Archbishop Vincent Nichols confers a rare papal knighthood on the philanthropist Albert Gubay

Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster conferred a rare papal knighthood on philanthropist Albert Gubay during a memorable and emotional ceremony at St Anthony’s Catholic church, Onchan, on the Isle of Man on February 23, writes Peter Jennings.

During the 30-minute service of thanksgiving the Archbishop of Westminster conferred the 82-year-old as a Knight Commander with Star of the Sacred Equestrian Order of St Gregory the Great.

The award bestowed by the Pope, which dates back to 1831, is given for conspicuous service to the Catholic Church and to society.

When he learnt of the papal knighthood, Mr Gubay said: “I am humbled by this immense honour from the Church and can only hope that my example encourages others to use their wealth for good causes.”

It was cold and misty outside St Anthony’s church overlooking Douglas Bay, as people arrived early for the 1.30pm service. Mr Gubay, whose father was Jewish and mother Catholic, built the church during the 1980s.

Inside the church it was standing room only as family, friends, business colleagues and senior figures from the government of the Isle of Man, led by Lieutenant Governor Sir Paul Haddacks, came to pay tribute to Mr Gubay’s philanthropic work on behalf of
the Catholic Church and for society.

Mr Gubay has set up the Albert Gubay Charitable Foundation to provide a minimum of £20 million per year for charitable causes, with 50 per cent of this sum going to the Catholic Church. His ambition is for the foundation to be worth at least £1 billion at his death.

Archbishop Nichols was accompanied on the sanctuary by Auxiliary Bishop Tom Williams of Liverpool, Mgr Michael McKenna, parish priest of St Gregory’s church, Weld Bank, Chorley, and Fr Philip Gillespie, the new parish priest of St Anthony’s.

The Archbishop of Westminster said in his homily: “It is such a joy for us all to be gathered here today. The occasion is splendid, for we want so much to express our thanks and esteem to Albert, Carmel and all their family and friends. The occasion is beautiful, as we enjoy the setting of this lovely church, itself a tribute to Albert’s generosity and to his capacity for hard physical work.”

Archbishop Nichols said that Archbishop Patrick Kelly of Liverpool had very much wanted to be present but had written a letter to Mr Gubay, expressing his joy at the papal knighthood.

Archbishop Nichols continued: “In the reading we have heard St Paul (writing to the Romans) encouraging us to be active and generous in playing our part, our different parts, in the ‘life of the Body’. “We all know something of Albert’s early prayer, as he was starting out as an entrepreneur – though that might not have been the word he used. But it was a transforming prayer, one that gave a far deeper purpose to everything that he consequently achieved and goes on achieving. In everything he does, there is God’s purpose to be kept in mind. That is remarkable and, in some ways, quite astonishing in today’s world. But St Paul tells us: ‘Do not be conformed to this world.’ ”

During the summer of 1997 Mr Gubay told RTÉ that he had made a “50-50” deal with God, promising, when he was younger and penniless to give half his estate to the Church if he succeeded in becoming a millionaire.

Mr Gubay, a Rhyll-born businessman, laid the foundations of what was to become the Kwik Save supermarket chain when he set up Value Foods in Prestatyn in 1959. He turned Kwik Save into a well-known high street name which he sold in 1973 for £14 million. He founded the Total Fitness empire which he sold before moving to the Isle of Man where he became involved in property development.

Speaking directly to Mr Gubay, the Archbishop of Westminster said: “Albert, your generosity – thoughtful, intelligent, measured yet seemingly boundless – is a great sign of the generosity of God. This is so because you make it clear that you expect no public acclaim, no list of honours, no fanfare of trumpets. You are generous because God is first generous to you. And that is your great lesson to us all today.

“Like Archbishop Patrick Kelly, I am so honoured to be able to convey to you today this award which comes from His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI. Everyone here today treasures the thrilling memories of his recent visit to the UK. I’m only sorry that his programme could not include the Isle of Man!

“This is a rare award, yet entirely appropriate for yours is a rare generosity, one that will continue to benefit the efforts in the service of others not only of the Catholic Church but of many other beneficiaries, for many, many years to come.”

The president of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales concluded his homily: “Albert, it is with great pleasure that I ask you to come forward to receive this papal award.”

Fr Philip Gillespie, parish priest of St Anthony’s, read the citation from the Holy See out loud in Latin. When Fr Gillespie had finished speaking, Archbishop Nichols placed his right hand on Mr Gubay’s shoulder and said with a characteristic smile: “It means well done!”

Archbishop Vincent Nichols then presented Mr Gubay with the insignia of Knight Commander with Star of the Sacred Equestrian Order of St Gregory the Great.

The congregation, which packed the church to overflowing, broke into prolonged applause. Mr Gubay appeared overcome and momentarily lost for words. “Thank you. Thank you so much,” he said in his softly spoken voice.