Obituary: Fr John Shearburn
Monday 20 December 1993
JOHN SHEARBURN was the sort of man around whom stories clustered. But 'John' he never was from the day he arrived at the Jesuit novitiate, then in Gerard Manley Hopkins' Roehampton, in 1948. He was 'Algy' from the start. At Oxford in the 1960s Jeffrey Archer wanted to get in touch with him to referee a rugger match. He addressed his letter to 'Father Algy, Oxford University' and it was successfully delivered.
He never had a parish in the conventional sense. But his cherished flock from 1982 to 1991 was Durham jail. He said five Masses every weekend beginning on Saturday afternoon with the remand centre for women at Lownewton, then moving on to the young men; 8.30 on Sunday morning found him at the men's prison of Durham jail and then the women's section in the notorious H-block (mostly lifers). Then he said another Mass in Spanish for the Latino drug-smugglers.
His whole prison ministry was organised with tight military efficiency. He had 40 lay helpers who did prison visiting for him, including students of Ushaw College. He got in two Italian priests to hear confessions while he said Mass - he was only allowed three-quarters of an hour for his services ('like a second division side playing away'). He organised prayer groups in all sections of the prison. They remain.
Before becoming a prison chaplain, he realised a long-time ambition of being an army chaplain. 'So you've pulled it off at last,' I remarked in 1971, to which he solemnly replied: 'Nothing like that, old man, just a routine medical inspection.' He believed that with his chaplain's salary and eventual pension, he would earn his keep and not be a burden on the Jesuits.
He served with the Irish Rangers at Watchet and Warminster, and did a 15-month tour of duty - longer than anyone else - in Northern Ireland in 1974-75. He lived in a commandeered 'knickers' factory (as he put it) and said Mass in unusual circumstances, descending by helicopter in remote places. Then he became chaplain to the 5th Regiment of the Royal Artillery at Hildesheim, Munster and Osnabruck.
When he left the Army in 1980 he was stationed at the Rainhill retreat house, where he did his prison chaplaincy apprenticeship at Risley Remand Centre. But Durham was his home, especially after his sister Sheila moved there in the 1980s. They sang in every Gilbert and Sullivan performance, not to mention Orpheus in the Underworld, of the Lanchester Operatic Society. The a capella group to which they belonged sang everywhere from Durham jail to Durham cathedral.
Shearburn was also an intrepid traveller. The phrase about a man to go through the jungle with might have been coined for him. In September 1982 he drove with Norman Cresswell, an old Belmont Abbey School friend, now editor of the Catholic Times, from Mombasa to Addis Ababa with two Land-Rovers converted into mobile clinics.
They were a gift for Armido Gasparini, Bishop of Magneto, who welcomed them with whisky. Sorso, the Muslim soldier who had been deputed to guard them, had had rather too much and departed, leaving his weapons under the bed. As a result the party was arrested for gun-running on arrival in Addis, and only determined efforts by the Canadian embassy got them out.
Shearburn's last trip abroad was with his friend Fr Frank Hull to Valetta, Malta, for Holy Week this year. He had spent the first three and a half years of his life on the island, where his father, Commander Norman Shearburn, was stationed. It was a return to his service roots.
After Malta his first school in England was the Convent of Our Lady of Sion. From there he had eight years at Belmont Abbey School, from which the tower of Hereford Cathedral could be seen. Belmont shaped him profoundly and gave him a knowledge of Gregorian chant uncommon among Jesuits. He joined the Jesuits after a retreat from Fr George Burns, who brought along a bullet-marked crucifix shot up during the Spanish Civil War.
I remember visiting Belmont with him in the high summer of 1953. The monks, mostly ex-
Anglican clergymen, seemed uninterested in cricket, while the first XV was doing high-kicks in rehearsal for a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. Cricket secomed irrelevant. Real men played rugby. Shearburn remained a superb and punctilious referee.
Shearburn had a very special argot. His metaphor for valid orders was always 'live ammo'. As prison chaplain he would not reserve the Blessed Sacrament in the ecumenical chapel on the grounds that 'the first rule in the Army is that you do not mix up blanks and live ammo, old man'.
There was an easy transition from the service background to the Jesuits still in the 1950s dominated by images of 'the spit and polish of a Guards regiment'. If there are learned Jesuits and pastoral Jesuits, he knew he was one of the practical men endowed with the quality he called 'horse sense'. He did not aspire to learning, though his philosophy studies at San Cugat del Valles in Catalonia enabled him to enter the mind of St Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits, who had lived in a cave at nearby Manresa.
He spent much of his life either reinforcing or trying to live down the Algy-persona he had created. He was a 'character', the ecclesiastical euphemism for a nonconformist. In his early days the anecdotes mostly concerned his coolness under fire. 'Steady, old man,' he observed, as he led a party up the ridge-walk on Snowdon and a piece of rock tumbled away into the mist below, 'banister's a bit shaky'.
On the eve of his ordination in 1961 he was observed practising saying Mass. 'You know perfectly well how to say Mass, Algy,' said a friend, 'you've been doing it since the age of nine.' Which was true. 'Yes,' Algy said, 'but so far it's been with blanks. Soon I'll be using live ammo.'
His superiors tried to make a schoolmaster out of him. To that end he became a mature student at Campion Hall, Oxford, in 1963-66, where he read Spanish and French. He became unofficially chaplain to the rugby team. Then he had five years' schoolmastering at Mount St Mary's. He knew the place well, having previously taught at its prep school, an Elizabethan mansion known as Barlborough Hall, where he installed the highest rugby posts anyone had ever seen.
In 1991 on reaching 60 he retired from the prison service, and he took a sabbatical year at the Jesuit residence in Enfield where he remained when it was over. Hospitalised last September, he underwent chemotherapy for leukaemia in October but deteriorated slowly until his death at Chase Farm Hospital, Enfield.
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