A priestly life

By Moira Billinge

I never did ask the title of the cartoon that changed the course of my father's life – and which, according to him, was "the most stupid film I've ever seen". It was likely I veered away from questioning him out of respect for the residual sensitivities I knew he harboured (though certainly not with any bitterness).

St Joseph's College in Upholland, Lancashire, was both a minor and a major seminary and the complete training for the priesthood lasted 13 years. My father started there aged 11 and he remained there, happily, until he was 22, having survived the cold of the huge underheated building and the frugal food.

The late Canon James B Mullan (my former parish priest) joined the seminary on the same day as my father, though he was five years older. He wrote in his memoirs, A Priestly Life, that "students accepted restrictions as a necessary part of seminary life". Moreover, he added: "They had in mind the challenge which the lifelong commitment of the priesthood entailed, and the personal discipline and the grace of God required to meet it."

Canon Mullan observed, however, that "some of those expelled from the college for minor, even trivial breaches of the rules, I have no doubt, deprived the Church of many worthy ministers."

Around the corner from the seminary was a small cinema. Although this was strictly out of bounds, one afternoon, a half-day holiday for the college, my father and four other students in his year decided to go to see the film. Unfortunately, the dean of studies happened to be there too, sitting towards the back. He spotted them all –except one, who had gone to the toilet first and, seeing the dean on his way in, had scarpered. Technically, this meant he hadn't seen the film: he was exonerated and was a wonderful priest for the many years up to his death.
 
On their return to the seminary, the rector summoned the other four miscreants to his office and expelled them immediately. Canon Mullan told me he would never forget, the next morning, seeing the empty seats in front of him in the chapel, previously allocated to the young men he had known for 11 years. Dad would have been ordained by Bishop Downey in 1945, alongside the Canon, had it not been for that "stupid cartoon". One of the boys expelled with my father had a brother in the college and another brother later killed in action serving as an army chaplain. I've often wondered how they made their way home afterwards because, in those days, very few people had either cars or phones. Did they all just turn up unannounced on their parents' doorsteps?

What I do know – from one of my father's cousins – was that he was so upset that he distanced himself for a long time from his wider family and friends until he joined the army as a commando. I was very proud to find out, a lifetime later, that at the end of the war as he was rounding up some Japanese prisoners, one of them said that my father was the only one who hadn't sworn at them.

He lived a life still deeply immersed in the Church but after developing dire health problems, died at the age of 58. His marriage to my mother (a convert to Catholicism) produced eight children and even later in his life, by when he was totally housebound, people used to flock to him with their problems, seeking advice. They never left unaided. Things may not have turned out as he had envisaged – as an ordained priest – but, nevertheless, his life was priesthood.