Geoffrey Chapman: Publisher who transformed the market for Catholic books

Geoffrey Chapman transformed Catholic publishing in the 1960s, combining business acumen with an ability to harness the winds of change blowing in the Church. Thanks to his skills, India and Anglophone Africa were able to benefit from the new liturgical and catechetical books he was able to produce at remarkably low cost.

Brought up as a Catholic in Melbourne, Geoff Chapman lost his father in a plane crash aged four. His student years at the University of Melbourne coincided with the rise of the French worker priest movement and brought him into contact with Joseph Cardijn's class-based teachings on the social apostolate. He was captivated by what reached him of the intellectual ferment in Catholic thinking in post-war France.

This passion for the "new theology" coming out of Europe accompanied skills as a glider pilot, skier, swimmer, and then accomplished yachtsman, competing in two Fastnet races. Newly married to Suzanne James, he wanted to get nearer to the intellectual action; this, and a love of travel, drew him from Australia to Britain in 1954 and to a career in Catholic publishing.

He began publishing under the auspices of the Young Christian Workers: a collection of Cardijn's writings and speeches and the Pastoral Letters of Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard, wartime Archbishop of Paris. His publishing education was acquired by spending a couple of months with FIDES Publishers in Chicago, sleeping in a bunk at the Notre Dame University Fire Brigade.

In 1957, with £1,000 from an English aristocratic businessman, Dermot de Trafford, Geoffrey Chapman Ltd, publishers to the Social Apostolate, got off the ground. Authors and books were chased in Paris, where on his first visit he slept rough under the Pont Neuf. By the time the Second Vatican Council opened in 1962, many of the thinkers and theologians who were breaking new ground were coming out under the Chapman imprint.

His best known coup was Pope John XXIII's Journal of a Soul. He was up in a glider when the significance of a phone call from a journalist friend in Rome hit him. Pope John had left a diary. He hastily landed, caught the next plane to Rome, saw Pope John's former private secretary, Monsignor Loris Capovilla, tracked down the Italian publisher and signed up for the English language rights on the spot.

During the Council he was frequently to be found in the Colombus Hotel near St Peter's, wining and dining periti, bishops and cardinals. Cardinal Augustin Bea, the German Jesuit biblical scholar who spearheaded the movement for Christian unity, took to him. A lifelong friendship began with Archbishop Denis Hurley of Durban, the Catholic anti-apartheid champion. The Council was his dream come true.

In 1969, Geoffrey Chapman Publishers, by now established but needing serious recapitalisation, was sold to Crowell Collier Macmillan. He retained an instinct for the sort of liturgical and catechetical books that would be needed after the Council, and a genius for finding solutions to the needs of the Churches in less wealthy countries. In the early 1970s, the Chapmans took on the colossal task of publishing the post-conciliar Missals, Breviary and Lectionaries for the Anglophone world outside North America. He also solved the problems of paper quality and cost needed to print and publish the Breviary in India at a price people could afford. In the 1980s the Anglican Communion benefited from the Chapmans' talents when they published in 12 languages the prayer book for the Church of the Province of Southern Africa, launched in 1989 by Desmond Tutu.

Geoff Chapman had a lifelong flair for predicting the needs of the religious book markets and meeting them. He never lost his passion for ideas, good theology and books. He was as adept in complex negotiations as in a gale at sea, in standing between angry ANC and Inkatha factions while part of the Ecumenical Peace Monitors' Team in South Africa in 1994 as in Las Vegas on holiday with one of his sons, placing a bet and winning.

During his later years, first impressions of Chapman were of a formidable appearance and an unwavering gaze. A father figure and a friend to a much wider circle than his six devoted children, and 12 grandchildren, he was the gentlest, kindest and most convivial of men with an Australian disregard for class or social standing. He was both entertained and appalled by the clericalism of the Church he loved. He only ever asked from it one thing: honesty. With the Catholic Church passing through its darkest days his was a light on the shore, undimmed even by the last months of a steadfast and serene struggle with cancer.

Geoffrey Robison Chapman, publisher: born Melbourne, Australia 5 April 1930; married 1954 Suzanne James (three sons, three daughters); died London 9 May 2010.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £30,000+

£16000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for individual...

Recruitment Genius: IT Project Coordinator / Manager

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Mortgage Advisor - OTE £95,000

£40000 - £95000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Vehicle Inspectors / Purchasers

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Trainee Vehicle Inspectors / Pu...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy