This week we heard of the death of Brother Francis, a Passionist who had spent much of his Passionist life in Sweden, but who died, aged 96, at Herne Bay, in Kent. The Passionists have been in Herne Bay since 1889, and there, we administer the parish of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. Brother Francis becomes the first Passionist from the old St. Joseph’s Province of England and Wales, to die since St. Joseph’s became part of St. Patrick’s Province last year. By profession he was the oldest man in the revamped province. I have no memory of ever meeting him, but I do have a memory of being in Herne Bay to conduct an Advent Retreat in the parish back in the early 1990’s. Our Lady of the Sacred Heart was, at that time anyway, a very traditional parish, but they were lovely people and the retreat went well. My only memory of the town itself was of a whole line of beach huts along the seafront from where I half expected to see bathers emerging in Victorian swim suits, to go for a dip in the Thames estuary, like the Broons in the comic strip, when they used to head “doon the watter for the Fair”. Herne Bay is very near to Canterbury, and I remember the parish priest at the time bringing me on a visit to Canterbury Cathedral, which will always be inextricably linked to the murder of the Archbishop, Thomas Becket. That was back in 1170.
Staying with the old St. Joseph’s Province, we are at present saying farewell to a retreat house called St. Non’s, on the beautiful Pembrokeshire coast. St. Non was the mother of St. David, and the city of St. David is just a walk across the fields, via St. Non’s Well. At one time it was the only city in the UK without traffic lights, earning its city status because of the impressive cathedral which sits in a hollow. I have fond memories of going there too, firstly as a student, when myself and another student spent the summer painting and decorating the retreat house. We had been invited by the then rector, Father James, when he had passed through Mount Argus. The worked was hampered because Father James loved to talk, and he loved to cook (and eat), and every hour or so he would call us down from the ladders, having prepared a snack, and we would be ages trying to get the work started again as he regaled us with many stories. The experience was repeated a year or two later when he was then rector of the Passionist parish in Carmarthen, where they made a hard, Welsh cheddar cheese called Llamboidy. We have no Passionist houses in Wales any more – but at least we have Father Gareth to remind us of former times. I was reacquainted with Father James again many years later when he was rector at the Passionist monastery in Sutton, near St. Helens on Merseyside, where there is the Shrine of Blessed Dominic Barberi; the Venerable Father Ignatius Spencer, and the Venerable Mother Elizabeth Prout. I was based in Minsteracres at the time, and I had gone to help him out with the weekend Masses because one of the priests had taken ill. I remember us sitting watching the Edinburgh Military Tattoo on television. Suddenly, he disappeared upstairs and came back with his father’s war medals, and I had to listen to the story of each medal. He was a lovely character, but he could also be quite exhausting. I returned to St. Non’s when I was novice master for North Europe and I brought the novices there for a week’s holiday. The weather was beautiful and it was an idyllic time. At night we would put some food out on the porch and sit, very quiet and very still in the dark, in the kitchen, and wait for the badgers to come and take the food. Memories are made of this.
It's sad that diminishment has brought us to this point, but at the same time, for the Passionists on these islands, it’s like family reuniting again after many years apart. Diminishment is a reality in these times, certainly with regard to the church, and, here in St. Mungo’s, we are getting ready to play our part in the discernment required for the restructuring of the Archdiocese, which the archbishop has signalled now needs to be embraced with faith and courage going forward. Back at Bishopbriggs we are all well. This Friday is Father John’s birthday, the Feast of St. John Ogilvie, so he can choose the menu for our Friday night soiree.
As ever, protect yourself, your loved ones and others, and protect Christ in your lives.