Monsignor Provost Peter Cookson, former President of Ushaw College, Parish Priest of St Mary’s, Chorley and Dean of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Liverpool, died on the morning of Friday 8 November. He was 80 years of age and in the 57th year of his priesthood.
Peter Michael Cookson was born in Liverpool on 16 July 1939, the son of Robert and Nellie Cookson. He received his early education at St Edward’s College, Liverpool, and St Cuthbert’s College, Ushaw. He remained at Ushaw for his studies in philosophy, but then transferred to the Venerable English College in Rome for his theological studies. He was ordained priest in Rome on 27 October 1963.
The first five years of his priestly ministry were taken up with the completion of further studies to equip him for the teaching role that he was to assume at Ushaw. Studying at both the Gregorian University and the Biblical Commission in Rome he pursued the studies that would lead to a doctorate in dogmatic theology and a licentiate in Sacred Scripture. He had hoped to spend some time in Jerusalem as part of his course, but the political situation in 1967 meant that he chose instead to spend time at the University of Würzburg in Germany and with it the opportunity to study under Professor Rudolf Schnackenburg.
At the end of January 1969, he was able to write to Archbishop Beck, ‘I am very happy to have all these examinations behind me, and am now back at Ushaw, busily teaching Old Testament theology and preparing two New Testament courses for the second semester.’
He continued happily in his teaching role until May 1977 when he was appointed President of the College, assuming the challenging leadership role soon after the amalgamation of the senior seminary with that of Upholland. The following December he was named as a Prelate of Honour by Pope Paul VI. He was only able to continue teaching Scripture for one more year before the demands of his role as President took him away from the joy of enlightening his students from his great knowledge of the Scriptures. He was famous for turning his hand to whatever was needed, so that he could just as easily be seen atop a tractor as in the chapel or in the precincts of the college.
When his term of office as President came to an end in 1984, he took a sabbatical before succeeding Monsignor Charles Jackson as parish priest of St Mary’s, Chorley and dean of Chorley. During his four years at St Mary’s (1985–89) he oversaw major building work on the site adjoining the church. A new presbytery, some sheltered accommodation and a new parish club were all constructed during his tenure. He is remembered with great affection and respect by the people of Chorley.
In August 1989 he was asked to succeed Bishop Vincent Malone as Administrator of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool - a job title that later became Dean. He was named as a Canon of the Metropolitan Cathedral Chapter in November 1989 and became Provost in 2000.
As Ushaw had been the dominant feature of his early life, so the Cathedral was to become so in his more mature years. In an interview with the ‘Catholic Pictorial’ he once said that, ‘You’re a parish priest administering the Sacraments day by day and taking part in the public working of the Cathedral, but at the same time you’re dealing with the multiple practical problems which a building of this size brings up.’
This meant that he was at the helm during a major programme of repairs. As he observed, ‘Virtually every external surface needed to by replaced or restored.’ Repairs and maintenance were not just things he left to others to do. He was frequently spotted wearing his boiler suit and attending to one problem or another. One of his assistant priests discovered him one New Year’s Day up a ladder in the crypt dealing with some electrical problem, having been there since about 7am.
There were a number of highlights of his time as Dean. In October 2003 the grand entrance and steps were opened, together with a new visitors centre and the piazza restaurant. The completion of the steps brought to fruition Gibberd’s original concept of a processional entrance looking on to Hope Street. Another highlight was the inauguration of the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland in 1990, when both Cardinal Basil Hume and Archbishop Robert Runcie signed a covenant to work together for Christian Unity.
Peter fostered good relations between the Metropolitan Cathedral and its Anglican counterpart. At the time of Peter’s resignation as Dean in 2006, Rupert Hoare, the former Dean of Liverpool, described him as ‘a tremendous friend of Liverpool Cathedral and a first-class colleague.’ He added, ‘Peter has participated very loyally and with conviction in many ecumenical services in our Cathedral, often coming straight on from something at the Metropolitan, and, it has to be said, arriving rather at the last minute but always there and completely dependable.’
They worked jointly on enterprises such as the Conference of Northern European Cathedrals. Dean Hoare further remarked that, ‘Peter has a readiness to do whatever is needed: no standing on his dignity. At a Merseyside Council of Faiths walk of faith one year we were short of two people to carry the Buddhist banner, so Peter came to the rescue and took one side of it.’
After recovering from major surgery in 2006, Peter continued to live at Cathedral House, blessing the Cathedral and its community with his quiet and prayerful presence, and continuing to exercise his priestly ministry insofar as his health permitted.
Monsignor Cookson’s body will be received into the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King at 5pm on Sunday 24 November.
His Requiem Mass will be celebrated by Archbishop Malcolm McMahon OP at the Metropolitan Cathedral at 11am on Monday 25 November. Burial will follow at Lytham St Annes.