Obituary: The Rev Myles Lovell

Click to follow
A SOLDIER through and through, when Myles Lovell converted to Roman Catholicism in the latter stages of the Second World War, his obvious choice on its conclusion was to enter that most military of orders, the Society of Jesus.

He welcomed the military marks of the Jesuit and embraced them, sometimes to the puzzlement and occasional fury of his companions in training. But as in the Army, so in the Society of Jesus, his superior officers recognised in him a genius for organisational skills. These were more often neglected than employed. Indeed, from Martin D'Arcy's day, the English Province, as it then was, took a certain pride in exercising the art of the amateur. Not so Lovell. His major work was as Superior of the Guyana Mission in South America, where his staff-officer qualities were given full rein.

The only son of a soldier, Major E.H. Lovell, Myles Lovell was sent first to Wellington College and thence to the Royal Military Academy Woolwich, where he was awarded the King's Medal in 1938. His first war experience at the age of 21 was Dunkirk. As a gunner, he lamented having to leave the guns behind. "But we destroyed the sights," he recalled with evident relish. He was later posted to the Middle East as a Royal Artillery staff officer and there he became a Catholic.

After war service and having nursed his dying father, he settled for the Society of Jesus. In 1954, he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Harlaxton Manor, an unlikely Gothic pile outside Grantham. He dived at once and wholeheartedly into the complexities of Ignatian spirituality, seizing the many military references and associations offered by St Ignatius in the Spiritual Exercises. A man of prayer, Lovell struggled then and throughout his life to balance a warm and human heart with the Jesuit ideal - a life of military discipline directed to one end, the service of God wherever obedience decreed.

Three years' philosophy studies were followed by four years' theology. In between came two years at Mount St Mary's College, where Lovell taught physics and mathematics to the junior boys, "my little men", as he knew them. Then, in 1963, he was ordained priest.

A final year of spiritual training, his tertianship, was by choice spent in Germany. Immediately following, he was sent to Guyana, the English Jesuits' South American mission. A mere three years later, he was appointed Superior of the mission, which sprawled across 83,000 square miles (the size of England and Scotland) and comprised some two dozen parishes and many schools, some in areas so remote as to be served only by plane.

Lovell's office became a miniaturised battleground, with wall maps, coloured flags indicating his various posts - schools and parishes - and a large wallchart detailing the disposition of each one of the 60 priests and lay brothers under his command. Such thoroughness was needed. Politically, times were tense. Forbes Burnham, a neo-Communist, had been President by diktat almost since independence in 1964. The Jesuits and their work were viewed with growing suspicion. Moreover, racial tension between the East Indians, who had secured power, and the West Indian and Amerindian races was at boiling point.

As well as traditional parish work, the Jesuits were notable educators, not only in Georgetown, where they ran a highly successful grammar school for boys, but in the Rupununi Region of the interior, where their mission stations schooled the indigenous Amerindians.

In 1969, there was an armed uprising in the Rupununi. Someone had been surreptitiously running guns on the Jesuit supply plane and the government took the opportunity of forcibly withdrawing all the Jesuit missionaries. Somehow Myles Lovell stayed put and, single-handed, attempted to continue the station's work, normally the task of six priests. He remained for over two months until the crisis subsided.

At the end of his statutory six-year term as Superior, Lovell enjoyed a sabbatical at the Bellarmino College in Rome, where he studied Scripture. He then applied to teach in the seminary for local student priests in the Sudan, near the remote southern town of Mau.

Returning home to work in England after an absence of 14 years, Lovell was sent to Aberdeen, centre of the offshore oil industry. His superiors felt that a man of his calibre would be ripe for the challenge of caring for the hundreds employed in the rigorous working conditions of the North Sea. Much to his fury and frustration, however, try as he might for two years, Lovell was never allowed aboard an oil-rig. He had to be content with plying his ministry on the dockside; finally he was moved inland to more conventional posts of parish work, first at St Joseph's, Aberdeen, and later at Ellon, north of the city, where he was parish priest for five years.

Here too his full energies were expended. Lovell had always been a great walker: one of his first victories of obedience had been to persuade his rector at Mount St Mary's that a good pair of shoes costing 63 shillings was better than a cheap pair which would wear out within the year. In Ellon, afternoon and evening, he paced the streets visiting his people. He also built a new church.

Previously a garage, which had been expanded to seat up to 60 parishioners, had served the purpose. The new priest was determined to demolish this and start again to cater for the growing population of immigrant oil-workers. But first he had to persuade his bishop. Mgr Mario Conti was unhappy at the prospect of incurring a fresh diocesan debt to solve a temporary overcrowding problem. There was not enough room for a church, he argued. After one session which involved the two clerics pacing out the available area, they ended in discord with the bishop storming off. "I am playing him like a salmon," Lovell reported confidently to his friends. Eventually the church was built - its cost, pounds 165,000, met by the bequest of a wealthy widow.

Following a hip operation in 1994, Lovell was sent in his final posting to Chipping Norton, a sleepy Oxfordshire parish with few demands. He then came across a large sum of money bequeathed by his predecessor - and set to without delay on an elaborate renovation scheme. This would have been finished next month and Lovell had plans to pay one last visit to his former flock. But his cancer galloped him away to a more pressing engagement.

John Skinner

Myles Henry Drummond Lovell, priest: born Newcastle upon Tyne 19 July 1918; ordained priest 1963; Superior, Jesuit Mission, Guyana 1968-74; died London 13 November 1999.