That’s Someone I Will Never Forget

by on March 6th, 2015
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It was said of Bernard George that a case of unrequited love had been the catalyst in his decision to choose the celibate life. He was in his early 30’s when he entered the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church. For a number of years prior to that, he had worked at the London head-office of a major assurance company.

Born in South Africa of an Irish mother from county Wexford, and a father with the very English surname of George, the family moved to Ireland while he was quite young. Some years later, in the early 20’s, and like so many young people of his generation, Bernard relocated to London in order to seek his fortune,where he eventually embraced the church. (The George family was closely related to the movie-actor Basil Rathbone, who played Sherlock Holmes during the 30’s and 40’s.)

From the late 40’s onwards, during the golden summers of my youth, I recall his returning every year for a short holiday. As both his parents were deceased by this time, he always stayed in my paternal grandmother’s house, where he was much fussed-over. (My late granddad had met the George family in South Africa, while serving there with the British army, during the tumultuous years of the Boer War.)

Canon Bernard George was a jolly portly man, the possessor of a mellifluous speaking-voice, and appeared to be well-liked by everyone in our little seaside village. This was due mainly to his engaging personality, and probably also owed something to the fact that his Sunday mass ran to less than half the time of our own priest,or indeed, any of the other visiting clergy. His was always well-attended, as locals and visitors rushed to fulfill their weekly obligations.

The Canon did possess a liking for malt whisky, although I never saw him overindulge, and often told the wittiest of jokes while relaxing with an after-dinner glass of Irish. He possessed a marvellous sense of humor, and one of his most endearing habits, which I still fondly recall, was the solemn reverence with which he would raise his hat while driving or walking past a public house!

Sometime in the early 40’s the Canon founded a charitable organization, “The Crusade of Rescue”, which sought to take care of the poor and the destitute. He took a particular interest, also, in helping the numerous young Irish women arriving in London during those years, many of them pregnant, and with no clear idea of what to do, except to escape the hypocrisy and degradation prevalent back home.

Women in that condition were usually shunned back in Ireland, and often with the collusion of fearful or compliant parents, and a totally dominant church, were placed in one of a network of religious houses. There they worked hard for their keep, often in a laundry named after a biblical prostitute, thus leaving no-one in any doubt as to their social status! (One might well ask, why, after gaining independence from Britain it was decided to hand it over to the church of Rome?)

Those women that managed to make it to London, were looked after by the Canon and his co-workers, together with other charitable organizations. While he always maintained the belief that his church was the one true church, in later years, and during the odd unguared moment, he would occasionally speak bitterly of some of its Irish representatives! This was a legacy dating back to the general response he had received to numerous letters, written by himself to any number of parish-priests around the country, over a period of more than ten years.

Notwithstanding the sensitive handling of each case by the Canon, the vast majority of his letters remained unanswered. Almost all the replys he did receive were invariably along the same lines; Whatever calamity had befallen the unfortunate young woman in question, had certainly not occured in “Holy Catholic Ireland”, but must have taken place in “Pagan England”. There was but one exception to that general rule.

Following the Canons usual meticulous approach to one particular parish-priest, a married farmer somewhere in the Irish midlands, forwarded a cheque for the amount of one thousand pounds, an astronomical sum in the 1950’s! The happy ending for that young woman, was that she soon met, fell in love with, and eventually married someone who obviously had no qualms about the fact that she was allready the mother of a small child. When the couple called on the Canon, to tell him the good news, they turned the cheque back over to him to use as he saw fit! He was overwhelmed.

In 1953 the Canon was given his very first parish, Uxbridge, located in north London. It would also be his last parish, as he remained there until he retired some twenty years later. Although he certainly enjoyed his new appointment, he did regret having to abandon his work with “The Crusade of Rescue”.

On moving to Uxbridge, his first major challenge was to raise sufficient funds to provide a complete new roof for his badly-leaking church. The cost would be in the region of eight thousand pounds, a considerable sum! However, the money was raised over the next couple of years, with the help of generous donations and numerous fund-raising events. The very first donation was a cheque for one thousand pounds, that had originated somewhere in the Irish midlands!

The Canon never sought, and certainly never expected, any public acknowledgement for the help he had given to numerous people in over a decades work while at “The Crusade of Rescue”. It was not in his nature. His needs were very simple. Up to the time of his retirement, his only means of transport was by bus, underground, or his trusty old two-wheeler bicycle. The only foreign holiday he ever experienced, was sometime in the late 50’s, when a close Jewish friend of his treated him to a ten-day all-expenses-paid trip to the Holy Land, with a three-day-diversion to Egypt to view the pyramids, thrown in. He returned with a bright-red suntan, a vast collection of photographs, and numerous tales about Jerusalem and the land of the Pharaohs. Many a joy-filled evening was spent reliving his various adventures, with friends in London, and back in Ireland.

I can recall one photo in particular. The Canon uncomfortably astride a camel, with the pyramids showing up in the immediate background. The lean and ancient camel calmly surveying the photographer, while the not-so-lean and heavily perspiring tourist, apparently, could not wait to dismount.

Over the years, through good times and bad, the Canons visits always remained a highlight of our life. 1979 stands out in particular. With just a few exceptions, he had never travelled very far from our seaside village, but that year he decided on a day-trip to Dublin, to take in some of the sights.He appeared early on the chosen morning, sans clerical garb, dressed in a light-blue pullover and dark rumpled slacks, topped with a bright-blue beret, looking somewhat like a relocated artist from the Left Bank in Paris. The day was thoroughly enjoyable, the highlights of which were a viewing of the Book of Kells at Trinity College, and a visit to the ubiquitous Guinness brewery.

That year, as always, his sheer effervescence and bonami endeared him to everyone he encountered. One day, close to holidays end, as we prepared to sally-forth, someone was inspired to remark that it would be great if we could bottle his very essence!

With the prospect of what was always a somewhat sad return journey on the following day, by ferry across the Irish Sea, and onward by rail to Paddington, a bottle of malt whisky was produced following the evening meal. The Canon took the bottle of golden nectar gently in his left hand, and, while attempting to suppress a mischievous grin, with his free hand he made the Sign of the Cross and solemnly intoned “in nominee Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti”.

It was the last time I saw the Canon. He passed away the following year.

Canon Bernard Leo St. John George. 1904 – 1980


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