Remembering Liverpool priest who perished after D-Day

By Simon Hart

The ripples reached the Archdiocese of Liverpool when the citizens of the Belgian town of Geel commemorated the 75th anniversary of their liberation from Nazi occupation on Saturday 21 September. After all, one of the Second World War dead remembered was Father Gerard Barry, a Liverpool priest who had taken part in the Normandy landings three months earlier.

Assigned to the 8th Battalion, the Royal Scots shortly after arriving in France, Fr Gerard was one of over 200 casualties suffered by the regiment during the Battle of the Geel Bridgehead in September 1944. He was only 33 and the Liverpool Echo’s report on his death quoted a letter sent to Archbishop Richard Downey by Monsignor Coghlan, Roman Catholic vicar general to the forces, in which he said: ‘You have lost a great priest. I lost a great chaplain.’

Fr Gerard entered the world with his twin brother, Francis, on 29 March 1911 and grew up in St Michael’s parish in Liverpool. He studied at Upholland Seminary, where he directed dramatic productions and edited the in-house magazine. Following his ordination in May 1937, he served as curate at St Mary Magdalen, Penwortham, before moving on to All Souls in the Vauxhall district of Liverpool and then to St Aloysius, Roby.

During his brief time at All Souls, which was later bombed and demolished, he had the role of offering guidance to children being evacuated. At St Aloysius, meanwhile, he acted as scoutmaster of the local Boy Scouts troop and was a pioneer of the Young Christian Workers’ Association in the area.

His humour and good nature with young people is remembered by Peter Tennyson, a former St Edward’s College pupil, who as a boy met Fr Gerard at a wedding reception in 1943 and recalls ‘how his jokes made us laugh’. By that stage, having played his part in the evacuation programme, he had enlisted as an army chaplain. His six brothers all served in the forces and in the wake of the D-Day landings, there was a brief reunion with his twin, Francis, during the Royal Scots’ push across France. It would be their last encounter.

On 14 September 1944, he was killed in a mortar attack on the advanced aid post he was in. Prior to his death, a local priest, Fr Jan Van Alphen, had seen Fr Gerard administer the last rites to a dying soldier and invited him to his presbytery for a meal. It was Fr Van Alphen who arranged the Liverpool priest’s burial in the graveyard of the local parish, St Dymphna (his remains were later reinterred in the military cemetery), and who wrote a letter of condolence to his mother, Bridget.

Back at St Aloysius parish church, Fr Gerard’s younger brother Thomas – later a monsignor and secretary to two archbishops – said a Requiem Mass with full military honours for his sibling. If a plaque in his honour was eventually lost from St Aloysius during renovation work, the white headstone bearing his name still stands in Geel Military Cemetery – and his sacrifice has not been forgotten. Among the relatives of British and Canadian soldiers at the commemorative ceremony was his youngest niece, Helen Barry, together with four of her cousins, one of whom had travelled from Canada.

Others keep his memory alive too. Last year St Mary Magdalen Catholic Primary School in Penwortham had a commemorative statute dedicated to their parish’s one-time curate. This year, it will form part of the school’s Remembrance Day display. As head teacher Diane Gallagher said: 'We will always remind them of our own St Mary Magdalen’s hero.'

• With thanks to Helen Barry, Gil Geerings and Peter Tennyson for their research.