The name of Monsignor Austin Hunt, who has died aged 88, is synonymous with the Permanent Diaconate, since for the 40 years that he was director for the permanent diaconate he moulded the reality of diaconal ministry in the Archdiocese of Liverpool and firmly established it as an integral feature of many parishes.
Pope Paul VI issued norms for the restoration of the permanent diaconate in 1967, but by the mid-1970s there were only a handful of permanent deacons across England and Wales. Archbishop Derek Worlock was determined, upon his arrival in Liverpool in early 1976, that the permanent diaconate should be established in the Archdiocese. His choice as the first director for the permanent diaconate was Father Austin Hunt, at that time assistant to Canon Gerard Walsh at Sacred Heart, Wigan.
In February 1977 Father Austin joined the staff at the Metropolitan Cathedral and from that base began the process of co-ordinating the programme of formation for the first group of candidates. The ground-breaking nature of the task he faced was alluded to by Deacon Leo McNicholas when he said, ‘As one of the first group of five men to be prepared for ordination, in what was then a journey into almost unknown territory, I am grateful to Monsignor Austin for his meticulous attention to detail, particularly in regard to liturgy’. Undaunted, Father Austin visited many dioceses across Europe and the United States to learn from their experience in the selection, formation and deployment of deacons. With help from a dedicated team of tutors and helpers, including three future bishops (Vincent Nichols, John Rawsthorne and Vincent Malone), he developed a programme of formation within the Archdiocese.
Father Austin threw himself tirelessly into his work as director. He would visit diaconal candidates, their wives and families at home, and these visits would continue after ordination. He arranged retreats and social events for the diaconal family. Deacon John Traynor recalls that, ‘Despite his often stern manner, Austin was very personabe. He loved nothing better than the social evenings after retreats at Upholland, when we were all encouraged to give a spot as singers, raconteurs, musicians, story tellers, comedians. He looked forward to a few whiskies nattering at the bar.’
In recognition of his untiring dedication to the establishment of the permanent diaconate in the diocese he was appointed a Prelate of Honour by Pope John Paul II on 26 October 1992.
Over the years he acquired a great deal of experience that was shared enthusiastically with others. Thus, he served as a member of the International Diaconate Committee and addressed several international conferences about the diaconate. He also chaired the National Conference of Diaconate Directors and Deacon Delegates for England and Wales.
On 12 June 2016 he presented his final two candidates for ordination, meaning that in the 40 years of his directorship, he was responsible for the formation of more than 100 permanent deacons. At the reception which followed at the Cathedral, the Archbishop read out a personal message from Cardinal Vincent Nichols. ‘It gives me great pleasure to write this personal message of congratulations to you as you begin your well-earned retirement, or should I say, prepare to gracefully fade into the background! I thank God for all the gifts that he has given you and I thank you for your generosity in sharing those gifts so readily with others. You have done a remarkable job in directing the diaconate programme in the Archiocese of Liverpool over these past 40 years.’
Archbishop Malcolm echoed those sentiments and added that, ‘Behind every good man is a good woman,’ in recognition of the tireless support that Austin received from his sister Barbara in his role as director.
Austin William Hunt was born on 9 June 1932 at Appleton, Widnes, the son of Robert Hunt and Evelyn (née Farrington). Together with his older brother Joseph and younger sister Barbara, he grew up in St Bede’s parish, Widnes where he was baptised. He attended St Bede’s School from the age of four until the outbreak of war in September 1939, when the family moved firstly to Rhyl and then, in December 1939, to St Teresa’s parish, Birkdale. He attended St Teresa’s School and became an altar server.
Travelling back and forth to Widnes, and other war duties, took a toll on his father’s health, so the family returned to Widnes in 1942. In 1943 Austin had the choice of three secondary-school scholarships. St Edward’s College, Sandfield Park, Liverpool was chosen, as the family was already intent on returning to Southport, which they did in February 1945. The family spent time in various parishes before finally settling in St Teresa’s, Birkdale in 1949. Each of these parishes contributed to Austin’s religious formation, but it was Father Brian Foley at St Teresa’s who encouraged Austin’s growing awareness of things liturgical and musical.
In 1950 Austin began his training as a teacher at St Mary’s, Strawberry Hill, specialising in Latin and Spanish, and he qualified in 1952. He taught briefly at St Mary’s, Warrington and then at two schools in Southport – St Marie’s and Our Lady of Lourdes. In 1960 he began his training for the priesthood at the Beda College in Rome. Whilst at the college he became involved in looking after pilgrims, making good use of his skills in Italian and Spanish. He was ordained priest in Rome on 14 March 1964 at the Basilica of St Paul without the Walls.
Following ordination he served in several parishes as assistant priest: St Francis of Assisi, Garston from September 1964; St John, Kirkdale from December 1964; St William, Ince from September 1970; Sacred Heart, Wigan from November 1971; the Metropolitan Cathedral, Liverpool from February 1977; and St Thomas of Canterbury, Waterloo from September 1979. From 1976 he combined parochial duties with his role as director for the permanent diaconate.
He had two appointments as parish priest: St Thomas More, Aigburth from 1984 to 1992 and All Saints, Anfield from 1992 to 2008. He was a dedicated parish priest and served his parishioners well, though inevitably his work as director made great demands on his time. Equally parish life was often enriched by the celebrations connected with candidacy and the ministries received by aspiring candidates to the diaconate, as well as the many other varied gatherings of the diaconal family. He retired from parish ministry in 2008, though he continued in his diaconal role for a further eight years. After retirement Austin lived with his sister Barbara in Birkdale, enjoying a gentler pace of life, and appreciating the continued support of friends and colleagues.
In 2014 he celebrated the Golden Jubilee of his ordination to the priesthood. He said afterwards, ‘I really enjoyed every moment and I am very grateful to all those who helped to organise it and were able to join me on the day to give thanks for 50 years of priesthood’. Thus, with joyful enthusiasm and thanksgiving, and recognising the contribution of others, he described this personal milestone. He could probably have spoken in similar vein about the permanent diaconate and the ministry of deacons in the Archdiocese.
He died in the early hours of Tuesday 6 October. His Funeral Mass was celebrated by Archbishop Malcolm McMahon on Thursday 15 October at All Saints, Anfield, followed by burial at Ainsdale Cemetery.