With the arrival of another Saturday I am delighted to be able to send you the latest Newsletter and the Readings for Holy Mass this weekend. They come with the hope that you are keeping well and safe during these days. It was good to see a number of familiar faces visiting our churches during the times they were opened for private prayer during the last week, and I trust that parishioners will find in these times renewed strength and comfort as we each walk an unfamiliar pathway through life.
Recent events across the Pond, as the Atlantic is often fondly called, played out against the backdrop of The White House, brought to mind a photograph I have of one of our diocesan clergy standing on the steps of 1600, Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington D.C., Fr. Richard Barry-Doyle. He was a relative of the Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan-Doyle and Commodore John Barry, the credited Father of the American Navy, in whose honour he added the name Barry to his original surname. Unlike the prevailing descriptive words of celebrity or personality, he is best described as a character. It is a phrase that we hear less of than we once did, but one that conveys fondness, affection, and often, more than just a hint of admiration too. There is also something reassuringly non-judgmental in its descriptive use. Characters just are ! Perhaps one reason behind the absence of the phrase is the reality that even humankind has been touched by mass production which has overtaken the time and care poured into the handcrafted.
Despite clamorous calls seeking recognition for diversity and difference within society, somehow we still seek to label others, maybe because it offers reason or a defined root-cause for why someone is as they are. Yet in the supermarket aisle we are encouraged to cherish (not to mention purchase !) the wonky vegetable. Reflecting on some of the characters that I’ve been privileged to know, a common factor seems to have been their openness to allowing life experience to colour, texture and shape them. Somehow they learnt the lesson of real life that the harsh cold metal of a chisel being hit with the blows of a mallet or hammer is as necessary as the fine detailing tool and gentle blowing breath of the artist removing the finest dust particles in order to produce a masterpiece. Whilst eager to embrace the misshapen vegetable in aspiring to do our bit to avoid food waste, we often approach with great caution and suspicion – if we do at all – the quirky fellow pilgrim who, in the process of climbing out of the proverbial box, has managed to lose their descriptive label !
Lockdown has seen an upsurge in reading, and even demand for the book I produced on the clergy of the Diocese of Leeds last year has seen a some growth in sales. Stood on a doorstep recently, making a socially distanced delivery, the purchaser was regaling tales of some of the clergy they had known in childhood. The names of these men were all familiar to me through my research, but I invited them to look amongst the names they had not heard of to discover some real characters, and diverse life-stories. Amongst the ranks of these is Fr. Barry-Doyle (1871 – 1933). The photograph of him on the steps of the home of the President of the United States depicts not a fee-paying tourist but an invited guest of President Calvin Coolidge. Ordained for the Diocese of Waterford in 1894 (at an age when he would not have been allowed Canonically to hear the confessions of female penitents !), his academic interests were rewarded when he was elected to Ireland’s premier cultural institution the Royal Irish Academy. However, within a decade later, officially, he tendered his resignation from the Curacy that he held. Another account says that to avoid being declared bankrupt by a judge he did a midnight flit from the Presbytery decamping to England in only the clothes he stood up in !
Taken in by the Diocese of Nottingham, he later arrived in Leeds to serve initially at Halifax and then Brighouse where, as the Priest in Charge, he covered the absence of Fr. Patrick McMenamin who was serving as a Chaplain to the Forces. In Halifax during a St. Patrick’s Day celebration Fr. Barry-Doyle took to the stage offering a series of recitations of works by Irish authors to the wide acclaim of the audience, and in Brighouse his charismatic preaching on topical issues brought such numbers to St. Joseph’s Church on Sunday evenings that people had to be turned away. From Yorkshire he went to the Front, serving as Chaplain to soldiers in France, Palestine and other theatres of war. After the signing of the Armistice he returned to one of these, Constantinople as it still was, in Turkey where Allied Forces from Britain, Italy, Greece, America and Japan occupied the centre of the Ottoman Empire. It was a divided city and Fr. Barry-Doyle hovered between its opulence, which for him included being feted at a reception given in his honour at the lavish Pera Palace Hotel and being the first British Prelate (he was a Monsignor) to be granted an audience with the last Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed VI, and a tremendous poverty witnessed by him in many forms of deprivation. His charisma and dynamism became a tool for opening the eyes of the privileged to the desperate plight and needs of those living in poverty and squalor. He did so initially by opening an orphanage in Athens and subsequently undertaking speaking tours to raise funds for it. In 1924 he founded the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, which still exists, to assist where poverty, war and displacement shatter innocent lives. Travelling to America he challenged those who attended his series of country-wide lectures to raise a million dollars for the charity. His flamboyant personal appearance, wearing military dress, dripping in decorations given him by the British, French, Greek and Russian Governments, and dramatic manner of presentation brought him limited success as the American Catholic clergy became suspicious of his motives. Unfounded rumours alleging a luxurious lifestyle abounded, perhaps fueled by the green eyes of envy. Despite this he was welcomed to the home of the First Family of the land, no doubt managing to secure a donation for his beloved Association from a President who was known for his frugality ! Although handing the Association’s reins over to the Holy See and the American bishops, he still continued to fund-raise, travelling to Australia to promote its work.
Returning to England without personal funds, and exhausted, it was recommended that he travel to the south of France for a diet of pure air and sunshine (I doubt this is currently available on an NHS prescription !). In renewed health he took up an appointment in Leicester where he set about providing the parish with a new school. He addressed this with his usual enthusiasm organising an Empire Fair, at which goods from across the world were made available for sale. His organisational skills and powers of persuasion unsurprisingly won over the assistance of the local titled Catholic gentry, offering his cause enhanced kudos. Sadly he did not see the completion of his educational dream for Catholic children in Leicester as he died suddenly in 1933 at the age of sixty-one. A character to the last, a newspaper report of his demise mentioned that feeling unwell on the day of his death he asked his valet to call for the ministrations of a neighbouring priest ! His personal estate included a small treasure trove of religious jewellery, amongst which was a bejewelled ring, presented to him by British soldiers. This, he stipulated, should be presented to a priest about to become a bishop.
At the centre of our Scripture Readings this weekend is the Parable of the Talents. It speaks of gifts being given on trust for useful purpose. The recipients respond to the talents entrusted to them in differing ways through their unique perception of the One who has given them responsibility. The terms celebrity or personality are not applicable to those spoken of in the Parable, instead we are presented with part-players each fulfilling their unique role in a story. Each is a characters and a character simply is. The finest and best of characters take what they have been given and gifted with and get on with the task in hand. Without definition their chameleon-like skills of adaptation allow them to identify with their surroundings, and whilst not always blending in they become a feature, beloved and cherished for being what many dare not to be: themselves.
Fr. Richard Barry-Doyle was certainly his own man, comfortable in his own skin for which at times he also carried the cross of suffering. In this month of remembrance we commend the soul of one of God’s own characters to the safe-keeping of the Greatest Giver of all.
I continue to carry you in prayerful remembrance, together with your loved ones – living and handed back to God – and in affection.
As ever, Fr. Nicholas