The Right Reverend Edward Douglas
First Bishop of Motherwell 1948-1955
The Diocese of Motherwell, comprising the County of Lanark, was erected as a Suffragan See of the Archdiocese of Glasgow by the Apostolic Constitution ” Maxime Interest” of the 25th May, 1947, and the first Bishop was the Right Reverend Edward Douglas.
Early Years: Blairs College
He was born in Glasgow in 1901 in the parish of Holy Cross, and was educated there and at St. Aloysius’ College, Glasgow. In 1916 he began his studies for the priesthood at St. Mary’s College, Blairs, and in 1919, he joined the students who had returned from the war in St. Peter’s College, Bearsden. From there he was raised to the priesthood in St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Glasgow, by Archbishop Mackintosh on 1st May, 1924. For a few months he served at St. Margaret’s, Airdrie, St. Bridget’s, Baillieston, and St. Alphonsus’, Glasgow. He was destined, however, to spend the next eighteen years of his life as a member of the teaching staff at St. Mary’s College, Blairs, Aberdeen. He proved to be a devoted and gifted teacher and is remembered by many former students with gratitude and affection.
On his return to the Archdiocese the future Bishop was appointed to be parish priest of St. Joseph’s, Glenboig, and also to be a religious inspector of schools for the Archdiocese. A few years later, he was promoted to St. Anthony’s, Govan, and from there he was chosen to be the first Bishop of the newly formed Diocese of Motherwell. The church of Our Lady of Good Aid, Motherwell, was chosen to be the Cathedral and amid great splendour and rejoicing, he was consecrated on 21st April, 1948.
Governance of the Diocese of Motherwell
The duties of a Bishop are formidable at any time, but they are much more so if a new Diocese has to be formed. Bishop Douglas brought many gifts of mind and heart to the task which confronted him, and his humble kindly manner won the hearts of priests and people. With the help of Monsignor Gerard M. Rogers and several Diocesan Consultors, he set the wheels of administration in motion and soon the Diocese of Motherwell was moving smoothly and efficiently
Bishop Douglas was destined to rule the Diocese for the short period of six years, but during that time much was accomplished, Fourteen new parishes were brought into being and fourteen new churches were erected. To enrich the religious life of his Diocese, the Bishop brought the Capuchin Fathers to Uddingston, the White Fathers to Rutherglen, the Xaverian Fathers to Biggar, the Helpers of the Holy Souls to found a Retreat House for women and girls at Newmains, the Poor Clares to Blantyre, and the Notre Dame Sisters to Fernhill, Rutherglen.
The erection of a Cathedral Chapter of Canons was announced from Rome on 8•th November, 1952, and it gave great pleasure to the Bishop to be present in his Cathedral to see his Canons installed by the Apostolic Delegate to Great Britain, Archbishop William Godfrey, on 22nd September, 1953.
The responsibility of the Diocese with its rapid expansion proved to be too much for the health of Bishop Douglas, and it was with profound regret that priests and people learnt of his retiral on 15th February, 1954. He was translated to the Titular See of Botrys, left his residence at Uddingston, settled in the north of Scotland and eventually came to live at Fairlie, Ayrshire. During these thirteen years of retirement he suffered greatly and underwent a serious throat operation which would have daunted the bravest of men. He survived this ordeal, but never was himself again. He died at the Bon Secours Hospital, Glasgow, on 12th June, 1967.
The Bishop had expressed the wish to be buried from his home parish of Holy Cross, Glasgow, and, after Pontifical Requiem thor0t he was buried in the cemetery at New Stevenston, Lanarkshire, n the very heart of the Diocese which he had loved.
Bishop Douglas was gifted beyond the ordinary. He possessed a crystal clear mind, could impart knowledge with ease and was able to delegate with such confidence that when he sought the assistance of others, they were prepared to go to great lengths to fulfil his wishes. He will always be remembered as a man of great charm and as the first Bishop of the Diocese of Motherwell. May he rest in peace.
Most Reverend James Donald Scanlan, B.L., D.C.L., D.D.,
Second Bishop of Motherwell
The late Archbishop Scanlan was a great Glaswegian. Born (24th January, 1899) and reared in St. Mary’s parish in the east end of the city, where his father had a large medical practice, his boyhood gave him a great feeling for his native city. In Edwardian times, Glasgow reached the zenith of its prosperity and confidence. Trade prospered, shipbuilding and heavy engineering flourished, and its harbours bustled with great merchantmen trading with every part of the world. In 1912, having annexed the peripheral burghs of Partick and Govan, Glasgow attained a population of over one million and amply justified its title ” Second City of the Empire.” That same year, to show forth its greatness, the city staged a Grand Exhibition in Kelvingrove Park. Archbishop Scanlan in his later years often reminisced about that Exhibition. He had been given a season ticket and seemed to have used it to the full. When half a century later he returned as Archbishop of Glasgow, this youthful vision of the greatness of his native city sustained him, and, possibly hid from him the painful reality, the amorphous housing schemes, the decayed centre, the empty harbour.
He attended St. Mungo’s Academy and later St. Aloysius’ College. As a senior pupil at St. Aloysius’, he several times visited St. Peter’s College, Bearsden, to see a fellow parishioner several years his senior, James Black, later to be his fellow bishop in Paisley.
Military Service 1916-1918
By now the Great War was being fought. In 1916, the late Archbishop Maguire, having been a complete recluse for a decade, emerged from his seclusion to issue an incredible pastoral letter, christening the Great War as a crusade and proclaiming the moral duty of all Catholic men who were fit to enrol in the armed forces. Tragically, so many heeded his call. Possibly one of them was young James Scanlan who, when he had completed his studies at St. Aloysius’ College, proceeded to the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, from whence he graduated and received a commission in Glasgow’s own Highland Light Infantry. One can well imagine the pride of young Second Lieutenant Scanlan, newly commissioned, on leave at home, attending a parish social in full dress uniform complete with sword, to partner the Children of Mary in the Military Two-Step and the Lancers. His military service was mostly in Egypt and, as it turned out, was short enough, but there is no doubt that his military training and experience had a lasting effect on his character. There was his attitude towards duty, towards obedience, even, I would venture, towards his prayers. And there was his trait of straightening his shoulders before taking the limelight as though under command.
Glasgow University Life 1919-1923
After his return to civilian life, he entered Glasgow University to study law, and graduated B.L. in 1923. All his life he retained an affection for his Alma Mater, and when in 1967 the University conferred on him the Doctorate of Divinity, he highly appreciated the honour. Gilmorehill in those days was a compact institution where students and staff got to know each other much more than today. Also the custom in those days was that apprentices in legal firms personally delivered the correspondence to other legal firms in the city, a custom to which Archbishop Scanlan ascribed his wide knowledge of his contemporaries in the legal profession. University studies then were more leisurely than they have since become and the young Mr. Scanlan took full part in extra-curricular activities as well as being an enthusiastic member of the local tennis club. There were very, very few Catholics at Gilmorehill in those days, so his social life was much more ecumenical than the normal Catholic young man of the time. This must have contributed to his remarkable gift of being able to relax so completely and to mix so freely in non-clerical and non-Catholic company.
Priestly Ordination June 1929
Diocese of Westminster
However, the Church and not Law was to be his chosen vocation so he entered St. Edmund’s College, Ware, to become a priest in Westminster. After the civility of an officers’ mess and the freedom and social life at the university, the seminary discipline and the monotonous study must have been difficult, but at least two of his classmates must have shared his difficulty, Ronald Knox, later to be Catholic chaplain at Oxford and a national figure, and William Brown, later to be for many years Catholic chaplain at Glasgow University He was ordained in Westminster on 29th June, 1929.
His place of ordination was apt for he had a great love of the Cathedral as an edifice and an institution. The word “church “evokes different mental images in different people. In some the word conjures up a picture of the parish Sunday Mass, the wonderful mixing together of young and old, rich and poor. For others the first mental picture would be the darkened church on a Saturday evening and the shadowy figures filing into the confessional. For James Scanlan, I am sure the word evoked a picture of Solemn Pontifical Mass at the throne in Westminster. His later love of ceremonial was nurtured in that great cathedral where the rich ceremonial of the Church was so faithfully and so splendidly carried out.
Paris and Rome
After ordination he continued his studies at the Institut Catholique in Paris and at the Appolinare, Rome, where he graduated Doctor of Canon Law three years later. The Archbishop was very proud of his double degree in civil and ecclesiastical law. When later he was to recommend his Vicar General, the late Mgr. Gerard Rogers, through his friend Cardinal Heard, as a judge on the Sacred Rota, he would remind all his listeners that he too had the necessary qualifications had he not been made bishop.
His studies completed, he was appointed curate at the very fashionable St. James’, Spanish Place, under Bishop Butt, but soon his work on the Westminster marriage tribunal was to be so demanding that he was given a chaplaincy at a convent of French nuns at Hammersmith, and his life centred on the Cathedral and Archbishop’s House. During his stay in London he built up a most extensive acquaintance with upper-class Catholics from all over Britain and indeed throughout the whole Empire. All would come to visit the Cathedral when they visited London and those who were titled or held high office would seek audience with the Cardinal. In addition, many of the upper-class Catholics took their matrimonial difficulties to Westminster rather than their own diocese. Archbishop Scanlan had a vast collection of stories of his experiences at that time and retained many happy memories. The nuns kept their French virtues, first-class cooking and growing their own vegetables. During the war the convent was bombed twice, once by conventional bombs and once by a “doodle-bug,” and Mgr. Scanlan and his nuns had to be evacuated.
He was of great help to his fellow-countrymen, showing them the Cathedral and procuring them tickets for important functions. When St. Peter’s College had to be evacuated to Mill Hill, the staff recall his great hospitality to them at that time.
He had been made Vice Chancellor and Privy Chamberlain to Pius XI in 1937 and Chancellor in 1944 and in 1945, by Cardinal Spellman who was visiting the American forces here, he was invested in the strange office of Vicar Delegate for U.S. forces in Britain. In actual fact all it involved was signing matrimonial dispensations on behalf of the Cardinal who, by legal fiction, judged the merits of these exceptions to the general law of the Church. It is very much in character with his legal turn of mind that he highly prized the office and title.
Coadjutor to Bp Toner of Dunkeld 1946-1949
Bishop of Dunkeld 1949-1955
In 1946 he was appointed coadjutor to the aged Bishop Toner and titular of the see of Cyme. His name was on no episcopabile list of the Scottish bishops nor any terna submitted by Bishop Toner or his Chapter. He was a direct nominee of the Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Godfrey. However one might judge the means, the end was beneficial. Having a completely different education and experience, Bishop Scanlan could show his priests and fellow-bishops a different viewpoint.
He was consecrated by Archbishop Godfrey on 20th June, 1946. One may speculate on the thoughts of Bishop Toner, then in his 90th year and mentally alert, and on the comments of his priests on the occasion.
Bishop Scanlan, during the three years while he was yet coadjutor and lived in the Cathedral house, learned much that he valued in later life. It was obvious from his conversation that he gained a great insight into the lives of ordinary priests in a poorer district and an appreciation of their work. Dunkeld was very short of priests at the time, but through his connections in England he was able to overcome this to some extent by inviting into his diocese several religious orders.
Translated to the Diocese of Motherwell 1955-1965
The new Bishop of Motherwell with Canons Craigan, MacDonald and Duddy, together with Fr. Noel Carey (MC) and servers.
In 1955 he was translated to Motherwell. In many ways his years there were the golden years. Somehow he managed to generate a great feeling of confidence and optimism. His secretary once explained to me: “While Bishop Scanlan was here there was always a feeling that something great was just about to happen.” These were the times when Motherwell and Glasgow seemed to vie with each other in opening churches. Scarcely a week passed but there was a report in the Catholic press of a new parish started, a foundation stone laid or a new church opened.
But his great work of course was in establishing such good relations with the civic authorities. There were so many small towns in the diocese each with its provost, councillors and officials, and the smaller the town the more important they felt, but he was tireless in meeting them all.
Translated to Archdiocese of Glasgow 1965-1975
When Archbishop Campbell died in 1963 the clergy in general thought that Bishop Scanlan was too old to be appointed, but on his very first public engagement he soon showed them that he was a very sprightly 65-year-old. The occasion was the opening of Holy Cross parochial hall, and when the new Archbishop was called on to speak he left his chair, took a run and vaulted on to the stage, a thing few clerics present would have dared.
His enthronement was a ceremonial tour de force. Never had St. Andrew’s seen a more distinguished congregation. It says much for his work that an even more distinguished gathering attended his funeral.
His style and work were very much as it had been in Motherwell. A chapter of masters of ceremonies was appointed, and the canons groaned as they were continually press-ganged as assistant priests and deacons at pontifical ceremonies. The sound of his crozier was heard in our churches as he visited them, for he had the habit of banging it on the ground as he walked in procession. He always appeared in full ceremonial dress at any function, ecclesiastical or civic. He insisted on every iota of ceremonial being performed no matter how small the sanctuary and could become quite irascible if a ceremony did not proceed smoothly, and it did not help that his master of ceremonies, the late Father Vallely, was inclined to laugh when things got a bit mixed up.
It was a sad day for Archbishop Scanlan when the baroque Caereinoniale Episcoporum was swept aside and the cappa magna put in its case for the last time. Ecce sacerdos magnus was heard no more and he used to visibly wince as in church after church his entrance was heralded by Crimond.
Style of Governance
At the beginning the clergy were not sure how to take him. He seemed so much bigger than life, and there was his very archaic vocabulary, and what was probably most puzzling was his refusal either at table or in conversation afterwards, to allow anything remotely connected with “shop.” Instead he would regale the priests with his many stories, which grew more remarkable with each retelling. He was criticised, too, for adhering to the custom that priests should write for an appointment if they wished to see him. On the other hand, he kept such appointments faithfully and the priests found him a sympathetic listener.
It took the clergy a few years to get to know him, but on the occasion of his episcopal silver jubilee, when the clergy presented him with his portrait in oils, one remarked just how popular he had become with his priests.
Not all his work was within the Church. A few days after his installation, he sought to pay a courtesy call on the Lord Provost. Even the impassive commissionaires at the door of the City Chambers raised their eyebrows at this figure in purple ferraiuolo silver buckled shoes, black beaverskin hat, with the proper number of gold and green tassels, and even the green gloves as though visiting the Vatican. Yet he and his attire were to become very familiar in George Square and other public places in the city. It was a side of his life of which the clergy knew very little. Where he got the key I do not know, but in a short time he had opened all doors to the civic and social life of the city. I recall, for example, that he had not been Archbishop very long when he was invited as principal guest of the Trades House and, from hearsay, I know how completely he captivated them. He attended such functions and public meetings, not as leader of the Roman Catholic community, but as Archbishop of Glasgow, the religious leader of the city, and there is no doubt, certainly in his later years, he was accepted as such by those prominent in city affairs. The climax of this work and indeed the climax of his career came on Tuesday, 5th January, 1971. On the previous Saturday over 60 persons were crushed to death at Ibrox Stadium at the close of a football match between Rangers and Celtic, and all those killed were Rangers’ supporters.
Archbishop Scanlan did not hesitate. Immediately he arranged a Requiem Mass in St. Andrew’s and invited the leaders of the city along with the Rangers and Celtic football clubs. As Archbishop he always had complete confidence in his own judgement, but never more so than that weekend. His confidence was absolute that his gesture would not be misunderstood nor his invitation rebuffed. That Monday evening when the manager of Rangers football club appeared on television to announce that Rangers as a club would attend Requiem Mass in St. Andrew’s Cathedral, it was the greatest piece of religious news ever heard in Glasgow in my time, and one of which every citizen wholeheartedly approved. Overnight, Archbishop Scanlan became a household name in the city.
In the day-to-day administration of the diocese he only took a perfunctory interest. On his arrival as Archbishop he had to face one major problem. Bishop Ward had been Assistant Bishop to Archbishop Campbell and had now no legal status in the diocese, and though the new Archbishop immediately appointed him Vicar General, relations between them were correct but cool. I think both expected the Holy See to solve the problem by appointing Bishop Ward to a diocese, but when it became clear that this was not to be, Bishop Ward put his case before the Archbishop. He was surprised to find that behind the granite-like exterior the Archbishop was most sympathetic and offered him legal stability in the diocese as parish priest of Holy Cross. As time passed, both became quite friendly, but the differences of character and experience precluded any close friendship. Unless clerical changes involved the Cathedral or his personal secretary (as they frequently did), Bishop Ward’s judgement was accepted, though I am sure he yearned to have been able to call a second opinion. Few circulars signed by him were Motu Proprio, but if the substance was not his, the language most assuredly was. Drafts were torn to shreds linguistically. One day Mgr. Coyle scored 100 per cent by having every single word changed including the definite and indefinite articles, and even the very date. On one occasion I had several paragraphs completely deleted and was told that the priests were educated men and should not have that inflicted on them. I would have been even more abashed if that item, like so many others, had not been cribbed from an ad clerum of another diocese. He made it very obvious that he did not want bothered by the minutiae of administration, but when his decision was required, he gave it clearly and decisively. And when he closed the office door, he firmly closed his mind to diocesan business.
In his private life, he lived in the manner of an Edwardian gentleman. He was much influenced by his memories of the Archbishops of Westminster, particularly Cardinal Bourne, and Archbishop’s House, Westminster, was his model for Archbishop’s House; Park Circus. He led a very ordered life. Outside his oratory there was a card which read: “Holy Mass at 8 a.m.” If he returned home late, as he often did after confirmations, sometimes he would turn the obverse side of the card which read: “Holy Mass at 8.30 a.m.” It was the only concession he made. He would always appear in chapel long before Mass for his office and devotions, which he always seemed to attack with great gusto, face polished and beaming. His main recreation was walking, either in Kelvingrove Park or through the streets of the city. In these walks he never spurned the approach of the down-and-outs, and earned the name among them of being a good “tap.” His visits to the Wayside Club, especially at Christmas, were ex imino corde. He listened often to music. Indeed the brashness of his stereophonic equipment struck a discordant note in the Edwardian atmosphere of his drawing room. He was a devotee of the transistor radio and at any time seemed to be able to conjure up news bulletins from all over the world. For a man who lived such an orderly life, his study seemed so out of character—books and papers everywhere. He was very well read in Victorian history and biography and his library reflected it. Everything he did with great zest. Until his last year in office, he enjoyed robust health, marred only by an odd attack of gout, an affliction, I surmise, he considered most apposite for an archbishop.
An Audience with John XXIII: James Donald with Fr. Jim Foley & Fr. Matthew Kinsella
In our colleges he was the perfect guest. On arrival, having been shown his room and given his luggage, he would enquire the times of meals and a suitable time for Mass, then he would dismiss his host. He did not expect constant attendance, but would order his day and make his own entertainment, only joining with the staff for an hour or so before bedtime. Such visits Were welcomed by the priests in the colleges because he gave such good example to the students of faithfulness to his prayer and devotions, and it is the thing that some who were students in Rome during the Council remember him by.
The Vatican Council and its aftermath
Bishop Scanlan enthrones the Gospel during Vatican II
The Council for him, of course, was a wonderful opportunity of meeting eminent ecclesiastics from all over the world, and how well he used the opportunity. No invitation to a reception or similar function was refused, and how many people he met and remembered. It was not in his nature to say anything that could be construed as disloyalty to the Pontiff or his fellow bishops, but I am sure the sessions in St. Peter’s bored him to distraction.
It is difficult to relate Archbishop Scanlan’s life to the life of the Church in Glasgow during his years of office. During that decade the diocese suffered a dismal decline. There were many causes, but the most obvious is emigration from Glasgow. During those ten years Glasgow lost the equivalent of twenty good healthy parishes. Further, there is no doubt that the morale of the clergy declined in those ten years. Again, many causes could be adduced; aftermath of the Council, longer waits for parishes, the decay of so many city parishes, for nothing saps the morale more than saying Sunday Mass in a church virtually empty, but I think a major factor was diocesan finance. When he came to Glasgow the diocese had large reserves. When he resigned, without in any way attributing blame to him, the fact was that all these reserves had gone. I well remember how shattered my contemporaries were when the late Bishop Ward revealed to a Senate meeting that the diocese was in financial difficulties. Several spoke to me at the time and they were so sure that these difficulties could only be technical difficulties in realising long term investments. All their lives they had been so confident that they were in a rich diocese, they found it hard to accept the reality that now they were in a poor diocese. To what extent the Archbishop grasped these facts I do not know. Usually the stokers are aware the ship is sinking before the captain.
Years of retirement 1975-1977
The later years
Archbishop Scanlan retired on 23rd April, 1974, though he continued to live at Park Circus. To mark his retirement a group of prominent citizens organised a dinner in his honour, a gesture he would much appreciate, but his retirement was not a happy one. His robust constitution faded very quickly and all too soon he was a little old man, a frail shadow of his former self. His was the tragedy of the body failing without any corresponding diminution of the mental faculties, for his mind was razor sharp to the end. He was a bad patient and he was very bored. Suddenly we were all startled to hear that he was returning to London to be a chaplain to Tyburn Convent in Marylebone. It was so characteristic of him to do the unexpected. On the eve of his departure there was a farewell reception for the priests. One parish priest as he left reflected: “Ah, J. D. was a gentleman and he treated us as gentlemen.” I suppose that really sums it up. Over the years Archbishop Scanlan earned the respect of his clergy and true respect is mutual.
He had been only three weeks in London when he died on the feast of the Annunciation. He had been looking forward to that date for some time. It was the day of the enthronement of Archbishop Hume, and it would have been the fifth such ceremony he had attended in Westminster.
The body was brought back to Glasgow where it lay in state in the Cathedral for several days before burial. The constant stream of ordinary Catholics paying their last respects was as instructive as the impressive gathering at his funeral.
He is buried in Dalbeth, but if the Government succeed in their plan to rejuvenate the East End and thereby secure the future of St. Mary’s, Calton, it would be fitting to re-inter his remains in the burial vault of his native parish church with those of Bishop Scott, Bishop Murdoch, Father Peter Forbes. He was of the same heroic mould. May he rest in peace.
The Right Reverend, Francis Thomson, M.A., S.T.L.
Third Bishop of Motherwell 1965-1982
The Right Reverend Francis Alexander Thomson, Bishop of Motherwell from 1965 to 1982, died in the Bon Secours Hospital, Glasgow, on Sunday, 6th December, 1987. At the Funeral Mass in the Cathedral Church of Our Lady of Good Aid, Motherwell, on Friday, 11th December following, prior to the interment in the Cathedral Precincts, the following homily was delivered by the Right Reverend Joseph Devine, Bishop of Motherwell.
It was fairly late in the day that I entered with some significance into the life of Bishop Thomson. For that reason alone, though there are others as well, I am very conscious that there are many here today who would more fittingly fulfil the role of speaking to his memory now.
His Eminence springs readily to mind, the Cardinal in whose former Archdiocese the Bishop was a priest for eighteen years, and for whom the Cardinal was his Ordinary for fourteen of them. From Lanarkshire there are Archbishop Winning for whom Bishop Thomson was the Ordinary for six years, or Bishop Taylor for seventeen years. Others too, from the Bishops’ Conference like Bishop McGill or Bishop MacPherson who worked with him and knew him well for a quarter of a century. And then there are the priests, men like John Rogerson, a friend for almost half a century, as well as men from here who go back to days in Blairs with him.
Conscious of all of that and still more besides, I offer what I can, in appreciation, admiration and affection, for those were the ways in which I came to know him. Each of us will remember him best according to circumstances and opportunity, for he was a shy man, not easily given to smalltalk and even less readily given to that kind of big talk which seeks, to make an impression for impression’s sake. Francis Thomson was a big man physically but also in the important senses of the word. He also had a big heart, and a great love for the Church, for the priesthood and for people. But he never wore his heart on his sleeve nor sought to win popularity by subterfuge. Those were utterly foreign to his personality. Instead, his was the kind of sincerity of approach and direct straightforwardness which could be mistaken for aloofness, even the kind of cool detachment which we associate with the intellectual. He assuredly had a powerful intelligence, a sharpness of mind which went directly to the heart of issues more readily than to the vagaries of human nature. His, then, was a remarkable simplicity of approach in regard to issues which he saw with a ready ease. But he knew that people, especially priests, were not issues. Hence his diffidence in human relationships. That is why he found the worst day of his working year to be the day when he needed to change the pastoral assignments of some of the priests. He dreaded that day, agonised over it in ways which were never obvious to the clergy. It was his greatest cross as a bishop, made still more difficult by the fact that he suspected that he never managed to convey to the priests that he was acting out of an equal respect for their need as well as the pastoral needs of the diocese as a whole. Almost in proof of what I am saying, I suspect that I have expressed that agony for him more clearly than he would if he were here today. But I know it to be true since it was the subject which arose most frequently between us in quiet conversations over the past four years.
That is why I have dwelt upon it today. I do so in the form of an apologia to the priests of this diocese in the meaning of Cardinal Newman’s apologia pro vita sua—but in the name of Francis Thomson.
He was born in Edinburgh on 15th May, 1917. After his early education in the city, on the death of his parents, he was entrusted to the care of two aunts who sent him to George Watson’s from where he went to Edinburgh University, graduating M.A. in 1938. At that point the Lord’s call was already clear to him but Archbishop McDonald required of him a period of further studies in Cambridge from which he graduated B.A. in 1940. He proceeded to St. Edmund’s College, Ware, being ordained for the Archdiocese of St. Andrews and Edinburgh in the city on 15th June, 1946.
His first assignment was in St. Patrick’s Kilsyth from 1946-48. As a primary schoolboy in Kirkintilloch at that time, and those who know the geography will recognise that the two towns are not far apart, I recall hearing of the fine new curate, big Father Thomson, from married relatives in Kilsyth. In 1948 he was sent to Rome for further studies in Theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas from which he returned in the following year with the degree S.T.L. magna cum laude. Then it was to Fife, where else but St. Andrews, for the next three years. After a short stay in St. Cuthbert’s in the city for about a year, a decisive appointment was made. The Cardinal opened a. new seminary at Drygrange in 1953 and Francis Thomson was appointed as a founder member of staff, first to teach philosophy to the new student community before continuing with them into the theological disciplines..
There he remained for seven years. In 1960 the rectorship of Blairs became vacant and the choice of the bishops fell on him. He was a great rector, though only there for four years. That was the verdict of the staff of the time, especially one who is with us today, Bishop Renfrew. By a great rector I mean a great educationalist in the setting of the early sixties. Education was his metier and teaching was in his blood. If I call him a great rector, it is particularly, but not exclusively, in the context of the rector/headmaster concept. He instilled, he inspired, he shone in all of the requirements of that role. It was a role which appealed to his intellectual gifts and to his nature as well. He was thoroughly at ease in that environment and rose with vision and determination to the challenge.
Bishop of Motherwell 1965-1982
All too soon for him, I suspect, the needs of the Church in Scotland were to require of him a rather different service. On 8th December, 1964, the anniversary of the dedication of the Cathedral here, he was appointed to the Diocese of Motherwell, being consecrated here by Archbishop Scanlan on 24th February, 1965. Many of you will recall that day. Some will be equally vivid in their memory of the reception in.the Civic Centre in Hamilton, at which, in his speech, the then Provost of Hamilton, who did not know Bishop Thomson, but knew His Grace of Glasgow, referring to him consistently as Archbishop Scanlan.
The diocese was soon to get to know their new bishop. In his first six months here he confirmed over 6,000 children before leaving for the final session of the Second Vatican Council. Now only His Eminence, Bishop Hart and Bishop McGill remain with that memory. Perhaps, predictably, at the first Synod which followed the Council in 1968, Bishop Thomson was the representative of the Scottish Bishops. At the Synod which concluded only six weeks ago I was touched by the fact that some of the oldest of those attending asked me about the very tall bishop from Scotland whom they had remembered from twenty years ago.
In the wake of Vatican II
In the wake of the Council Bishop Thomson initiated a whole series of consultations through temporary Commissions, on some of the major themes of Vatican Il-the Sacraments of Initiation, Catechetics, Liturgy and Youth. The outcome was less fruitful than he had anticipated—as was to be the case elsewhere. Perhaps it was a case of too much too soon. Whatever the reason, there was one area in which he made an abiding commitment—that of the teaching of religious education in schools. Motherwell was one of the first to establish an R.E. Centre, in the very house where I now live. The work of Father Tom McGurk and Father Paddy Purnell was of a high order and continues to deserve our thanks.
The seventies everywhere was a difficult decade for the Church. Bishop Thomson saw it through better than most. I refer here to the painful loss of priests. He was saddened by that but bore the loss without recrimination. There were, of course, compensating joys. He opened 13 new parishes and provided replacement churches in six others—the bulk of that work being in the seventies.
Throughout much of that same decade he was the founder President of the Catholic Education Commission. Having served for a time on that same commission under Archbishop Winning at a later date, I know its value to us. •It is one of the most powerful agencies we have in the defence and development, of the separate Catholic school system. I really doubt if that system would be as intact as it is today had we not had the protection of the Commission.
The Visit of Pope John Paul II
With the dawn of the eighties the rumour of a Papal Visit was in the air. This was confirmed in early ’81 for the June of the following year. It was to be an immense undertaking. Someone had to be at the centre of all the planning. Really without hesitation the Episcopal Conference looked to Bishop Thomson. He put up a brave fight against his selection for that task, pleading that he was ageing fast and that it was taking all his energies to look after a large diocese like Motherwell. It was a very great commitment. Some of us were involved in one way or another and were privileged to be so. Bishop Thomson was involved with everything, endless meetings of the core group which coordinated the work of the fourteen sub-groups. If he were with us today he would point us away from himself to Father Dan Hart and the late John Tully. I am no less sure thay would direct us back to Bishop Thomson. It really was a masterpiece of detailed planning, execution and then disengagement. He found the way to free the sub-groups to get the best out of them. All of his strengths came to the fore in that enterprise. Should a future Pope, or, dare I even say it, the present Holy Father, decide to visit Scotland again, then Bishop Thomson’s blueprint is there to provide the guidelines. That is not the only way which in death he continues to live on. But more of that in a moment.
Just before the papal visit was announced Bishop Thomson moved to Motherwell, assigning the Bothwell House to the work of the Innocents. Shortly thereafter his housekeeper, Miss Nan Mothersole from Kirkintilloch, suffered a further setback to her health and she retired to Bothwell. I thank her for all her devoted service_ to him as I do Mrs. Mullen who succeeded her on a daily basis.
Resignation: Parish Priest of St Isidore’s Biggar 1983
The Papal Visit took a great deal out of Bishop Thomson. Even as the Holy Father left our shores he requested that his resignation be accepted. I recall how stunned we were to hear of this at the autumn meeting of the Conference. His explanation was very typical of the man. He simply said, “physically I am slowing down, mentally I am unsure that I have the drive which the diocese now needs.” His resignation was accepted on 14th December on which same date he was made Apostolic Administrator until a successor would be appointed.
On 13th May, 1983, that took place. I will never forget the simple warmth of his welcome. He was rejuvenated by the lifting of the burden of office. He made a great bonfire of all personal correspondence with the clergy as well as all out of date diocesan files.. It was the first thing he told me. Literally he burned the past, not for his sake but for mine. I recall asking him what he wanted to do. He replied that he wanted to offer his services as a priest of the diocese for another five years. After that I would put him out to grass. You will recognise the authentic voice of Francis Thomson in that statement. When I asked him where he would like to go he said, “Oh, that’s not a problem; the clergy have made the appointment for you. Apparently, I’m going to Biggar”. “I’d love it”. And love it he did. And love him they did. I hope that I dishonour him in no way by saying that I think among the happiest of his 70 years were the last four in Biggar and Forth. The rural setting, the pastoral immediacy, the contact with a real parochial community again, gave him such pleasure. They called him Father there and he responded with a will and a way. He found it easy to adapt to the simplicity of lifestyle of a country parish priest, for Francis Thomson was an utterly simple man at heart. He looked after himself in the main and rejoiced in everything, except occasionally the task of cooking rather than washing up.
He continued to play a full part in the Episcopal Conference and was a great support to me with advice in our regular phone calls and more occasional quiet meals together. Nor will the clergy here be surprised to learn that his was always the first parochial return in the annual financial accounts.
The onset of illness
Then came 1987. In late ’86 he began to allude to a growing discomfort in his leg. Initial investigations showed nothing other than circulation problems, probably due to age. Even before that he had already written to the Chancellor here, in a most amusing letter, that the high point of 1987 in the diocese of Motherwell would be 15th May, the feast of St. Isidore the Farmer, patron of Biggar, being also the Golden Jubilee of the parish.
Characteristically he concealed the fact that on the same day he would be celebrating his 70th birthday. What an evening in Biggar it was, made still more enjoyable by the presence of the Cardinal. The bishop was in terrific form despite the fact that he was due for surgery, the excision of a tumour in the lower bowel, within a few days. Completely in character he drove himself to the Law Hospital within the week. The operation, in the context of his general condition at the time, was very successful although it was to leave him with a colostomy until the end. Throughout late July and all of August he recuperated at the Cathedral before returning to Biggar in early September—more or less four years to the time when he had first arrived.
By mid-September he was re-admitted to Law Hospital where major problems in his peripheral vascular system were detected. He was then transferred to the Royal Infirmary in Glasgow and a series of amputations took place. The rest, I think, you know. The amputations were necessary to sustain his life, as indeed they did. However, the original operation in May, while successful, could not protect him against secondary cancer. With the developments of this, already advancing fast, he was transferred to Bon Secours on Sunday, 29th November. There he died, exactly one week later, 6th December, the feast of St. Nicholas.
I do not know how you capture a life of 70 years in 20 minutes—except superficially. So, finally, I want to concentrate, albeit briefly, on something more substantial. The life and death of each has an effect upon the other, so writes St. Paul. The life of Francis Thomson affected many people. As a priest it touched with significance people in parishes and students in seminaries. As a bishop it affected profoundly the Church locally and nationally. Francis Thomson was proud of this land, proud of its capital city, proud of Lanarkshire, proud of Biggar and Forth. He was interested neither in possessions nor in fame. But he was interested in that kind of service of Christ which calls for a total commitment of discipleship. In the end the Lord took him literally, testing him like gold in the furnace under the refiner’s eye. For the Lord demanded everything of him, like the grain of wheat which must die if new life is to be enjoyed in the hundredfold measure.
In that process the Lord took his privacy, from this most private of men, in the way that the Bishop had to become dependent increasingly on others, even for the smallest of things. The Lord took his intellect, for in the end he was reduced to using a word or a phrase for a sentence. And the Lord even demanded of him his height as well.
Bishop Thomson never crouched. Did you ever notice that? He once told me that he often saw how exceptionally tall people sometimes tried to make themselves look smaller by developing a kind of stoop. Francis Thomson stood tall. In that, as in everything else, he was as straight as a die.
Today, we bid farewell to him in mortal terms. For at least a month, in a variety of ways to those who called to see him, he said his goodbyes. In our last meeting, on the day before he died, it was clear that death was nigh. I invited him to recognise this in saying to him that though he felt very weak he was all right where it mattered. He nodded and said, “in every important way”. There was nothing else to say. What do you need to say after that?
I am delighted that all the members of the Episcopal Conference are here. No less are we delighted that such a great number of priests have joined us from this diocese and elsewhere, joined by many community representatives from other sister churches, from diocesan agencies and organisations, as well as from the civic life of the region of Strathclyde and the local districts in Lanarkshire. That will be a happy memory, on this sad day, for his few remaining relatives, to whom I offer, in the name of all, our sincerest condolences.
As Bishop here in Motherwell for over eighteen years his motto was “Sperans in Domino”. In that surest of hopes do we now commend him to the Lord. Eternal rest grant unto him, 0 Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace.