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.

Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
Russell Brand has written a book of political analysis called Revolution
peopleFilm star says he is 'not interested in making money anymore'
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites those Star Wars rumours
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Chastain during an interview in Los Angeles.
filmsOscar hopeful Jessica Chastain reveals the secret to her breakthrough success
News
people

Britain First criticised for using actress's memory to draw attention to their 'hate-filled home page'

News
news
Life and Style
Meow! ... Again, Kim Kardashian goes for a sexy Halloween costume, wrapping her body with a latex catsuit and high heeled knee boots
fashionFrom Heidi Klum to Kim Kardashian
News
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch
tv

Greatest mystery about the hit BBC1 show is how it continues to be made at all, writes Grace Dent

News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
booksChristmas comes early for wizard fans
Arts and Entertainment
filmsOculus Rift offers breathtakingly realistic simulation of zero gravity
Sport
footballAccording to revelations from Sergio Aguero's new biography
Life and Style
tech

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

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker