Donal McMahon meets a towering figure from his schooldays who eventually left teaching to become a parish priest
The idea of going to Chippenham, in Wiltshire, to interview Canon Desmond Millett, parish priest of St Mary’s for 25 years, began over lunch in my place of work. Andrew, a colleague, and myself, past pupils of the same primary school in Clontarf, north Dublin, often compare memories of our schooldays, swapping stories about the personality, mannerisms and sayings of the teachers we had all of 50 or so years ago. Many of them are dead, but among the few still alive, we knew, was Mr Millett, who became a priest somewhere in England.
That was where matters stood for a long time until, one day in a religious bookshop, out of sheer curiosity I took down a copy of the Catholic Directory for England and Wales and looked up the index. There he was, indeed, address and all. And so it was I found myself walking up Station Hill one Saturday morning a few weeks ago, divided between trepidation and curiosity at the prospect of meeting a towering figure from my childhood in the equally imposing person, now, of a canon.
Well, the cliché proved true, and I received a genuine céad míle fáilte on English soil. After a while and over the course of my weekend visit, the traits of the young teacher I knew long ago gradually became recognisable again in the white-haired 80-year-old sitting across from me. The clear, emphatic voice, the energy and enthusiasm, the hearty burst of laughter, all became more and more
One of a family of eight from the town of Clonmel, Co Tipperary, he went to teacher training college and university in Dublin and started teaching in 1949 in St John the Baptist school, Belgrove House, Clontarf. “I didn’t enjoy teaching. I’m very suspicious of people who say they do,” wrote a later arrival to the same school, John McGahern. But former teacher Desmond Millett has no hesitation in saying he did: “I was very happy in Belgrove. They were very happy years.”
A qualified musician, he soon found himself producing the school’s annual operetta as well as providing, on the piano, the entire musical accompaniment. He was also given charge of the church choir when the new church of St Gabriel’s was opened in 1956. Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus was in the repertoire, of course, and the choir on one memorable occasion even rose to the challenge of singing a polyphonic, 22-minute Te Deum. The curate made his way up to the choir gallery afterwards, to congratulate, it was presumed, the director and singers, but no, it was to ask (in the hearing of everybody) that never again should the clergy be kept standing for that length of time.
“I was hurt. That taught me always to affirm people and to keep what you feel should be corrected or improved on for another occasion.” He adds with a chuckle: “I wasn’t shy, some months later, in letting the same priest know how I had felt.”
He was so happy teaching, even after 18 years, that a deep-seated idea of trying the priesthood was left unexplored. Finally, however, he broached the subject with his elder brother, a Franciscan priest (and fine scholar, who died in 2006). His brother felt he was too used to his freedom to join a religious order. Then a priest cousin in Keynsham in the Diocese of Clifton (how things happen!) suggested that he should apply to that diocese. After the requisite period of study in the Beda College, Rome, while all the time continuing to teach the scholarship class in Belgrove during the seminary holidays (so loath right to the end was the principal to lose his trusty deputy), he was finally ordained in 1971, his choir there to sing, under a new director now, the Hallelujah Chorus.
He then entered on his years of ministry in England, first as curate in St John’s, Bath, where he worked for 14 years, and then as parish priest in St Mary’s, Chippenham. “I loved the city of Bath. The parish wasn’t like an ordinary parish. You had the people who were living there and came to St John’s but you also had visitors from all over the world.” It was in Bath, nonetheless, that after just one year as priest he had his first heart attack, and “since then I have been plagued with heart problems and angina problems, and in and out to Bristol Royal Infirmary and to Bath Royal United Hospital, and visiting cardiologists, but, praise the Lord, after my second triple bypass three years ago, I have a better quality of life, and I am so grateful to the Lord, and to the skills of the surgeon!” All this said in a great energetic flow that seems to belie the truth of what he is saying. He has learned to cope with his condition over the years, thanks to medication, weekly cardiac rehab classes, and the unstinting support of his parishioners “whom I affirm and thank”.
As parish priest of Chippenham he has had two curates, Fr Anthony Fejer, a Hungarian who was with him for eight years and who died of cancer earlier this year, and then, for three years, Fr Conrad Lowry, now parish priest of Bradford on Avon. Sister Hilda of the Poor Servants of the Mother of God also provided valuable service for 18 years.
Now, there’s just himself, fast approaching 81. “You’re left on your own, as you get older.” Rather than my term “perplexing” to describe this situation, he prefers “challenging”, and quotes Bishop Declan Lang’s words: “We are called to be a people of hope.”
So, looking forward, with no thoughts of retiring, to his ruby jubilee next year, he stands ready at 80-plus for more of life’s challenges.
I cannot but admire the great spirit of co-operation that animates the parish. Fr Millett shows me the register, compiled by a parish volunteer and containing the names of all the parishioners, which, astonishingly, he knows as well as if they were like one big class of his again. From Frances, the 90-year-old sacristan, to the team of named drivers ready to come to his aid, from the liturgists instructing the children during Mass to the dedicated teachers and catechists who “evangelise the children, who then go on to evangelise their parents”, all bear witness to a parish “united in communion for mission”, as Fr Millett likes to say. “I love the people of Chippenham and of St Mary’s parish and school, and that is part of what keeps me here as well. I’m sharing my faith with them and they are sharing their faith with me.”
He recalls the words of an auxiliary bishop of Dublin who interviewed him long ago and thought him too old at 38 for the home mission: “‘So you’re going to England. Do you think you’ll settle down? It will be a completely different culture for you.’ ”
But Fr Millett settled down fine, not only among the Catholic faithful who naturally made him feel very welcome, but among people of other denominations also, and at this point he calls out the Christian names of the various ministers in Chippenham who know him as Desmond, and who all meet once a month.
“Am I under pressure sometimes? Yes, I am, but not under stress. If you’re under pressure, you’ll sleep well at night-time. You could have three priests here but we mightn’t be getting on well, there could be stress, now that would bring on an angina pain for me. So distinguish between pressure and stress, that’s very important.” I see my old teacher can still give some valuable lessons.
We talk finally about Yves Congar’s conviction, in an answer he gave during an interview in his early 80s, that “God has a plan for the world, that our lives are guided”. “Yes, I would now believe that,” Fr Millett says. “I wonder would I have believed it in my younger days,” he muses. Then: “He has the plan. We might worry as to how the Church will be in 20 years’ time. God has decided how it is going to be. But God can’t do it all on His own! We have to work with Him. That’s the plan. And God has this plan for me. It’s a question of trust in the Lord. I have to go back to my music. [He sings] ‘O rest in the Lord.’ Trust in the Lord, and His plan will lead us forward.”
Chaucer’s words came to mind as I made my way back down Station Hill, past the Karma Night Club (something else the canon has had to learn to live with):
A good man was there of religioun
And was a povre persoun [poor parson] of a toun,
But rich he was of holy thought and work.
A good man was certainly there in Chippenham town today, and many more good men and women, ordained and lay, throughout England and Ireland, along with him.