In November we remember in a particular way the sick and retired priests of our diocese – both in our prayers and by donating to the annual appeal to support them in their time of need, just as they supported so many others in a lifetime of ministry. I met two such retired priests of the diocese, Canon Adrian Arrowsmith and Canon John McDonald, together with their chaplain, Canon Digby Samuels, at St Anne’s care home in Stoke Newington, run by the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Q: Canon Adrian and Canon John – how long have you known each other?
Canon Adrian: We first met at St Edmund’s seminary in Ware over 60 years ago and now here we are together again in our retirement.
Q: So you were both young men when you felt called to the priesthood?
Canon John: Yes, I had a very pious grandmother who often talked to me about the priesthood. I first tested this vocation with the White Fathers and stayed with them for about 3½ years. But after the novitiate in Holland I decided to come back to the ‘home mission’ as I had a strong devotion to the English Martyrs. With the help of my old headmaster, Canon Parsons, at Finchley Catholic Grammar School I was accepted for seminary and went to St Edmund’s in the early 1950’s.
Canon Adrian: As a boy I was attracted to three things – the Navy, the stage and the priesthood. I chose the Royal Navy first – largely because it was war time and everyone was being called up anyway. I served for 6 years in the navy – I was one of the crew of a torpedo boat which fought out of Dover (or “Hell-fire corner” as it was known). It was a life-changing experience but I soon knew that priesthood was the deeper calling in my life. When I told my mother that I wanted to be a priest, she said: “Well, you’d better learn to cook then!” She realised that housekeepers would soon be a thing of the past and she was right.
Q: Did your paths cross again after ordination?
Canon John: Only from time to time – God has given us many different challenges over the years. After 8 very happy years as curate at St Joan of Arc in Highbury I spent 20 extraordinary years working for the Crusade of Rescue, supporting adoption families across the country. When I eventually returned to parish life at Our Lady of Lourdes in Acton, it took a while to learn all the new modern hymns! Next I took over from Canon Adrian at Ruislip before a serious stroke meant that I moved to a less demanding parish at Corpus Christi in Maiden Lane, where I spent 13 very happy years. When I ‘retired’ at the age of 75, I helped out as Chaplain to the Knights of Malta and at the hospital in St John’s Wood before moving here to St Anne’s as Chaplain. A couple of years ago, due to ill health, I let go of the chaplaincy work and became one of the residents here, so I think this means I might finally have retired!
Canon Adrian: My first parish after ordination was at Muswell Hill, after which I moved to the Cathedral as Master of Ceremonies for 12 years. Following that I had long spells as parish priest in Ruislip, Our Lady of Victories in Kensington and finally at the All Saints Pastoral Centre, London Colney. Each place had its own joys and challenges and I am very grateful to have had such a rich life of priestly service in such diverse parishes. I cannot say that I have retired as God continues to use us in surprising ways!
Q: Canon Digby, you have been here at St Anne’s since April I believe...
Canon Digby: Yes, at the end of my sabbatical after leaving my last parish of St Patrick’s, Wapping, the Archbishop asked if I would come here as there was a need. The ministry here is essentially about accompanying the elderly – a community of about 50, plus the staff and the community of Sisters.
It’s a very happy care home in which the beautiful chapel is very much centre stage. It really draws the community together, to experience Christ’s presence amongst us every day. I am very privileged to be able to join in with the Sisters’ daily prayer life. We pray the Divine Office and Rosary together plus times of meditation so there’s a real devotional and spiritual rhythm to the home.
Q: What is it like to minister to these men who have ministered to so many others in their lives?
Canon Digby: It’s lovely – a real communal experience. We eat main meals together, concelebrate Mass and take it in turns to preach on Sundays. I feel I am learning very profoundly from the depths of their spirituality and experience, including life before Vatican II. Life at St Anne’s is very different from parish life, which I love, but there is definitely an extraordinary giftedness about this life and ministry and I feel very blessed to be here.
Q: Finally, what advice would you give to any young men discerning a calling to the priesthood?
Canon John: Very simple - get the advice of a good priest. Spiritual advice from people who already know something of this journey is essential.
Canon Adrian: Go on retreat to a monastery. Why? Because you are cut off from the outside world and to really reflect on your life, you’ve got to be as quiet as possible. Silence helps you to face yourself and find out what God wants you to do. And if it is His will for you to become a priest, there could be no better life!