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'I made a wooden box coffin for a baby'

Monday, June 13, 2011
Here is the homily preached by Fr John Farrell OP, prior provincial, at the funeral of Fr Jonathan Fleetwood OP:

I made a wooden box coffin for a baby. Just a free floating remark in Jonathan's musings about his time in South Africa. An interesting remark, both in that he could do it – not that something so simple would be beyond a trained technical drawer and engineer like Jonathan. But also that he did do it. He, a priest, a human being, a friend in need, doing this for a bereaved poverty stricken African mother. Capable, kind hearted, feet on the ground, one of the crowd. Ordinary, in the ordinary, for the ordinary: a man of God. 

I made a wooden box coffin for a baby. He was assigned to the mission in South Africa as a 35 year old priest and was there until he was 45 (1960-1971). At first he was on the East Rand as a parish priest and as a chaplain to the thousands of migrant workers in the harsh conditions of the enclosed compounds surrounding the gold mines:

To say mass, hear confessions (behind an upturned table), to visit the mine hospitals and to bury miners killed in accidents ... His mates would put him into a meagre coffin. You then put him onto a rickety trek-cart and took him to the graveyard, probably next to a mine spoil heap. The men sang haunting hymns on the way. African language often has funeral hymns. This was real liturgy. The dead man was put into the grave with his tin hat, knee pads, talcum powder and personal effects.

Jonathan always wanted to enter into the real lived world of other people and try to see it from their own way of seeing, expressing, and sharing life. He spent some time in Zululand and learnt the Zulu language – but not as fluently as he wanted – and tried Afrikaner. But around him was the apartheid state, police harassment, spies and surveillance, and barriers between Afrikaner and Blacks, and between Black Power Seminarians and Liberal Whites. This latter was one of several causes of disturbance at the newly opened seminary for Blacks at Hammanskraal. Jonathan taught there for five years in the late 60s, a period in which the seminary produced many priests, leaders of the Black movement for freedom, and six bishops. Apart from teaching, Jonathan had to use his engineering expertise to maintain the water purification systems, the electricity generator, the sewerage disposal system, build roads, make general repairs, and supervise the very large garden.
Canal at Stone

He was a great planter of trees – there at the seminary and earlier at Hawkesyard as a Dominican student. He had a great love of nature and was a great walker until his very last year. He has an almost childlike sense of wonder at both nature and the human ingenuity to be found in industrial archaeology, especially in his last years at Stone, walking the canals of early industrial and rural Staffordshire. He loved to find things out. He was so humble if something was explained to him: “Oo I see”, he would say in that characteristic way. And then often – because of his terrible, terrible memory, 'I'll just write that down if you don't mind'.

He was born in 1925 in Handsworth, Birmingham. The world of engineering, industry and trade unionism was his from the beginning – alongside, from childhood, scouting and cycling in the countryside. He went to St Philip's Grammar School next to the Oratory and his was a close knit Catholic family (he and his only sibling Patricia always meant so much to each other). The family experienced the difficulties of the 1930s depression and the world war – as a boy he was twice evacuated from the bombing of Birmingham. At 16 (in 1941) he was a Drawing Office Apprentice and by 18 acquired his National Certificates in mechanical and electrical engineering with further qualifications in the next few years. He was involved in trade union activity and as a committed Catholic worker combating Communist manipulation of trade union structures. Religion was a lively topic of conversation in the workplace and it was the thought of learning how to explain religion that led him to the Dominican friars when he was 25.

When he returned to England from South Africa in 1971, aged 45, he was immediately elected prior of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The respect he gained from his brethren led them to elect him provincial three years later. At this point the province of England was beginning to regain some confidence after the shattering collapse of the previous ten years during which numbers dropped from 258 friars in 1964 to 155 in 1974, with half the brethren in 1974 being over 60. Still the provincial chapter of 1974 struck a new note:

We seemed to have passed beyond a period of disintegration and seeming collapse, beyond a succeeding period of apparent inertia and incapacity, but of some real stabilisation, into the possible beginnings of a new phase ... It is imperative that we should choose our future not just accept our fate.

For the next 25 years as provincial (1974-82), warden of Hawkesyard Conference Centre, and provincial bursar (1986-2000), Jonathan was at the heart of this restructuring of the province, consolidating our finances and freeing the province for new growth. He and his friend in the Order Peter Edgar worked together as a team. While others of us had projects and plans, they were the ones who had to deal with the tricky legal problems, financial liabilities, employment law, and other complexities of monitoring and selling Hawkesyard, selling half of the London priory, and giving Woodchester and Hinckley to the dioceses. As ever, Jonathan had his feet on the ground, persevered, and showed himself capable – though not always calm. His language especially during this period could often be described as colourful. The main colour was blue.

While involved in millions of pounds worth of property transactions he lived in absolute simplicity. In fact he was homeless while the London priory was a building site, living in the cellar of a church in Queensway, next to the New Blackfriars printing press. He always had a very simple lifestyle, an unaffected straightforwardness in meeting people, a total unselfconscious humility. His dress sense – or lack of it – was famous. At least once he turned up as prior provincial to give a retreat to sisters and on ringing the door bell was greeted by a sister who gave him a pack of sandwiches and told him where to sit with his fellow tramps for a cup of tea.

Sharing in the ministry of the Good Shepherd, he was a man of great pastoral kindness - to Filipino nurses in his later assignation in Newcastle upon Tyne, and in his last pastoral care, as Chaplain to the Dominican sisters in Stone. He also had a simple genuine gratitude for even the smallest kindness to him. These two – his ability to give and also to receive – came together over his last months. As people have said since his death: he was a real human being, a good human being. May God have mercy on him for his failures and sins and raise him up with Christ his Master: a good and faithful steward in the house of his Lord.

Eternal rest grant to our brother Jonathan, Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace, amen.

Vivian Boland OP


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