Fr. Willy, who died on 21 July in St Margaret’s Hospice Clydebank at the age of 83, was unique, a “one off” as they say – determined (some might say “thrawn”), passionate, focused and totally dedicated to the support and defence of the excluded and marginalised. He embodied the practice of the corporal works but not in a sentimental way, rather as a plain speaking practitioner of tough love who was on first name terms with those who queued at night in George Square for food.
Fr.Willy had qualified as a psychologist, had worked for 5 years in Bangladesh with the Xaverians, come back to Scotland to act as the first National Secretary of the Justice & Peace Commission, then as co-ordinator of the Scottish Drugs Forum as well as being a chaplain at Barlinnie Prison, before going on to be chaplain Yorkhill Children’s Hospital. He also was involved with the Open House magazine.
His concern for the marginalised led him to become involved with the Emmaus charity, becoming the chair of the new Glasgow Emmaus, and he was instrumental in bringing a copy of the Homeless Jesus statue by Timothy Schmalz to Glasgow, fundraising for it and getting a location for it in Nelson Mandela Square beside the Tron Church.
Yet in his personal life, he was a private person who, on retirement, moved out with all his worldly goods in a holdall to a hut without electricity or running water, in Falkland Forest, to live as a hermit. He had told family and friends that when the time came, he would be happy to die quietly on top of one of his beloved Munros (which one we don’t know as he had climbed all of them!) or in his hut.
However he was diagnosed with cancer and as it advanced, he was persuaded by his family and friends, with some judicious input from Archbishop Bill Nolan, to go into care in St Margaret’s Hospice, where he was visited by friends and former colleagues from across the UK and further afield – one friend from seminary days flew from Florida to see him once more.
His funeral was held in Our Lady & St George’s parish in Cardonald where his sister still lived. The esteem in which he was held was clearly shown by the number of priests who came to concelebrate at his funeral from all parts of Scotland, from across the border and from further afield. In the absence of Archbishop Nolan, who was away, the principal celebrant was Mgr Gerry Fitzpatrick, a lifelong friend who had been in seminary with him and who often provided a room for him at St Leo’s, Dumbreck, on his visits to Glasgow – Fr Willie in fact became a familiar face to parishioners as he would regularly celebrate one of the Sunday Masses there.
Our Lady & St George’s church was packed for the funeral, with people having to find seats in the choir loft. Among the congregation were representatives of SCIAF, the Xaverians (who had known him in Bangladesh), Justice & Peace, Glasgow Churches Together, former parishioners from his old parishes, and the Keeper of Falkland Palace – a reflection of Fr Willy’s wide ranging work.
At the funeral vigil on the previous evening, Fr Noel Colford, another friend from seminary days, brought a smile to many faces as he recalled going to see Fr Willy in the Hospice and trying to be helpful by holding a glass of water for him, only to be told “I can hold it”. Fr Noel, as well as recalling the many areas that Fr Willy had worked in, remembered his friendship shown in the development of a “support group” – the Soup Group – for priest friends which expanded to include Ministers from the Church of Scotland and others.
One of his nieces revealed another side of Fr Willy when she spoke of him living life at full tilt and taking his family with him on the ride. She said there was so much they would miss with his passing.
Mgr Gerry spoke in his homily of Fr Willy’s witness to his deep faith, centred in the corporal works of mercy, carried out in places spread across the country and beyond. At Fr. Willy’s own request, the main reflection was given by the Very Rev. John D Millar, a former minister in Castlemilk and Moderator of the Church of Scotland and a kindred spirit of Fr Willy for many years.
He described Fr Willy as a once in a generation person who was always concerned about the poor, the outcast, the “invisible” ones. He recalled with obvious fondness the joint projects that they had organised such as the memorial services for families who had lost members to drugs, the courses Fr Willie had arranged at St Simon’s church and their cycle from Land’s End to John O’Groats.
On the last mentioned Mr Millar had fallen from his bike and broken a finger. He got little sympathy from Fr Willy whose brief comment was that he had nine more so carry on! Even after Fr Willy’s retirement, they had continued to meet once a month for breakfast.
The music of the Mass was supported by the St Mungo Singers. Fr Willy’s niece, Pauline, was cantor for both the Mass and the Vigil, and her sister Helen provided guitar accompaniment for several of the hymns at the services.
Fr Willy will indeed be missed in so many parts of Glasgow for his living of the Gospel and we do not doubt that he will have been welcomed by the Lord with the words “Well done, good and faithful servant”.