Father superior

First published in Features

John Caden decided at 11 that he wanted to be a priest. Still working, he is marking his diamond jubilee.

FATHER John Caden MBE, friend of the famous and Tony Blair’s tennis partner, celebrates 60 years as a Roman Catholic priest next week.

At 85 he remains active, caring and great company, a photograph of him and the more famous half of the doubles act on a study shelf.

One appears to have worn better than the other. “He’s had more worries than me,” says Fr Caden, known to colleagues as Jack, though he’s had a canny few himself.

Four years ago he suffered severe clinical depression. “I was just sitting in the chair waiting for death,” he recalls. “It was the feeling that everything I had done in the community had been of no worth. “I didn’t even take Mass. It was the most desperate, desperate of times.” Treated by a bright young female consultant psychiatrist, he has returned vigorously to parish life.

“I don’t work 12 hour days any more, but I can work five or six on pastoral duties, have a couple of hours sleep and then be ready for the night shift.”

He has been 42 years in Sedgefield – “They told me it wasn’t the sort of place you’d want to stay for life” – baptised all four Blair children, was among the select few present at the former Prime Minister’s reception into the Catholic church, got the drinks in for George Bush in the pub down the road. His autobiography – called Game, Set and Match – courted the Blair connection, too.

“The ultimate name dropper,” says his friend Canon Bob Spence, parish priest of Lanchester, with the utmost affection. Preparing for two diamond jubilee services, bright diamond himself, Fr Caden has no regrets. “Life is great so long as I take the medication – a doddle, really. It’s wonderful to be part of the scene again, and to be needed. I’ve no real plans to slow down. I’m just happy to have my health back.”

HE was a Hartlepool lad, decided early that he wanted to be a priest, was sent at 12 to Ushaw College, near Durham and remained until ordination – “tipped off the conveyor belt” – at 25.

When he arrived in 1935, the seminary had 420 students. This year just one was ordained. When he became a curate at St Thomas’s, Darlington, the town had 28 priests. Now there are three. The only answer, says Fr Caden, is to have married priests working alongside celibates. “It should have been grasped 20 years ago by Pope John Paul II, but he was from Poland where priests were three a penny and he didn’t fully understand. We aren’t going to get more priests overnight.”

At Ushaw, new arrivals were known as podmen – something to do with the puddings they had to eat, apparently, and not necessarily designed (shall we say) to increase appetites. If you could survive them until 20, says Fr Caden, you’d make a priest.

“It was a surreal training really, the whole object to cut you off from the world. We were allowed home for a short break twice a year, but my parents and sisters were never allowed to visit at all. “It was just like living in a monastery, or a prison. The food was very basic indeed. It was all an exercise in teaching you to say ‘no’ to yourself. “When I started my first curacy in Darlington, I was about as mature as lads of 13 or 14 today. They’d send me to the Catholic Women’s League, my age many of them, and they’d deliberately do things that made me blush like hell. I was so gauche it was unbelievable.”

One aspect of life in the seminary, the daily football matches, was to serve him especially well, however. While at St Thomas’s he’d kept goal for the table-topping Rolling Mills side. When Darlington FC needed a second choice goalkeeper following the transfer of future Busby Babe Ray Wood to Manchester United, club captain Billy Kelly recalled that the new curate was reputedly a safe pair of hands. He signed as an amateur, the improbable condition that he had to be dropped off at church in time for six o’clock confessions and that he’d be the ubiquitous A N Other.

Nearer the coast, meanwhile, a Middlesbrough priest called Fr Louis Collingwood had signed for Horden CW in the North Eastern League, the subsequent story in the Sunday Sun turning the formidable Bishop Joseph McCormack an episcopal shade of purple – “incandescent,” says Fr Caden.

He remembered the bishop’s wrath when two Daily Express men turned up on the presbytery doorstep in response to a rumour about the cloth capped, capped cloth ‘keeper for Darlington Reserves. “I dissembled,” says Fr Caden. “You did what, Father?” “I lied through my teeth,” he amends. “By the time they got to the end of the drive, I’m sure I heard the cock crow twice.”

HE became a curate in Sunderland, chaplain to the Empire Theatre, friendly with many celebrities and, particularly, with the Irish singer Val Doonican. Such direct lines to the stars’ dressing room proved especially useful in his next parish – St Patrick’s in Dipton, near Consett – when arsonists gutted the church and a major fundraising exercise began.

From Dipton, after 18 years as a curate – relatively short in those days – he was moved to Sedgefield, where the parish included the huge Winterton psychiatric hospital and a general hospital nearby. He swears it was because of his sun tan. “On my day off I’d spend an hour or two with my mother on Whitburn beach. They wanted someone strong and fit for Sedgefield and saw me. I was flabbergasted that the Holy Spirit could be shown the back door like that.”

Told that the bishop would see him again in five years, he quickly immersed himself in community life, became a parish councillor and in 1974 an independent member of Durham County Council, of which he is now an honorary alderman. “They wanted someone above politics, someone they could nobble on the way to the post office,” he says.

He became a leading figure in health and education circles, served for 25 years as chairman of governors at Carmel RC College in Darlington, still conducts a fortnightly mass there. “It’s not much use having a Catholic college if you haven’t a priest,” he supposes.

OFFICIALLY a co-pastor, he helps run the parishes of Sedgefield, Trimdon and Coxhoe. At the church of St John Fisher, Sedgefield, two Sunday masses can barely accommodate numbers swollen by new arrivals in the village and at Wynyard, a few miles away. “It’s a wonderful problem to have,” he says.

Tomorrow night he’ll be joined at a diamond jubilee Mass at Sedgefield, by Father George Dolan and Father Bill Bellamy, ordained alongside him. Canon Spence, who on Monday marked his own 45th anniversary, will preach. On July 25, the exact anniversary of Fr Caden’s ordination, there’ll be another Mass in the church of St Joseph’s in Coxhoe. He remains so full of good humour, good grace and good stories that we suggest a sequel to the autobiography. It would be called Game, Set and Matchless and thus perfectly capture Jack Caden.

From Russia with love

DUST to dust, Geoff Thomas has embarked on a 25,000-mile round-the-world motor bike odyssey to raise money for the Darlington hospice in which both his parents died and to deliver their ashes to his brother in Boonville, California.

Home for Christmas, he plans to write a book on the ultimate burnup and already contributes a column to the elegantly named Riders Digest.

On his blog, however – www.poorcirculation. blogspot.com – the urn is simply described as an important package. “He’s worried,” says brother Alan, “that he may not legally be able to bring it into this country.” Now in Vladivostok, already with 22 countries and almost 13,000 miles behind him, Geoff has vowed to complete the Triumph Tiger trail on just £20 a day – “no hotels, no support team, no film crew and precious little money.”

Necessary economies meant that he spent one night, alone, in what the Russians may or may not know as a brothel. They charged by the hour, anyway.

He’s 45 – “Old enough to know better and young enough not to let that stop me” – and has planned the route with map and compass, not sat nav.

George Thomas, who died ten years ago, lived in Darlington and was a lifelong farmworker at nearby Croft. His wife Barbara, who died last year, was well known for her church and charitable work.

Alan, 50, has himself a two-and-ahalf acre farm in California – like the dales but with sunshine, he says, and it’s warming up to around 105F when we interrupt his 7am cup of tea (“reminds me of home”) for a chat.

“It’s funny, but I talk more to my dad now – asking for help and advice – then I did when he was alive. Geoff thought that if he brought part of their ashes to put on the ground I farm that it might help.

“I farm organically, and you can’t get much more organic than that.” Both praise the care given their parents at St Teresa’s Hospice in Darlington.

“They didn’t just look after them, they showed every day how much they cared,” says Alan.

“It’s going to be very emotional when Geoff arrives with the urn, but we thought it was a good way of trying to help St Teresa’s.”

Geoff, a London motor cycle courier, left the Ace Café on April 11, has had three breakdowns but no punctures. He mostly he sleeps under canvas.

Presently trying to work out how cheaply to get the bike to America, he’d welcome direct donations – “thus avoiding any contact with my fuel, tyre and beer budgets” – on www.justgiving.com/geoffgthomas

On track for retoration

MUCH neglected, as last week’s column observed, the Derbyshire grave of Mallard man Sir Nigel Gresley may be in line for restoration.

The Gresley Society, dedicated to what its website calls “one of the great engineers of the golden afternoon of steam traction”, has offered to help with an upgrade. Two of Sir Nigel’s grandsons are members.

“It’s really a very poor grave for such an eminent gentleman,” says society secretary Chris Nettleton from Eaglescliffe, near Stockton.

The latest build-up of steam pressure follows a letter in The Times from a chap in Hitchin. There’s been one benefit already. Contacted with offers of help, he’s joined the Gresley Society, too.

THE memory no longer painful, John Heslop in Durham follows last week’s big-stick reprise with a few recollections of his own.

Particularly, back at Cockton Hill juniors in Bishop Auckland, he remembers a history teacher with a cane known as Black Jack – by virtue of its doleful colour – and which he wielded with relish.

The gentleman’s favourite punishment, however, appeared to be gripping young Heslop’s nose between his fingers, and lifting.

While all this was going on, the unfortunate pupil had to recite that cave men made ink from soot, water and vegetable glue.

“Unfortunately that’s the only historical fact I ever learned from him,” says John, “but come the nuclear winter, I’ll be prepared.”

ABUDDING Alan Titchmarch and still the poor man’s Mike Neville, I shall be opening the flower festival at St Peter’s church in Byers Green, near Spennymoor, at 7pm tomorrow. Tickets are £5, wine and cheese and music by the village school choir to follow.

The festival then runs from 10am- 4pm on Saturday, 11am-4pm Sunday – Songs of Praise at 6pm – and 10-4pm on Monday. Free tea and coffee, and food to buy, is available. The event concludes at 7.30pm on Monday with entertainment by Ms Hollywood.

ANOTHER ecclesiastical note, the final service at the dear old Springfield United Reformed Church in Darlington – the former Stivvies’ works canteen – takes place at 3pm on Sunday. Much more of that in next week’s At Your Service.

IT needs also to be remembered that at 6.30pm next Tuesday, a service and ceremony at Willington parish church will dedicate the restored memorial – unveiled on July 22, 1908 – to Tom Barton, the local fire rescue hero killed by a fall of stone at the pit the day after his 20th birthday.

The rededication will be followed by a concert by the Brancepeth and Aycliffe brass band. All – but particularly, of course, Willington folk – are most welcome to attend. Next week’s column will have much more.

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