A priest with high intellect and formidable negotiating abilities who did much for Catholic higher education

“I’m standing in an empty field with hordes of homeless boys. It’s a sea of mud. All around is chaos – bricks, rusting iron and crumbling cement. There is a steel shortage, a builders’ strike, protests from local residents and even protests from parents. In a year spent in the trenches, literally, there were pitched battles with architects, builders, suppliers, elected councillors, parents and the trades unions. Out of this indescribable mess arose a school – on time.”

The year was 1960 and the speaker was Mgr Bernard Doyle, who has died aged 95. He was reminiscing about the creation of a Catholic Grammar School in Leeds. The battle to build St Thomas Aquinas, of which he was also headmaster, was emblematic of Bernard Doyle’s good humour in the teeth of difficulties. But it also showed the mettle he demonstrated throughout his career, and on a larger stage. Described by his peers as “Priest, teacher and Yorkshireman – in that order”, his long life encompassed 71 years of continuous work as a priest in Yorkshire and on Merseyside.

Bernard Doyle’s high intellect and formidable negotiating abilities were made good use of in the 1970s and 80s by the Catholic hierarchy in mitigating the impact of public expenditure cuts on Catholic higher education. The stakes were high, yet in argument with ministers and senior civil servants Bernard Doyle showed himself incapable of guile. Consistently charming and persistently generous, his style was so disarming that he generally got what he wanted without appearing to ask for it. His crowning achievement was to re-organise the institutions that eventually formed Liverpool Hope University, whose establishment the Privy Council approved in 2005, and which today has 7,500 students.

Bernard Doyle was born in Bradford, Yorkshire, in 1920. He was educated at St Bedes’ Grammar School, Ushaw College in Durham and at Cambridge University. His mother’s first husband, Joseph Coonan, a wood-carver, had been killed at Ypres in 1918 in the closing months of the First World War. She was left with a young son. Her second husband was Edward Doyle, a labourer from Ireland. The young Bernard grew up in the town with his sister Marie (later Marie Whelan) and half brother Paul. In a BBC interview given when he was 80, Bernard Doyle reflected on the poverty he experienced as a child, adding “but we lived in the public library”. The effect was beneficial: at Ushaw, where he was received into the priesthood in 1943, the Catholic authorities spotted his intellectual abilities and identified him (mistakenly) as a future theologian. As a young army chaplain his ‘patch’ included Mildenhall and Lakenheath air bases and the Sheppey Island submarine station. He ministered in hospital to soldiers severely injured at the D Day landings in Normandy.

Bernard Doyle matriculated at Christ’s College, Cambridge, later in 1944. He resided at St Edmund’s House (now St Edmund’s College), the traditional centre for Catholic priests at Cambridge. After taking a degree in history (and armed with a certificate in education) he returned in 1948 to St Bede’s Grammar School, this time as a schoolmaster, where he discovered that in the post-war world, “the basic entitlement of a grammar school education was not accompanied by a surfeit of resources.” There were shortages of books, paper and ink; many children in Bradford lived in poverty. They had no money for tram fares or food. Dealing with “the dislocations, privations and trauma of war” cemented his commitment to achieving better access to education. He practised this belief when given his own school, St Thomas Aquinas, to design, build and lead in 1960.

But it was as the Principal of Christ’s College (later the Liverpool Institute of Higher Education, precursor of Liverpool Hope University) from 1965 to 1985, that his talents would be displayed to the full and his abilities tested. Christ’s College trained both men and women to be teachers. Bernard Doyle had a good eye for selecting diverse talents. Among thousands of students he admitted over two decades, he gave places to David Alton (Baron Alton of Liverpool), subsequently a Liberal MP, and Carmel Morgan, who became a scriptwriter on TV’s Coronation Street. He also received an eclectic range of visitors. These included the student leader Tariq Ali, the local musician Simon Rattle, footballers from Everton FC and the scholar and former altar boy Terry Eagleton, author of The New Left Church (1966).

Bernard Doyle maintained good relations with Liverpool’s members of parliament, including the prime minister, Harold Wilson (MP for Huyton), while his own politics remained inscrutable. He once led Wilson into a meeting through a line of striking firefighters, calculating correctly that in Liverpool angry workers would defer to a Catholic priest.

But by the end of Wilson’s second administration (1974-1976) it was clear that ministers would not reverse the Government’s intention to reduce the excessive number of higher education colleges in Liverpool. In anticipation of change, the (Catholic) Archbishop Derek Warlock and the (Anglican) Bishop David Sheppard, whose respective cathedrals lay by Hope Street in Liverpool, had concluded in the early 1970’s that ‘ecumenical’ might also stand for ‘economical’. They jointly sought college mergers to form the Liverpool Institute of Higher Education.

However, execution of this politically attractive design was a different matter. Bernard Doyle set about the series of tricky mergers and controversial consolidations involving Catholic and Anglican educational colleges (including his own) that were necessary to placate ministers. Considerable local scepticism had to be overcome and vested interests resolved before Hope could triumph over Doubt. Protagonists included three sets of barristers instructed by solicitors acting for institutions apprehensive of consolidation, including the Catholic nuns of Notre Dame, a long-established training college for women. Bernard Doyle dealt with them all unflappably.

He received a personal honour from Pope Paul VI in 1974, with the title ‘Monsignor’, and he later met Pope John Paul II. He was awarded an honorary senior fellowship at Hope University. After his retirement at the statutory age for university staff, Monsignor Doyle worked from 1986 to 2000 as a parish priest in Leeds at St Brigid’s, styling himself simply as ‘curate’.

Nevertheless, he continued to modernise Catholic education. As a member of the Diocesan Schools Commission until 1993 he brought in a professional lay director of education to preside over 100 schools and improve their governance.

Mgr Bernard Doyle will be remembered not only for his academic leadership and unstinting service to the Catholic Church in England for over 70 years but also for his unimpeachable personal integrity; for his compassion and capacity to commiserate with the personal distress of others while supplying them with practical help. He followed assiduously the careers of his innumerable nephews and nieces and their children in the Coonan and Whelan families. Priest, teacher and Yorkshireman (“in that order”) in fact proved indivisible facets of a remarkable man. The incomparable Little Sisters of the Poor looked after him in his last years.

Mgr Bernard Doyle was born in Bradford, Yorkshire, on October 2 1920. He died in Leeds on January 4, 2016