'I wondered if anyone would come' Canon Anthony said, as we watched a seemingly unending stream of parishioners file out of the church of Our Lady of Grace and St Edward. Some four hundred parishioners who had attended the farewell mass for Fr. Tony.
This modest statement was typical of the popular, former Parish Priest of Our Lady of Grace who was as happy being called Fr. Tony, friend and spiritual advisor, as he was Canon Anthony, Church Dignitary. A priest with the gift of being able to reach out to everyone.
This was reflected in the celebration of the Mass itself, which brought together young and old. Altar boys and altar girls, priests who first came to Our Lady of Grace as young curatesFr. David, Fr. Graham and Fr. Andrew, who is now Assistant Priest . A special mention was made of Fr. Ed who so tragically died. All were gently put through their final paces by Fr. Tony. In fact, Our Lady of Grace could be said to have assumed the role of an ecclesiastical finishing school for priests. The new Parish Priest, Fr. Michael Dunne, was the one now keeping a watchful eye on the proceedings.
Finally there were the priests who carry with them the wisdom of age, including Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Conner who, apart from having held the highest position in the Church in England and Wales, that of Archbishop of Westminster, has an amazing store of anecdotes to tell.
The beautiful singing of both the church choir and the choir of St. Mary's School added to the joy and sadness of the occasion.
In fact, the tributes to Fr. Tony were also a reminder of the enormous responsibilities of a Parish Priest, not just presiding at Mass, hearing confessions, anointing the sick, remembering names, or explaining the Gospel, but in building up a community of faith which requires the support of all.
'As I looked at the congregation in front of me', Fr Tony said 'which included all age groups, memories came flooding back of the many kindnesses shown to me during my eight years here and of the support I have received from the parishioners.'
And there was more to come. When Fr. Tony arrived at the Parish Centre for the reception that followed the Mass, he had difficulty getting through the crowd of well wishers to meet up with Matthew Rock, the busy Chair of the Parish Council. He presented the same picture of Fr. Tony.
'He has done so much for this Parish' Matthew said, 'launching the Parish renewal process and ensuring that the Parish has an elected Pastoral Council.' This then led to the Night Shelter Project and the monthly Food Bank collections. Hecontinued, 'but I think there is an even more important thing to say about Fr. Tony. For me, and I suspect, for many of us here tonight, it's the unseen acts, the private gestures thatmark him out as a priest and as a man....I spoke to many people before tonight and the word that kept coming up was 'kindness'. In this regard Matthew wascorrect. But beware, when Fr. Tony gently asks 'when you have a moment, could I have a word with you?' That word could turn into a farlonger commitment!