Obituary: Abbot Dominic Gaisford
Saturday 23 April 1994
DOMINIC GAISFORD was the second Abbot of Worth Abbey, in Sussex, and had, at various times before that, held a wide range of similarly demanding posts: Headmaster of Worth School, Novice Master, Prior, Co-ordinator of Worth's lay community and, from 1981 to 1988, Superior of Worth's mission in Lima, Peru. 'I am,' he once wrote, 'pretty useless at anything practical'; this typically self-deprecating remark should not be allowed to smoke-screen his considerable achievements.
He was born Julian Gaisford in Old Delhi in 1928, the third of four children of Sir Philip Gaisford; he was educated partly in India but mainly at Worth Preparatory School and then at Downside. He entered the noviciate at Downside in 1948, taking the name Dominic, made his solemn profession in 1952 and was ordained priest in 1954. He read History at Christ's College, Cambridge, from 1955 to 1958, and was then chosen to be Headmaster, aged only 30, of the projected but, as yet, non-existent senior school at Worth. The new venture came into being in September 1959 with a grand total of 28 boys. Eleven years later, when the school numbered more than 300 pupils, Father Dominic was elected to membership of the Headmasters' Conference, a well-deserved tribute to his Herculean labours.
He was Headmaster for 17 years but, in an autobiographical essay published in A Touch of God (1982), he expressed misgivings that the function may have overlaid and obscured the person: 'My inner self or heart got somewhat dehydrated . . . I never gave myself fully as Headmaster to anyone or anything or to God.' The judgement is over-harsh but it is true that Father Dominic's next five years, from 1976 to 1981, were, for him, a time of great spiritual refreshment. As Novice Master, Prior and Co-ordinator of the lay community (a group of young laymen and laywomen, especially in the 18-to-30 age group, living near the monastery), it dawned on him, he said, 'that what people wanted from me was not the function of my office but whatever it is that I have in me to offer . . . I have received much affection and support from the lay community because people seem to like me for what I am.'
In 1981 an unexpected death in the community resulted in Father Dominic's being sent, as Superior, to Worth's mission in Lima. Thus, at the age of 53, he learnt Spanish and embarked upon a period of his life which affected him perhaps more profoundly than any other. His work with and for the poor in a downtrodden suburb of Lima brought to fruition his considerable powers of compassion for battered (by their own hand or by the folly or malice of others) human beings; 'I am sure,' he wrote, 'that God is living love . . . it is vital that God should have a human heart and face . . . we must be ourselves, fully human and filled with the desire to seek God and be involved with
Deeply in love with Peru, he was dismayed to be elected Abbot in 1988 and thus to be removed from the parish of Las Flores which meant so much to him, but he gave himself unstintingly to the new agendas that faced him: how best to provide for Worth's various works - the school, parish, lay community, the mission in Peru and, since 1983, another mission in Dulwich; five apostolates in three locations.
Abbot Dominic initiated a series of consultations to discern the way forward; although he had no desire to see any of Worth's work given up, it became clear to him that the monastery needed to put its eggs into fewer baskets and thus he had to take the searingly painful decision to withdraw from both Lima and Dulwich, handing over the two missions to different personnel and recalling to Worth the monks involved in these works. In doing so he displayed qualities of decisiveness and courage which were to be hallmarks of his whole Abbacy.
Once the monastic community was reassembled at Worth, Abbot Dominic pressed on with the discernment process, seeking ways ahead for the monastery and its apostolates. A close friend of Bishop Cormac Murphy O'Connor, he was particularly anxious that Worth should be of service to the diocese of Arundel and Brighton. To help the school, he set up an invaluable Board of Governors and a Finance Committee, both bodies comprising monks and lay people. For the monastery he established three Ministry Teams, one for service to the local church, one for education and one for hospitality. At the same time he initiated what he called a 'vision' process whereby Worth Abbey as a whole, and each part of it (monastic community, lay community, etc) could express its identity and sense of purpose. This process was incomplete at the time of his death but, on his death bed, he said that Worth would prosper after he had gone, meaning that the seeds he had sown would bear fruit.
Abbot Dominic believed that 'all problems are to do with people, not systems'; people with what he called their 'unpredictable mysteriousness' were of supreme importance to him. Somewhat unpredictable himself (he delighted in having been described as 'consistently inconsistent'), he would do anything he could for those in need, monks and lay people alike. Nicknamed 'Tigger' at school he was, throughout his life, alive, alert, dynamic and constantly on the move.
He was honest, humble and unshockable and had a delightful sense of humour, together with a profound and faith-filled optimism; he was never disconcerted by the untidiness of reality and particularly of human behaviour. He added zest, colour and warmth to any social gathering; he had an untidy mind but also insight and vision. He had courage and, above all, he was very generous; he loved much and was much loved in return.
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