean. Shortly after his arrival in Wellington he presented his credentials to Queen Elizabeth II who was there for the Commonwealth Games and wished to exercise her prerogatives as Queen of New Zealand. Over the next six years he was to repeat the same procedure with the King of Tonga and with the Presidents of Nauru, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Western Samoa, Vanuatu and Kiribati. Archbishop Patrick Coveney, a brother of former government minister the late Hugh Coveney and uncle of Minister Simon Coveney, succeeded Archbishop White in Ethiopia and New Zealand.

The Archbishop was only the second Irishman in the history of the Church to have served as a Papal Nuncio in a country where he did not already hold an episcopal rank. After his retirement from the papal diplomatic service in 1996, Archbishop White carried out several important missions for the Vatican Secretariat of State, including liaison work with the church of the Syro-Malabar rite in India. 

Following his retirement, Archbishop White lived in Blackrock, where he continued to consult on Church matters. Later he moved to St Kieran’s College to be close to his family. More recently he moved to Gowran Abbey Nursing Home. Archbishop White is predeceased by his sister May McKenna and older brother Seán J White, he is survived by his sister Alice O’Byrne, who now lives in Kilkenny, and his younger brother Liam White who lives in London.

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Ossory Diocesan Office James’s Street, Kilkenny Tel: 056-7762448 Fax: 056-7763753 E-mail: bishop@ossory.ie