‘I was more than surprised, I was shocked,’ says Bishop Tom Williams, summing up his response to the news of his nomination for Liverpool’s highest civic honour – the freedom of the city. For the 71-year-old, who grew up in St Sylvester’s parish in Vauxhall, it is reward for a lifelong commitment to the place that formed him. ‘I was brought up on Scotland Road and have never lived more than four miles as a priest from where I was born,’ he reflects. ‘I suppose I’ve been involved at the nitty-gritty end of the city since I’ve been ordained.’
For nitty gritty, read a long list of roles and responsibilities. He has served as parish priest at St Francis of Assisi in Garston; Sacred Heart on Hall Lane; Our Lady of Walsingham in Netherton; Our Lady Immaculate on St Domingo Road; and St Anthony’s on Scotland Road. There have been significant contributions elsewhere too: since his early chaplaincy of Bellerive Grammar School he has acted as a governor and chair of governors in various archdiocesan primary and secondary schools. During nine years bridging the late 70s and early 80s, meanwhile, he was chaplain at both the ‘old’ Liverpool Royal Infirmary and the ‘new’ Royal Liverpool Hospital – hence his delight at seeing Aintree, Broadgreen and Royal Liverpool Hospitals and the Liverpool University Dental Hospital similarly honoured with their nomination for admission to the Freedom Roll of Associations and Institutions.
For a man who worked on building sites during his summers as a student – he even, he reveals, ‘worked on the Jacey cinema in Liverpool when it became the Blessed Sacrament Shrine’ – it seems fitting that he later became a member of the Archdiocesan Building Projects Committee and, in 1997, chair of Project Jennifer, the scheme set up by parishioners and others in the Scotland Road area to work with the city council and businesses to regenerate the city’s north end. ‘Scotland Road has always been a conduit, a main artery in the city. I thought if that comes to life it will give a boost to everything else, and hopefully it will.’
Another noteworthy intervention was his work with John Hargreaves, the Matalan founder, and the city council to establish the NSPCC Liverpool Service Centre on the site of the former Great Homer Street market. And yet his efforts in taking groups of young Liverpudlians to Lourdes are ‘the one thing I think I’ve been most proud of’. As parish priest at St Anthony’s, he was a member of FLAME, an organisation which for four decades would fund trips to Lourdes for young people to work with children with disabilities. ‘We also had SALT – the St Anthony’s Lourdes Trust,’ he adds, ‘taking teenagers from local schools and getting them involved. It was giving them an opportunity to see things, a wider world.’
Alongside his own appreciation of a wider world is a deep understanding of his home city and its history. Indeed he contributed to the late Professor Frank Neal’s research into Liverpool’s sectarian past, having completed an Irish Studies course at Liverpool University. ‘My grandfather was Orange Lodge and my grandmother was Catholic,’ he says, remembering a very different city from today. ‘It’s always going to be a city of change and challenge. The thing is, it’s changing continually, it’s evolving. It is essentially a port. It’s very easy to be nostalgic but it has been a city of coming and going. It has a lot to be proud of.’ Including, we might add, a certain Bishop Tom Williams himself.