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Fr. Joseph Phelan

Father JOSEPH PHELAN 1919-2000. A Memorial Address by Fr. Michael Cole at Fr. Joe's Requiem Mass

Joe Phelan died on St. Valentine's day at the Joseph Weld Hospice just south of Dorchester. I saw him that morning on my way through to Weymouth. I wanted to whisper in his ear 'a happy Valentine's day' but I thought a few prayers would be more appropriate.

As I left the hospice I looked for the last time on those aquiline features of my old friend and I recalled those long gone days of the late 1940's when Joe took Plymouth by storm, when I first met him and perhaps then the course of my life was changed.

I am sure that Joe is very pleased that today is one of the feasts of St. Peter, the Apostle, because no one was more Roman than he was in his outlook and unquestioned loyalty to the successors of St. Peter, though, I am sure that by now he has put St. Peter straight on a few small points of theology.

But let us begin at the beginning. Joe came from a large and talented family. He was the fourth of five boys and there were two sisters, Kitty, who is with us today with some of the family and Mary, who is not well enough to travel.

Waterford, in southern Ireland, near which the Phelan's lived, was the city where Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice founded the Irish Christian Brothers, a religious order which encouraged a love of learning and sporting excellence.

To the Christian brothers school the Phelans went. The eldest brother Theobald became an Olympic athlete and later a medical officer with the 8th army in the western desert in WWII right through to Berlin. The youngest, Billy, was part of a team of surgeons in a Dublin hospital. Tim and Dominic became successful business men. Those who saw Joe's rugby caps and athletic trophies know he was a considerable athlete himself. But all that was given up when he offered himself to the Plymouth Diocese and set sail for the English College in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1937. During the war he came home once to Waterford, the 'plane he should have been on was shot down by the Luftwaffe. His first mass was at Ferrybank, Waterford, and he was appointed to the parish of St. Edward Peverell, in Plymouth.

As an assistant priest in the Cathedral, Plymouth, Joe became very interested in the Catholic Social Guild getting speakers of renown and Trade Union Leaders to speak at their meetings. He became chaplain to the 14th Plymouth, Bishop's own scout troop and went with them to Rome and Switzerland in 1950 and later would often turn up at summer camps with legs of lamb and other good things. His enthusiasm and energy were boundless.

Soon the Cathedral parish proved not quite big enough for Joe and its administrator and he was asked to go to the Carmelite Monastery, Lanherne, to look after the Carmelite sisters and the tiny parish of Lanherne, North Cornwall, but the Lord works in mysterious ways. What could have been a remote sequestered appointment proved to be the exact opposite. Just down the road were two Coastal Command air stations, St. Mawgan and St. Eval, whose Lancasters and Shackletons guarded the Western Approaches. Joe was in his element. He became the R.C. Padre and soon the boys in blue were ferrying Joe to give talks and retreats all over Europe and wherever there were air stations; and of course, the occasional game of golf in Scotland. The good sisters of Lanherne must have wondered at the sky pilot in their midst: Joe, I am sure, put it down to giving his experience to the aircraft crews.

His next appointment was to Portland. Again Joe was very happy. This time he had the Navy; also the Borstal (as it was known in those days); the H.M. Prison and the beautiful rugged isle of Portland and its splendid people. Again he became involved in education matters.

As in Cornwall, he became a member of the Alliance - this time the Bournemouth Alliance.

Then on to Broadstone as its first parish priest where he continued with his work with Catholic Education.

Joe couldn't resist a challenge and next he was off to Penzance with St Just and the Scilly Isles. I know he loved Cornwall; his Cornish accent could be better than mine; but I will leave that story to his assistants there Fr. Pat Chrystal, Fr. McGauran and Monsignor Toffolo to tell the tale.

His last parish was here at St. Joseph's, Weymouth - with Wyke Regis. Once again he took great interest in the local school, St. Augustine's, Hardy Avenue and he was a great visitor around the parish. The life movement and its shop were close to his heart. He supported the Catholic Womens' league and the Knights of St. Columba. His last assistant was Terry Dolan.

Many are the stories about Joe. One evening, getting dark, he was summoned to the front door of the presbytery to be confronted by two local villains, one with a knife. Your money or your life sort of thing. Although well in his 70's, Joe moved fast, a right jab which Mike Tyson would have been proud of put the knife wielding villain down - all the puff knocked out of him, the other fled. Later he was summoned to meet the Chief Constable who presented him with a scroll of merit and also a small statue of a laughing policeman. Later, this time Joe was away, some villains returned, pinched his TV and Video and to Joe's annoyance knocked the block off the the statue of the laughing policeman.

Always a sportsman he joined the Weymouth Golf club. He so enjoyed meeting the members and some of his fellow clergy on mondays. Members of the club present, flag flying.

He was one of the first members of the inter diocesan Clergy Golf Society and with encouragement of our own sport supremo, Fr. Seamus Flynn, and for as long as he could manage, he attended the annual competitions. I have a lovely memory of Joe at Foxhills, Surrey, chatting amiably with Cormac Murphy O'Connor, the new Archbishop of Westminster.

He organised the annual holiday for Canon Walsh, John Belland and myself and showed us his old haunts in Portugal visiting the former English College in Lisbon and the great Marian shrine just up the road at Fatima. He spoke Portuguese quite fluently. His great friends Vince and Jennie Clemas were kind to him and us with our annual break over the years.

As his health began to fail the time was approaching for Joe to hang up his cassock. His leaving of Weymouth (to go or not to go) could be described as the long goodbye. Our Bishop Christopher kindly invited Joe to use to use part of the home at Lyme Regis where he was very happy. As his health deteriorated, Fr. Pat Mulvaney and Guy de Gainesford who looked after him in Dorchester Hospital invited him to live in their presbytery. The Rev. Mother and sisters of Mercy, Wyke Road, Weymouth, over the years were always very kind to Joe - indeed to all the priests in so many ways and were consistent visitors towards the end. So also was our acting Dean Fr. Chrystal, Canon Walsh, Fr. John Webb, John Rice, the Deacons and so many of his old friends and fellow clergy.

Great tribute must also be paid to his former housekeeper Anne Ducie and her husband Martin who were great friends and an enormous support to him.

In life, Joe usually had the last word: he should have it also in death. He was famed for his witty (and wise) asides. After the burial of a clergy friend I heard his words,"The dead to their grave and the living to their lunch".

We are now going to bury Joe here in Melcombe Regis cemetery close to the people he loved and served so well.

And after that - we will go to our lunch.

Fr. Michael Cole

last  revised 3rd March, 2010 v1.01 -