Monsignor Tom Gavin: Rugby union international, teacher and inspirational priest

Monsignor Tom Gavin, who died on Christmas morning in his native Coventry aged 87, was something of a living legend among the ranks of British Catholic clergy.

He was a one-time Irish rugby union international, his priestly calling leading to various responsibilities that showed up extraordinary capability in one whose talents were deployed over 40 years as a headmaster, educationalist, parish priest and papal organiser.

That a bishop's mitre never came proved more of a loss to his Church, but probably resulted from a colourful personality and independent mind that submitted to none. For sure, he made enemies, as much within as beyond the Church; he did not suffer fools gladly, and found inept and unreliable fellows the gravest of crosses to bear. Moreover, his legendary short fuse was most often directed at self-serving school heads, LEA hacks and "princes of the church". Yet he could point to achievements that rarely emanate from any average clergyman. His life was devoted to getting things done. Gavin never sought the limelight, but nor did he tolerate pompous nuisances or frosty eminences obstructing his various projects.

Significantly he was at his best when operating alone. After all, what other person aged 60-plus could simultaneously run a large Coventry parish, head the Birmingham archdiocesan educational service and organise the 1982 visit of Pope John Paul to Coventry airport that – against an uncertain background of the Argentine war – drew an attendance of 375,000 people? Answer - only Tom Gavin.

Always a priest with a conservative predisposition, he behaved with total propriety, and indeed felt hurt by those bringing embarrassment to the Church and Holy Orders. Indeed, for all his strident mannerisms and run-ins with various church and secular authorities, he adhered faithfully to the defined rule of a priest. That meant reciting his daily office (set prayers required of all priests), saying Mass and hearing confessions. So too was he capable of great kindness to parishioners and others needing his help. Essentially, he was a very Christian man at heart, albeit one who, like St Paul, served higher authorities out of duty rather than appreciation of their judgement.

Born in March 1922 in Coventry to Irish immigrant parents, Tom Gavin attended local schools before joining Birmingham diocesan junior seminary, Cotton College, Staffordshire. As a seminarian he was excused war-time service, and was ordained on 21 July 1946. He proceeded to Cambridge, where in 1949 he graduated with a first in Classics. After a year's spell at Ampleforth teaching Classics – where his peers included a young Benedictine monk called Basil (later Cardinal) Hume – he returned to Cotton College to head the Classics department, before taking over the reins as College Principal from 1967-78.

In that office he recognised how times had changed, and that the days had gone when young teenagers could be prepared for the clerical life without previous social experience. Thus it was Gavin who reluctantly counselled the then Archbishop of Birmingham, George Patrick Dwyer, to close Cotton College and concentrate on developing the intake of students and their training at the senior seminary, Oscott College. He was very much a Vatican II man.

The versatile cleric cut a fine dash with many students, not least through being a formidable rugby player. He played for Coventry, Cambridge and London Irish, and was on the Irish side that defeated England to lift the 1949 Triple Crown. Not that he dined out on successes, but his first brush with ecclesiastical authority occurred that same year when refusing an ordinance from Dublin's autocratic Archbishop, John Henry McQuaid, to stand down from the Irish team. McQuaid believed that clerics should not participate in team sports, but Gavin was having none of it, and had his status redefined as a visiting student under the authority of Birmingham's archbishop. It was a gesture that set the patterns of a life time, and his healthy disregard for the finer points of church discipline, while costing him promotions, later also conferred an independence of mind that characterised many wise judgements.

Aside from co-ordinating the highly successful historic papal visit of May 1992, Gavin's other great achievement was his renegotiation and integration of the archdiocese's 48 Catholic secondary schools into the maintained sector with a dozen or so local education authorities following the phasing out of the tripartite system in the 1970s. He further led the way in introducing a new religious education curriculum that was followed in all West Midlands Catholic secondary schools from 1981 onwards, only to be overtaken by the National Curriculum.

For the last 26 years of his working life, 1978-2004, he headed St Thomas More Parish in Coventry, where notwithstanding a headmasterish style he won genuine affection among his 6,000 parishioners. Granted, many a young cleric found the Monsignor a hard task-master, and with one exception their stays tended to be brief. Yet, he was often heard to say: "A priest's life is a hard calling, and ordained young men need to face the full magnitude of their calling". Central to development was a capacity to take responsibility and carry it through without failing. He had no tolerance for "cop-outs"' or excuse-mongers. "Lay people are entitled to a positive lead from their priests", was another of his oft-stated comments.

Tom Gavin's was a life of prodigious attainment, hard work and solid Christian witness. How sad that he will not be around to see Pope Benedict beatify one of his heroes, John Henry Newman, next September in Birmingham.

Monsignor Thomas Joseph Gavin, priest and educationalist: born Coventry 28 March 1922; died Coventry 25 December 2009.

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